Design and Ethics

Some important questions come about when thinking about Design and Ethics. Are they two separate things? Would a Design ethic be different from the ethic between human interactions? Is Design inherently good? (As many designers are fast to claim that it is not, which brings up the interesting difference in perspective of what design is capable of doing from a practitioners point of view). First, I think it is important to understand what ethics really are in the contemporary age we live in. Modern ethics are less concerned with codified morals and more concerned with the immanent relationships, which are highly situational in our globalized world. Or according to Zigmunt Bauman, ethics are learning how to be uncertain; learning how to be in our complex world and learning how to act well. When considering ethics in this way, we must also consider sustainability and a revision of our economy to one based on ecology, as the utmost considerations to integrate into the way we are.

What is Design’s role in this? If Design wants to be valued the way our culture values for example, Knowledge, then according to Peter Miller it needs to step up to the plate. Design can be the translation or meditative force working between knowledge and its various outcomes, however, if it only does ‘design thinking’ it does not become a viable methodology for preferred situations. Design can play a didactic role in informing the way we are with one another and more importantly the way we treat the world we are creating, but it needs to change the conversations that are happening into reflexive ones. As Clive Dilnot suggests, an ethic can come out of this. Design, when it acts ethically makes its users critical through the objects they use. Not simply by being critical, but through the affirmation of the critical, which can facilitate a new kind of ethics, and which is imperative in leading sustainability. On the other side of this, an ethics for design might be about not just giving people ‘stuff’, but developing people’s capabilities with already existing ‘stuff’. Methods such as ‘retro-fitting’ or re-use of long lasting materials might teach us to be a more conservative people. How can designers maximize the capabilities of objects already in existence, as well as the capabilities of the human, becomes critical when thinking about the metabolic structure of our economy now. In order to push the sustainability project this might be even more important.

I think in order for Design to be a type of ethic in itself, we have to recognize the contextual nature of design, the larger systems it is a part of, and to think about it as a cultural construct, then I think its ethics will become more obvious. Crucial to this, will be reclaiming Design back into the social sphere and away from the dominating market sphere as it is in today. Several start-up companies have begun to do this be inverting the system, so that social values and relations dictate flows of capital rather than vice-versa. Some good examples are Snapgoods, Quirky, and crowd sourcing sites such as Kickstarter. Though we do not know where businesses like these might lead us, they do offer a proposition, which is a definite start. We will only achieve a change through the courage of this type of trial and error.


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Filed under Design Practice, Design Theory, Philosophy

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