Design Ethics Issues. Part 1

Welcome to the Ethics for Designers series

Its goal is to provide designers with tools that they can use in their day-to-day work to make more ethical decisions. The first part looks at ethics in general and ethical design in particular.

Why ethics?

The 2010s have been a wonderful decade for the tech world. Day after day, technology took over the front pages of popular newspapers, television news captions, and glossy magazine pages. And in 2019, this trend changed: the emphasis shifted towards ethics technologies. The non-ethics of future technologies is still the realm of science fiction. Not the usual “artificial intelligence ethics” or “cloning ethics”. Instead, in 2019, they began to discuss the ethical aspects of the technologies we use on a daily basis:

  • TechCrunch reported in January that Facebook is paying teens to install programs that bypass built-in security features on their phones to collect personal
  • In April, ProPublica reported that TurboTax is using deceptive search engine design and techniques to make it difficult to use the government-approved Free File program.2
  • In August, Google discovered a significant security vulnerability in iOS. Apple denied the impact of this vulnerability, but acknowledged that an attack using this vulnerability “affected fewer than a dozen websites that focus on content related to the Uyghur community.” The Uyghurs are an ethnic minority that is currently facing repression, including surveillance and mass arrests in China.3
  • In October, Facebook announced Facebook News, a feature of its flagship app that will collect content from the so-called. “Trusted” sources. These sources include the far-right Breitbart website, which often supports racist and xenophobic views.four

These are just a few examples of the many ways in which new technologies lead to new ethical questions. And whenever these topics are discussed, the design community asks the question: how could a designer be involved in such a controversial project? How responsible is the designer for such a result? What should a designer do when asked to take part in an ethically questionable project?

James Cartwright, editor Eye on Design, summed up this moral dilemma:

Some designers are so eager to serve companies that they mask their lack of ethics behind beautifully polished veneers. Morally questionable practices by companies include spreading fake news, manufacturing products in factories where workers rights are violated and suicide rates high, and rising rental prices in cities around the world.five

The Role of Ethics in Design

Many authors have discussed design ethics in their articles.

Many publications discuss why design needs ethics. An excellent example is Lu Han s work, Designing for the Future. Discussion on Ethical Design ”. Han discusses the role of design in causing harm to people and its responsibility to prevent further harm. She discusses the reasons behind harmful user experiences and provides great advice on how designers can change the way they work to reduce the harm done by software.

There are examples of what ethical design looks like. One of my favorites is Ethical Design: A Practical Getting Started Guide

There are even arguments about why designers don t need ethics. In 2019, Cade Dim gave a talk, “Will Software Design Ethics Preserve?” He argues that ethical design advocates (he cites Spotify as an example) are often the culprit behind unethical practices. For example, they made it harder for musicians to get paid for their tracks. Designers, according to Dim, cannot make ethical decisions when the companies they work for are fundamentally unethical. In this case, ethical designers are promoting bad results rather than preventing them:

If good design is possible without the tactics of a used car dealer – and it is – then according to Spotify s own standards, they practiced ethical design. But positioning design ethics as a practice-based framework frees the team from the problems their work allows, and it s hard not to be cynical and interpret this as a departure from deep systemic problems.

I use different perspectives to illustrate how difficult a debate about ethics in design can be. For every essay on how we can apply ethical frameworks, there are ten news stories about dark patterns, phishing, data breaches, and digital addiction.

As you can see, the problem is not that the designers don t talk about ethics. Currently. Ethics are discussed at most design conferences: the 2020 AIGA conference promises to include “a diverse roster of speakers who cover topics that allow us to build better bridges among ourselves. Together, we ll cover critical topics such as design ethics, D + I, automation, the future of work, the future of cities, food and more. ”6

The problem is that the design community doesn t have a single vocabulary. Designers discuss “justice,” “equality,” “equity,” and “fairness,” ignoring subtle differences and not recognizing that they are different ideas altogether. Lack of mutual understanding leads to communication difficulties.

I would like to change this.

In the next four articles, I will present the historical context of the major schools of ethics – what philosophers call normative-ethical theories.

I will also provide examples of how to view design through the lens of each theory. I explore their strengths and weaknesses by comparing and contrasting them. None of these theories are perfect, but each is useful in its own way.

Before we dive into theory, let s take a look at where it all began: the last days of Socrates life.


Socrates was one of the founders of Western philosophy. He was a scientist, a soldier, a bricklayer and, oddly enough, only a little bit of a writer. We know nothing more about the life of Socrates. The ideas of his teaching came to us in the retelling of authors such as Xenophon and Plato. One of the few biographical details we know is how he spent his days. He asked the Athenians questions, studied their answers, and recruited groups of people to listen to his debates.

From time to time Socrates cornered the politician, challenging him to a duel of wits. Socrates believed that working for the public was his responsibility, however, politicians did not think so. Because of Socrates, they looked bad in front of their constituents. In 399 BC. the Athenians put him on trial for dubious charges of “moral corruption and wickedness.” Plato, friend and disciple of Socrates, wrote an account of this judgment called “Apology of Socrates”

IN Apology Socrates defends his behavior, but the judges find him guilty. Before sentencing, Socrates cheekily explains that no punishment will be appropriate; in fact, he should be given a reward for his teaching and wisdom. Socrates even refuses to agree to such a light punishment as exile:

Someone will say: “Socrates, but can t you keep your mouth shut, and then you will go to a strange city, and no one will bother you?” It will be difficult for me to make you understand my answer to this question … if I say that the greatest good of man is the daily conversation about virtue … that a life that has not been explored is not worth believing in. 7

Socrates could not comprehend life without philosophy. He could not stop challenging the nature of ethics, just as he could not stop breathing. The judges agreed and sentenced him to death.

The trial of Socrates, as Plato said, was the spark that ignited Western philosophy. For millennia after Socrates death, philosophers followed in his footsteps, examining themselves and others.

The way forward

According to the Delphic oracle, Socrates was the wisest man in Greece. At the trial, Socrates did not believe in the oracle s statement. He asked, “What can God mean? And what is the interpretation of this riddle? For I know that I have no wisdom, neither small nor great. ” A clue may be the inscription above the entrance to the oracle temple: “Know thyself.”

Hope you get to know yourself a little better by the end of this article series. At the very least, you will be able to apply ethical thinking to your own work and that of other designers. And with a common language of philosophy, your conversations will be more informative, more constructive, and more empathetic.


  1. Josh Constine, “Facebook pays teens to install VPN that spies on them,” TechCrunch, published January 29, 2019, ↩︎
  2. Justin Elliott, “TurboTax Deliberately Hid Its Free File Page From Search Engines,” ProPublica, published April 26, 2019, from-search-engines. ↩︎
  3. John Koetsier, “Apple Hints China Behind Billion Device iPhone Hack That Google Reported,” Forbes, September 6, 2019, … ↩︎
  4. Casey Newton, “Facebook s embrace of Breitbart doesn t add up,” The Verge, published October 29, 2019: mosseri-trust-political-ads. ↩︎
  5. James Cartwright. “Should Designers Take Responsibility for the Ethics of Their Clients?” Eye on Design, published February 13, 2017: ↩︎
  6. “Theme and Chair,” AIGA Design Conference, AIGA, the professional association for design, last accessed March 19, 2020: ↩︎
  7. Plato, Apology, translated by Benjamin Jowett, The Internet Classics Archive, Daniel C. Stevenson, Web Atomics, last accessed March 18, 2020: ↩︎

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