Reflections on Design: Our Profession, Ethics, and Responsibility

We’ve been so focused on sharing our work and promoting the things we make that we lose sight of other important duties that accompany our roles as designers.

A few months ago, I came across an article in UX Collective about the state of content in the UX and product design space, focusing specifically on content creation and consumption.

The article was titled “Are we designers shamelessly good at self-promotion?

Since I’ve read that article, I’ve thought to myself about how designers are natural marketers and advocates of work, especially those focused more on visual design. Within the design community, we have a natural inclination to let our work speak for us, instead of having to justify what we make with our words.

As a result, we’ve been so focused on sharing our work and promoting the things we make that we lose sight of other important duties that accompany our roles as designers.

The image below provides a striking portrayal of the content that designers publish and the high-level buckets they fall under. Articles and posts skew heavily towards content that is easy to consume and less cerebrally taxing. On the other end of the spectrum lie two important categories that are too often neglected — 1) career, profession, our industry, and 2) ethics, responsibility, and impact.

An entire month worth of design links, categorized from tactical to strategic (source: UX Collective)

An entire month worth of design links, categorized from tactical to strategic (source: UX Collective)

The reduced amount of content on the more strategic side of the spectrum may be a sign that our industry is neglecting deeper reflections on our practice and on our impact beyond our own community.

-Fabricio Teixeira, Caio Braga - uxdesign.cc (UX Collective)

The Oxford English Dictionary defines a designer as “a person who plans the look or workings of something prior to it being made, by preparing drawings or plans”. Even by definition, a designer is defined to be so focused on the end goal of showing how something works that we sometimes miss out on the ramifications of design — on both us as designers, and on those we design for.

Since reading that UX Collective essay, I’ve done a personal audit of the articles I’ve written and shared with my network. By scrutinizing my own work, I’ve realized I tend to avoid writing about strategic topics and am more inclined to write about the tactical.

Note that this article merely contains my general thoughts on the state of writing about design in 2018. I merely scratch the surface of the strategic issues that underlie our industry and profession in this article, but by sharing it on Medium and my personal blog, I’m challenging myself to write more about these two facets moving forward.

1. Career, Profession, and Industry

I want to preface this section by discussing how more and more content has been written within the last few years in regards to how the role of a designer has and will continue to develop.

Today, the field of product design is broad and continues to fluctuate in size. The advent of new technologies and improved processes have eliminated disciplines that are no longer needed and has generated new branches of design that are still uncharted.

To provide an example, the field of user experience has become much more formalized over the past few decades since Don Norman coined the term in the late 20th century. Before that, user experience was still primarily applied to graphical user interfaces (GUIs) and physical products. Since the term “user experience” was developed, the discipline has expanded to other mediums, such as voice-user interfaces (VUIs) and more interactive visual channels such as augmented and virtual reality interfaces. Now, experience design encapsulates a wide variety of studies and disciplines.

Experience Design and Its Facets

The Complexity of Experience Design (diagram by Ketut Sulistyawati)

As designers in the modern age, we design and build for an expansive list of different companies and stakeholders, but we share a lot of commonalities. When I use the collective “we” in this article, I refer to those of us who see ourselves as playing an integral role in improving and creating products and processes across a wide variety of industries — digital and physical.

Collectively, as a community of designers and stakeholders with a vested interest in design, it’s more important than ever to step back and reflect on what it means to be a designer in today’s increasingly complex and globalized world.

This means stepping away from our daily responsibilities and jobs to ask ourselves, “Why did we choose to become designers? How can we stay relevant as the industry continues to evolve?”

I tend to think of designers as strategic individuals. We’re the tactical glue that holds various disciplines together. We help drive the vision of the company by advocating for what’s best for the users we design for and sell to. We’re fluid creatures that are able to pivot between the technical and the strategic.

However, as the world becomes more diverse and intricate, we’re expected to design for a broad range of users, balancing the needs of multiple stakeholders while also accounting for important considerations such as accessibility, internationalization and the plethora of screens and devices that users interact with. Our responsibility is to juggle all this complexity and simplify it for our users.

Image of a Globe on a Table

Increasing interconnectedness and the rise of globalization has impacted the role of a designer

As new technologies arise, careers evolve. Throughout a wide spectrum of industries, workers fear the eventual automation of their jobs as an insidious threat eating away at their responsibilities and roles, rendering their jobs obsolete and their skillsets useless. Designers are in a unique position to hedge against a lot of that risk.

In the product design space, newer technologies, processes, and systems have automated a wide variety of menial tasks that accompany our roles as designers. Among these responsibilities include pixel pushing, creating artifacts and diagrams that never get reused, and generating stale documentation that slowly loses its value over time.

Product Design Tools

A few companies and products that have popped up over the past several years in the product design space that have either automated a subset of the work designers do or streamlined the menial nature of certain repetitive tasks.

However, what these tools and automated systems can’t do (at least for the time being) is empathize with humans the way we can.

It’s fortunate that the nature of our work involves the element of not only creativity but the innate ability of humans to empathize with others. Even the most advanced algorithms and instruction sets can’t process pain points, wants, needs, and human emotions the way we can. As long as we prioritize and maintain a human-first mindset when we design, that will continue to be our key differentiator.

2. Ethics, Responsibility, and Impact

The second often-neglected part of writing about design is related to our impact as designers. Design is not only comprised of how an end product looks, works, and feels to a user. To many of those who don’t work in the trenches of our industry, design is synonymous with aesthetics and appearances, but it’s much more than that.

I clearly remember a situation in which I was discussing the role of design in a corporate organization with my coworker. She told me she thought my job was to “make things look pretty”. Although I rationalized her generalization as overly cursory due to her inexperience with directly working with designers, I still felt somewhat disheartened because there’s a lot of underlying work that accompanies the end products we deliver.

Quotation from Joe Sparano: Good Design is Obvious. Great Design is Transparent.

Image from 99designs

A lot of stakeholders discredit the work designers do. Engineers and developers think we’re pedantic and nitpick on minute details. Product owners get frustrated with the number of iterations we take to perfect a mockup or wireframe. Users are sometimes annoyed our prototypes aren’t functioning products that are ready to be delivered.

Yet, I try not to let it bother me because part of the responsibility of a designer is to educate others about how design is much more than the way something looks. There’s a higher calling as designers for us to spread the word about the importance of ethical design, the need to build with a human-centered mindset, and how anyone and everyone can take the basic principles of design to change the way they view and interact with the world around them.

Ethics

More and more content has been written in this space within the last few years, specifically in regards to evil design and how designers can work with a variety of stakeholders to offset the potentially detrimental consequences of designing in silos or with malevolent intentions in mind.

From an article by Maheen Sohail published in 2017 on The State of Ethics in Design, she writes:

“We scanned through the curriculums of design schools such as Parsons, Carnegie Mellon, SIAT and found that young designers are rarely taught how to ethically critique their design decisions.”

Like many other industries, such as healthcare, business, and law, budding designers should be exposed to case studies and examples of ethical dilemmas while in academia so that they’ll be more prepared to make ethical decisions in the workplace.

Similarly, companies both large and small should be pressed to train designers to be better equipped with the right experiences and knowledge so that they can avoid unethical practices. Even the largest of companies struggle with this today; design leaders at Facebook, Google, and Amazon are constantly challenged to make crucial decisions that can potentially negatively affect stakeholders or their companies’ reputations. Part of the pressure is having to strike the sweet spot between pleasing users, satisfying business requirements and goals, and working within the constraints of government and third-party rules and regulations.

Evil By Design - Chris Nodder

Evil by Design by Chris Nodder

Upon finishing the book [Evil by Design(https://evilbydesign.info/?target=blank) by Chris Nodder, I’ve realized that making ethical design decisions is a gray area, just like many other industries. In his book, Nodder discusses 54 different strategies that companies can deploy to persuade users to make certain decisions or feel certain ways. Past a certain threshold, it’s up to designers to decide whether the decisions we will be categorized as manipulative or tactical. By building diverse teams, we’ll be more aware of the repercussions of our decisions and how they can negatively impact certain demographic groups.

Responsibility

In addition to practicing good ethical business values, a designer should also be responsible for giving back to the world. The world around us is comprised of decisions that have evolved as a result of other designers experimenting over several millennia. Every single product we use is the culmination of decisions, both large and small; these contributions dictate what the physical and virtual world around us looks like and how we interact with it.

Responsibility and Design

The responsibility of a designer includes making design less esoteric to others through mentorship and charity.

To many, good design is easily recognizable but also recondite, difficult to learn and understand without experience and mentorship in the industry.

While I was in college, I realized that learning about design and technology was not easily accessible to those who were not studying these disciplines as part of their majors. As a result, a couple of friends and I co-founded a student organization with the goal of giving back our local communities. We brought together students from different colleges and majors across our university to hold interactive workshops that would provide these students the ability to learn various technical and interpersonal skills that would allow them to work in multidisciplinary teams. In return, these teams would work closely with nonprofits in the local Boston area to create websites, free-of-charge.

Open Web BU Logo

Open Web BU, the student organization at BU that built websites for non-profits in the Boston area (http://openwebbu.org)

Charity and mentorship are crucial elements of growing in design. Personal and industry growth, especially when it comes to creative work, is founded on the premise that collaboration and learning from others will spark new ideas and challenge existing beliefs. Helping non-profits and less fortunate organizations through our craft can also help develop the communication skills necessary to communicate our design decisions to others in the workplace.

Teixeira and Braga emphasize the importance of charity and mentorship in the following hypothetical questions that were presented in their essay, “The State of UX in 2019:

What if, instead of working on unsolicited redesigns after hours, we put our craft to work in other initiatives and sectors that are in need of designers? Many non-profits out there can benefit from our thinking.

What if, instead of coming up with a better version of the “double-diamond model,” we mentored new designers and other professionals and guide them through applying it to their own careers?

Now that I’m out of college, I still make an effort to give back to my local community by building websites for non-profits and working with budding students in the design and technology fields to help them grow. I find that doing so is much more rewarding than what Teixeira and Braga both refer to as “unsolicited redesigns”. As designers become more experienced, the onus is on them to not only practice independently for their personal growth, but to also give back to their communities through their skillset and knowledge. Having a holistic view on how design can positively impact others is a crucial part of what it means to be a good designer.

Conclusion

Design is the art of balance — the craft of finding the right mix of the technical, the creative, the feasible, and the human. We’re entrusted to make key decisions that can either negatively or positively impact a wide variety of stakeholders. Balancing so many different requirements is difficult, but I’m grateful that I get to work in a field that’s so challenging and stimulating each and every day.

As a result of our breadth of interaction with such a myriad of departments and disciplines, we have a lot of influence in dictating how the world around us looks and works. As designers, we wield a significant amount of power to affect others physically and emotionally, and as a result, have to be careful in how we use our knowledge to sway the actions and decisions of others.

After reading this article, I challenge you to think about the trajectory of your own career and profession as different industries continue to evolve and technologies arise. Understand that the decisions you make might appear inconsequential at a superficial level, but have the ability to impact all the people you design for. More importantly, think about how you can use your knowledge and skills to help make a difference in your community by being an advocate for good design.