Illustration by Avalon Hu

Ethics in design, and especially those surrounding issues of privacy, trust, and responsibility, are top of mind for most designers today. That’s what Adobe and IxDA dedicated this year’s World Interaction Design Day (IxDD) to the theme of ‘trust and responsibility.’ But what does this actually mean in practice, and how can design leaders make sure they and their teams are ‘walking the walk’ when it comes to ethical decision making?

Ahead of the city’s IxDD’s celebrations, we gathered some of Toronto’s design leaders in the private and public sectors for a rare chance to discuss and share how they’re implementing trust and responsibility practices in their organizations. What followed was a great sharing of the experiences encountered across the spectrum of design leadership. Read on for the highlights from our IxDD salon dinner, as these leaders shared their strategies for ethical decision making in the challenging world of 21st-century design.

Creating a safe space in design teams

Whether you work in-house at a brand or organization or serve external clients, designers are frequently tasked with providing service or deliverables. With these come demands and expectations, some of which might blur ethical lines. When a client wants to implement dark patterns, for example, what do you do? Do you speak up and try to steer that client in a better direction? Or do you go along with their demands, because that’s what you’re expected to do? The determining factor, in many cases, is what kind of design leader is at the helm.

As our invited guests all agreed, many designers do not question briefs and decisions because they don’t feel like they can. Design leaders need to ‘lead by example,’ creating an open dialogue in their teams where everyone is free to express their doubts.

The key to this is creating safe spaces; assuring your designers that their job, or internal job satisfaction, is not on the line if they bring up questions of ethics, responsibility, and even wise design decision making.

As one senior designer put it, whereas process once dictated decision making, now clients often do as design has become more in demand. The key to countering this, so the products designers are creating make the world better for people, is to allow everyone to speak up when they have an opposing thought. “Well, this is the ask from the client,” should never be the only consideration.

Staying vigilant requires that leaders constantly remind themselves of this, in every ideation session, customer interviews, etc. “It’s about continuously keeping ourselves in check. It’s a constant thing, not a one-time fix.”

Be prepared to walk away from work that doesn’t align with your values

So, how do you actually create this kind of safe space among your designers? While it might be easier said than done, the design leaders agreed that if you set the tone by speaking up to clients, steering them in the right ethical directions, and yes, even saying no to work that doesn’t line up with your values, then that trickles down to your team and inspires them to thinking critically and express that. 

It’s very important, agreed with several of the leaders, to be very aligned with the projects you take on. If a project requires you to build experiences that don’t create trust with users, or that take advantage of their naivety when it comes to their own digital privacy, and you take it on anyway, you’re not going to be able to sell your team on it. Leaders need to be able to pass down their intent to their teams.

You have to rally people to create something really good, and if you don’t believe in it, they’re going to know.

Misalignment, or worse, projects that violate your own ethics, trickle down to teams too.

There is a way that design leaders can help themselves walk the right line, or at least arrive at the best decisions in the end: surround yourself with a diverse set of fellow leaders. By making sure your leadership team is diverse, coming from different professional and personal backgrounds, you can ensure a healthy debate on projects and project decisions. 

At scale, this can be challenging, but diversity is necessary to create the right culture at work. After all, designers are uniquely positioned to make the world better through the digital experiences they create and should be prepared to push back against clients (in diplomatic ways) to make sure they are always working together to find appropriate solutions to problems. That requires designers to have each other’s backs.

Leading design teams in the more “risk-averse” public sector

As several of our invited design leaders work in the public sector, the conversation inevitably turned to some of the unique challenges they face working with governments and bureaucracies. While private sector clients may be too open to risk when it comes to design decisions that impact ‘trust and responsibility,’ willing to launch products that may require course corrections down the road, the public sector is very different. As some of the design leaders put it, while governments and other public organizations may be called to higher ethical standards with the digital experiences they create and commission, they are much less likely to iterate and prototype with the public. For this reason, the design leaders shared, governments often turn to vendors to create experiences; that way, they can blame them if anything goes wrong.

Design leaders, working within the public sector, often face a roadblock in this way that hurts innovation. They must be constant advocates for the design process of prototyping and iteration in the face of politicians and political parties that don’t want to release products or programs into the wild until they are ‘fully done’ with zero risks. Navigating this world is not always easy; design leaders are responsible for building the experiences and interactions with the public that build trust, but they have little to no control over design direction or messaging that goes along with it. This can be discouraging, especially for designers working internationally with NGOs, with governments that may be dealing with large amounts of internal corruption.

There needs to be an effort to get people questioning the experiences they’re designing

Overall, however, designers working in the public sector are seeing positive change. More and more, governments are looking to designers to help solve the problems plaguing the public sector today. With that has come an elevation of the design process; it might be slower than the private sector, but designers are playing an increasingly significant role at the table.

Our design leaders all agreed that, especially for those in a more production-oriented role, it’s much easier to maintain the status quo rather than to push the role of designers forward. But the goal should be, as leaders, to advance the profession rather than just responding to what bosses and clients are asking. To do that, they need to be able to ‘influence,’ especially in the public sector. 

Designers are uniquely positioned to shape the world of experiences around all of us; when it comes to trust and responsibility, they are the ones who can place those core values at the very center of design.

“It’s time for designers to shift into a much more authoritative role,” said one design leader. In their words, designers have a unique superpower skillset of being able to go out and collect and understand models of behavior, uncover people’s needs at a system level, and provide insights to businesses and organizations. With these superpowers, design teams can and should be leading, not following, and it’s up to design leaders to make that happen.

Now that designers have a seat at the table, and are advocating for more of that authority, it’s also a crucial time for designers to look inward and at each other. “There needs to be an effort to get people questioning the experiences they’re designing,” said one design leader, who is making it an effort to give their designers more critical thinking time when making decisions. “You see real change, and this is very important when making transparency decisions.” 

Just as we did during IxDD, and during our salon dinner, designers are gathering more and more to think critically about their own industry too. With these design superpowers come great responsibility; in decisions of trust and responsibility, it falls on 21st design leaders to show what kind of superheroes they really are.

Photos courtesy of Jackie Brown Photography / Illustration by Avalon Hu