Design Ethics & The Truth About Who Designers Really Work For
I’ve been working in client services for almost twenty years. That’s long enough to learn a few things. One of the things we learned along the way was that our clients (this goes for bosses as well) need to know who exactly they are hiring and what it’s going to be like to work with us before we all actually agree to work together. And because we’ve had one too many arguments that ended with “I sign your paychecks and you will do what I say,” we came up with a little thing we tell all our clients before they agree to work with us:
“You may be hiring us, and that may be your name on the check, but we do not work for you. We’re coming in to solve a problem, because we believe it needs to be solved, and it’s worth solving. But we work for the people being affected by that problem. Our job is to look out for them because they’re not in the room. And we will under no circumstances design anything that puts those people at risk.”
Ballsy, eh? Only a few people have refused to move forward after hearing that. And trust me, I say it in a nice way. I’m a people person. But anyone who refused to work with us after hearing that was doing us a favor; they were probably going to be a nightmare client. More often than you’d expect, the reply we got was “Awesome. That’s exactly what I want.”
And here’s the important thing: I absolutely believe every word of what I was telling them. When you hire me as a designer, I do not work for you. I may practice my craft at your service, but you haven’t earned the right to shape how I practice that craft. One, you don’t want me designing at your level, you want me designing at mine, which means you don’t get to pull the strings. I do. Two, you’re hiring someone who performs a service, not a servant. There’s a difference. I’m not there to do your bidding, I’m there to solve a problem or reach a goal that we agreed upon.
So, who do designers really work for?
Design Ethics and the Hippocratic Oath
In the last few years, I’ve developed a useful little trick; I look at other professions to see how they behave in certain situations, and then attempt to map them over to what we do. This is helpful because it gives us as designers a little distance and allows us to learn from people who’ve already solved similar problems. Or, as my mom would say when she took my brothers and I out to dinner and we behaved like assholes, “You see that table over there? You see how they’re not throwing food at each other? Their parents won’t be divorced in a year. And their kids will grow up to be doctors.” This may be why I write about doctors so much, by the way.
Doctors take an oath before they begin practicing. This doesn’t ensure they’re all going to behave ethically, but if they’re going to behave badly, they certainly can’t claim ignorance. Now once they take that oath, they can go off and do a variety of things. Some enter private practice. Some join organizations like Medecins Sans Frontieres. Some go to work in top-of-the-line hospitals serving patients with lots of insurance. Some go to work at free clinics. A lot of them end up doing a combination of those things. But no matter where they go, the oath they took determines how they behave on the job. They’ll certainly face constraints along the way, such as the hospital they’re working on not having the latest equipment. But their job is to do their job, as defined by their code, to the best of their abilities.
Pay attention, because this is where the comparison goes into high gear. Now imagine a doctor runs into a sketchy hospital administrator who’s trying to keep a hospital afloat by doing things like telling them to order tests patients don’t need, or prescribe medications from pharmaceutical companies that he’s made deals with, or charging people for private rooms they didn’t have… you get the idea. This isn’t much different than working for a boss who asks you to target addictive products at poor people, or to get user data you don’t need in case they might want to sell it later. The difference is, when a doctor is asked to do those things, the oath they took supersedes the signature on their paycheck. When a designer is asked to do those things, there’s no oath in place. No ethical framework to fall back on. You may get a gut feeling that what you’re doing is wrong, it may not feel good to do it, but at no point in your career have you actually put pen to paper, or hand over heart and promised not to behave this way.
More importantly, if a doctor behaves unethically and is caught there’s a fairly good chance they could lose their license. A designer who behaves unethically for a shady boss might get a raise. Your shady boss now knows they have someone they can rely on for shady work. “But people die when doctors do their jobs badly, Mike!”
Design can kill, too
In 2017, the Royal Society of Public Health, in conjunction with the Young Health Movement, published a study about social media and mental health for young people. It’s worth reading in its entirety, but let me highlight the part that’s salient to what we’re discussing here. Between 2010 and 2015, after a 20-year decline, teenage suicide started rising again. Along with rates of anxiety, depression, body dysmorphia, etc.
“Social media has been described as more addictive than cigarettes and alcohol, and is now so entrenched in the lives of young people that it is no longer possible to ignore it when talking about young people’s mental health issues.” —Shirley Cramer, the chief executive of the Royal Society for Public Health
And while the study doesn’t make a conclusive connection between these things and social media (because of academic rigor and all that) it makes a very strong case for it. Thankfully, I’m not an academic, and I have little patience for academic guidelines. So, I have no problem telling you this: the work we are doing is killing people. A Google search for “deaths by social media” will bring up more examples than you should need.
Those of us who grew up designing things online need to realize the repercussions of the work we do. We’re no longer pushing pixels around. We’re building complex systems that touch people’s lives, affect their personal relationships, broadcast both words of support and hate, and undeniably affect their mental health. When we do our jobs well, we improve people’s lives. When we don’t, people die.
So, yes. The comparisons to the medical profession are apt.
Celebrate (and design for) the differences and inconsistencies
I was taking the metro home this evening and realized I’d left my headphones at the office. Which means I had to listen to people. I heard two tech dudes arguing about how to set up a server. I heard two other dudes arguing about data collection. And I watched the dude next to me do some coding. On a 15-inch laptop. On a crowded metro. When we got to my stop the doors wouldn’t open because of some technical malfunction. Everyone waited mostly patiently as the driver got out and opened each door one by one, which wasn’t quick. While he did that, the two tech dudes talking about setting up a server changed their topic to how bad San Francisco’s public transportation can be (they’re not wrong). One mentioned how inefficient the city was. He pointed out the metro stops are all different. Sometimes underground, sometimes above ground. Sometimes there’s a platform. Sometimes the steps have to lower to meet the street. Sometimes the doors on the left open. Sometimes the right. The other guy replied that things would certainly run a lot smoother and more efficiently if we standardized all of that.
And he’s not wrong.
Society runs more efficiently when all the metro stops are the same. And all the streets are a certain width. And everyone would just agree to behave the same way. And follow the same rules. And eat the same thing. Soylent is very efficient. We could all wear the same shoes. (count the number of all birds in the room right now!). What if we all voted the same? And spoke the same language?
When I was a little baby designer, I was taught that good design meant simplifying. Keep it clean. Keep it simple. Make the system as efficient as possible. As few templates as possible. I’m sure the same goes for setting up style sheets, servers, and all that other shit we do. My city would run more efficiently if we simplified everything.
But I wouldn’t want to live there.
My city is a mess. My country is a mess. The internet is a mess. But in none of those cases is the answer to look for efficiencies, but rather to celebrate the differences. Celebrate the reasons the metro stops aren’t all the same. Celebrate the crooked streets. Celebrate the different voices. Celebrate the different food smells. Understand that other people like things you don’t. And you might like things they don’t. And it’s all cool! That’s what makes this city, and all cities, a blast. And when all these amazing people, some of them who we don’t understand at all, go online they are going to behave as inefficiently in there as they do out there. And that is awesome.
And your job, the glorious job you signed up for when you said you wanted to be a designer, is to support all of these people. Make sure none of these incredible voices get lost. And to fight against those who see that brilliant cacophony as a bug and not the greatest feature of all time.
You are our protection against monsters.
Society doesn’t serve Silicon Valley. Silicon Valley needs to serve society. And we are big, and we are multiple, and we are amazingly inefficient. We don’t all want the same thing. Except that we actually do. It’s to thrive.