How Understanding Design Ethics Prepares You for Disruptive Technologies

Our Creative Director in a VR headset | How Understanding Design Ethics Prepares You for Disruptive Technologies | Studio Seventeen

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The emergence of new technology is often an exciting, yet disruptive experience. Though it comes with opportunities for many different fields, it also brings a whole new set of ethics and challenges that designers need to solve before they can deliver their product. The biggest and arguably most important challenge is the issue of ethical design concerning the new technology.

Though specific ethical concerns often vary from medium to medium, there are issues that a designer can count on to pop up within the design process involving any new technology. These issues may include misinformation, manipulation, accessibility, inclusivity, privacy and environmental impact among a few others. However, those examples are just to demonstrate how much of an issue moral concerns are when faced with disruptive technologies and aren’t the primary topic being explored within this blog post. This post seeks to explain the importance of understanding design ethics in order to help prepare a designer for technologies that are on the horizon.

The Power of Design

First of all, what is a designer within the context of this post? A designer is somebody who plans the visuals of a piece of work with the intention to convey meaning and/or function. In this definition, an illustrator, an architect and a potter are all considered designers in an effort to show design past its usual connotations. With that established, we can move on to the main point.

Though it is easy for a designer to get carried away and not consider the societal impact of their work, it is beneficial for them to take a step back from time to time and analyse how their work can affect others. The reason for this is because design is an extremely powerful tool for influencing masses of people, as seen by historical examples of both good and evil.

A prime example of the good found in design comes from the AIDS Memorial Quilt in 1985 which memorialised people who died of AIDS-related illnesses in a massive quilt filled with almost 50,000 unique panels. These panels were each created by a loved one of someone who had passed as a way to honour them. This quilt demonstrates the strength of a community coming together to design something meaningful because it not only raised millions for the cause, but it also inspired many activist projects afterwards in the form of similar memorials.

But as said before, design can also be used for nefarious purposes. Perhaps an extreme, but a clear demonstration of evil design is found in the Nazi regime of Germany. During this era, Nazis viewed architecture as a way to reinforce their extreme inhumane ideas and values by creating their view of a ‘perfect Aryan city’ which increased national pride and unity. Needless to say, the fervour of the Nazi’s agenda was only further increased by propaganda as well.

The power of design is easily found when taking a glimpse into history. But aside from that, what are the lessons that can be learned from people in the past who had to overcome a new technological breakthrough?

Lessons in History

The truth is that the lessons involving morality in design extend back tens of thousands of years, to the prehistoric era when ceramics were discovered. Humans originally had to carve their works of art out of stone or other natural objects but ceramics allowed for more liberty with their expression. But ceramics weren’t just for art, they also helped reinforce cultural ideals. Glazes, techniques and methods for construction were all different aspects that varied from culture to culture and the trade of these products helped spread the values of the culture that the ceramic came from. An example of this can be found from ancient Greece which isn’t necessarily considered a culture that glorified war, however those who won wars and battles were met with praise. As a result of this, there is a common theme of warfare depiction in art across ancient Greece’s history with a special focus on pottery.

Another example is in the 15th century when Johannes Gutenberg combined all printing devices at the time to one machine and formed a new design medium in the form of printed typography. Apart from the skills that had to be learned with the medium, there was a much more pressing concern due to the rapid increase of the literacy rate. Designers had to consider the impact of their work more than before since they would now be expressing their ideas in a literal way as a form of content for the masses. This is seen by the Reformation Movement spearheaded by Martin Luther who had flooded the market with printings containing his criticisms of Catholicism. How these writings were transcribed and then perceived by people were under the influence of designers who had to work on the printing press. The creation and distribution of these works ended up having an impact that steered the course of Western culture.

So what does this teach us? Early technologies show us that there has always been a level of consciousness that goes into designing an object where a designer has to make choices about what or what not to include in a piece and it is important for them to determine if that creates the impact that they want. It’s undeniable that if a designer should succeed, they can have a long lasting impact on civilisation.

New Technologies, New Problems

Emerging technologies are those that have not yet reached mass adoption or become included in everyday life. An immediate recent development that comes to mind is virtual and augmented reality (VR and AR).

VR and AR come with a whole slew of issues to tackle. At first glance this seems to largely be a technical challenge but looking deeper into it, it becomes apparent that there are moral problems at hand. For one, a user’s perception of an object is directly affected by the appearance of it so the person’s thoughts and feelings about something can be directly influenced by how it is designed. In addition to that, the designer is responsible for the user’s safety when using such a device and needs to ensure that all elements help contribute to a comfortable and safe environment when the product is in use. The problems go on and on when concerning VR and AR technology, but all of them can be solved easier with our lessons from the past.

Solving Future Issues with Yesterday’s Lessons

Future issues can be helped by keeping one key component alive. This component is found by our lessons from the past: our work is powerful and has a long lasting impact on people. Moreover, we need to make sure that the impact is ethical and can do so by applying human centred-design.

Human-centred design is fundamentally an affirmation of human dignity. It is an ongoing search for what can be done to support and strengthen the dignity of human beings as they act out their lives in varied social, economic, political and cultural circumstances – Design Academic Richard Buchanan.

Human centred-design is less of a strict guideline and more philosophical, it is about approaching the design process with empathy and compassion for the potential consumers in order to tackle any concerns as they arrive instead of fixing them later. Designers should learn about the target audience and understand them on a personal level. Try to empathise with them as much as possible, but not to the point where it is patronising. Understand what their issues are, and be compassionate the whole way through. By applying this knowledge, designers will be able to create sustainable, ethical products.

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