There are many types of design.
Web design, interaction design and user experience design are processes that web agencies deal with every day. But all sorts of things: products, transportation, architecture — had to be designed as well. These are part of a larger ecosystem of systems design.
Governments, currencies, systems for measuring distance and time are all things that had to be designed and agreed upon.
Today, I’m focusing on a small corner of the design world, web design and its related fields.
Art, to which design is often compared, must be aesthetically pleasing, but has the option of solving a problem. Design can look good, but must always solve a problem. Design is a box into which we put our best conceived solutions. So where do design ethics come into play?
We have important decisions as designers. We must decide what problems we are trying to solve, for whom we are solving those problems for, and how we are choosing to solve those problems.
Ideally, graphic and web designers should use their talents to bring good into the world. How should we achieve this? By choosing the projects that we want to work on, we can contribute our talents to projects that help people, and say no to projects that harm people, or are deceiving. The reason I do client services such as SEO and web design — and not product design, is because my work benefits regular people, not bloated corporations. Money cannot be our only motivation as designers. We are at our best we are not just mercenaries, at the ready for the highest bidder, but when we infuse our work with purpose and integrity.
All web design decisions have to go through a human being first. Perhaps this is why it bothers me when design is built to be confusing on purpose. When text, instructions, or settings are built to be deceiving or unclear, we refer to them as dark patterns. Here’s an example from graphic design I found in the weekly mail ads.
The ad on the left has the sale price in large type, and in big red letters, yet that sale price is only if you buy six, and that information is in much smaller type. The ad on the right features the single price in large type, and the bulk-only sale price in small type. In my own opinion, the ad on the left has been designed to be deceptive, and the ad on the right was designed to be clear.
I see many examples like this in web design that bother me. The settings on an e-commerce checkout that default to putting things in your cart than you did not choose. Buttons that make you click “Cancel” to accept, and press “OK” to cancel. Establishing your privacy settings for social media platforms, and then discovering that they are using your image for ads, without you opting-in. Even other web designers who purposely hide affiliate links in their blog – these are all examples of shady design ethics. Instead of building a site with the user in mind, these design decisions are driven by business, or as I call it, greed. While design integrity and transparency is difficult to achieve 100% of the time, once you start justifying design decisions like this, where do you draw the line? This is why defining your ethics in web design will always be important. It isn’t worth the end result if we have to resort to compromising our design values at our customers’ expense.
Mike Monteiro, in his Webstock 2013 talk, “How Designers Destroyed the World” asserts that designers are not only problem solvers, but gatekeepers of the things that we allow into the world. We chose our craft because we love to create, but creating without responsibility or thought equates to destruction. We must always be cognizant of what problems we are solving, and why a design decision is a good or bad one. I highly recommend you spend the 48 minutes to watch this talk.
“A designer who that creates things that they don’t care about is like a chef who would serve you rancid food.” – Mike Monteiro
While ethics isn’t something that people generally think about when considering a web designer, it is extremely relevant. The best thing we can aspire to do as designers is work on projects that help people or bring good into the world. When trying to reach the goals of each individual project, how we solve the problems is just as important as if we solved those problems. Your integrity and philosophy permeates all that you do, whether you realize it or not.