top of page
  • Writer's pictureCydney Phan

The Importance of Ethics in Design

Updated: Aug 1, 2019

With the recent decline of trust between Facebook and its users due to a leaks in information, users and creators alike are left pondering about ethical values and consequences of breaking trust amongst the masses.

Big data analytics have been widely used within the past few years from collected Google searches to Facebook's sharing our private information to Uber recording our every location in and out of the app. These stored data reveal a pattern of customer trends and preferences, often times used and sold to other companies as information on how best to shove advertisements down our throats. If used ethically, these patterns provide statistics on how to move society and better provide for the growing needs of the people.


Ethics in Design

So how do we discuss and actuate ethics in design when companies left and right are being exposed for the unethical and problematic behavior?

Mike Monteiro, director and co-founder of Mule Design and author of "A Designer's Code of Ethics", gathered the importance of emerging ethics in design as the industry moves away from print advertisements and into more interpersonal interactions like health care and social media. Design conventions are hold sessions upon sessions of panelists often trying to answer the big hitters like inclusion, intersectionality, transparency, and privacy.

Within recent months, I've been personally attacking my own dilemmas with an apathetic design environment while still nurturing my internal need to care. I've felt like there were pockets in life recently where I'm personally pioneering for social responsibility as a designer yet feeling gaslighted or "too extra" by a majority of my fellow design classmates for championing an idea that doesn't fit into the normative narrative. So how do I make people care when in reality I'm going to work with and for people who just don't care?

In a recent SXSW conference, John Madea hosted a panel discussing "Design in Tech Reports" where he discusses the economical importance of marginalized groups. With 50.6% of the U.S. being female and roughly 128 million Americans identifying as "non-white" (data provided by the U.S. Census Bureau) women and people of color have purchasing power and can greatly impact the success or downfall of a product or company.

While John Madea discusses inclusion to make money, Vivianne Castillo, UX researcher at Weight Watcher, says that money is the byproductof inclusion. She points out that designing for those with purchasing power would ultimately oppress and negate those like veterans, older generations, and the disabled, and the real importance is overturning stereotypes and empowering everyone. They both tooted "Black Panther" as an industry success, grossing in $1 billion worldwide, for its inclusion and positive impact in America's black communities.


Unethical Designs

There are some designers that expressed how inherently unethical the design field because of client biases and viewpoints on various issues. And some even saying that mentioning potential discrepancies is enough to fulfill the role of an ethical designer. But is that the limitations of what a designer can say when it comes to leading the way in social responsibility?

There was a video on twitter recently that expressed the poor design of a soap dispenser in the Facebook employee bathrooms that wasn't able to detect a wide variety of skin tones. A lack of thought and product testing that leaves communities of color unable to use it and opens the company up for lawsuits and lose of business.

A photo of two people using an automatic hand soap dispenser. The dispenser works for some of light skin, but not for someone of darker skin tones. The dispenser only worked if the black person holds a white napkin under the dispenser.

Another widely used and incredibly inaccessible modes of design is relying on the user to automatically guess the functions of unlabeled icons. Companies are relying on the user's ability to guess what an icon would do based on how it functions as a whole in the app universe. This design practice leaves a group of older generations, disabled, etc unable to easily operate the technological system.

Three phone screens of the Facebook app showing the nondescript icons.

Final Thoughts

Battling trends, company expectations, and our ethical roles is tough– I'm not diminishing it. I have found it immensely exhausting to constantly be putting energy into the things I design and leaving myself vulnerable to the pushback it may have for those that don't care.  But I think there's power in being able to carry on knowing that things are constantly changing and there are new ideas and perspective to learn everyday. For me personally, it doesn't feel right to not be more of an advocate for progressive designs; I want more for myself and the people around me than to fall into complacency for 'pretty' designs. It's that constant push to be more.

Information garnered from:

15 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page