I consider myself an Ethical Designer, striving to apply my principles to my work. Many of your reading this probably are. Ethical design is a trendy topic, and thank goodness for that. However, this is not a new idea. In fact, many designers have been talking about using design for good for decades. From First Things First Manifesto (1964), to Design For The Real World (Victor Papanek, 1971), to Ruined By Design (Mike Montero, 2019) to much newer ones, such as Caps Lock (Ruben Pater, 2021), rivers of words have been written on the topic. And I am not even including books and articles with the word “ethical design” in it.
While it is a bit disheartening to see that we still need to press the point and take the words to heart, and more importantly, to action , it also means that there are more of us than we think. And our numbers are swelling.
There is much to learn from the past, however. I recently dug out an older book, called Do Good Design: how designers can change the world (David B. Berman, 2009). It was written when the internet was still new, and the iPhone, and the revolution that brought with it, was taking the first steps. While it focuses mainly on advertisement, (social media were not a thing then), the urgent message is exactly the same: designers of any kind are supporting an increasing unsustainable culture of overconsumption, with more advanced country, exporting the concept to less developed ones.
The biggest issue of our day is the environment; overconsumption is driving its destruction; overconsumption is fueled most powerfully by clever visual arguments to convince everyone (including larger, growing, developing worlds populations) to consume more and more. Our impact as designers and as consumers of design is huge. We should be held responsible. Why must we take responsibility? Because we can. (p.99)
His position may be a bit more radical than most, criticizing capitalism, at least in its decadent implementation, but the core message is the same: designers have huge power + responsibility and control how intended to influence people are selected, crafted, and delivered. They also have much influence on how people are presented, or excluded, and what material and process are used to create the product. In the introduction (p.2), he even offers a short summary of the whole book, acknowledging our short attention span (and this was before smartphones, social media, and notifications).
- Designers have far more power than they realize: their creativity fuels the most efficient (and most destructive) tools of deception in human history.
- The largest threat to humanity’s future just may be the consumption of more than necessary. We are caught up in an unsustainable frenzy, spurred by rapid advances in the sophistication, psychology, speed, and reach of visual lies designed to convince us we “need” more stuff than we really do.
- Human civilization, trending toward one global civilization, cannot afford to make even one more major global mistake.
- The same design that fuels mass overconsumption also holds the power to repair the world.
- We live in an unprecedented technological age, where we can each leave a larger legacy by propagating our best ideas than by propagating our chromosomes.
- Designers can be a model for other professionals for identifying one’s sphere of influence, and then embrace the responsibility that accompanies that power to help repair the world.
- So don’t just do good design, do good.
The book is divided in 3 sections:
1. THE CREATIVE BRIEF: DISARMING THE WEAPONS OF MASS DECEPTION In this section, David Berman discusses how advertisement and design has led us to overconsumption, by injecting artificial needs in our environment. He points out how design, when uncontrolled and ethical can threaten democracy (he mentions the infamous “butterfly ballot” in the 2000 presidential election); can make us feel bad about ourselves; can destroys local culture in favor of homogeneity; and how it uses sex, lies and manipulation to sell products;
2. THE DESIGN SOLUTION: CONVENIENT TRUTHS In the second section, he makes the case for acting NOW (as in 2009), since design had reached maturity and recognition. He also explains how ethical design is good business and causes long-term profits. He advocates for inclusion and universal design, as well as for legislation that would punish deceitful images just as it does for words. And he pleads designers to create sustainable design. He ends the section with examples of solutions successfully adopted in the wild: in fact, a full page is dedicated to simple tips on how to move towards sustainable consumption and design
3. THE DO GOOD PLEDGE The last section, reminds us that the time to act is NOW (again, 2009…wow we did miss the train on that one) and includes a 3 point pledge for designers to take:
1. I will be true to my profession
2. I will be true to myself
3. I will spend at least 10% of my professional time helping repair the world
4. APPENDIX Here he publishes the original First Things First Manifesto, as well as excerpts from other published ethical codes. Conclusion At 5.25″ x 8″ (13cm x 20cm) and 170 pages including notes and many images (rigorously printed in black and white on uncoated paper, to save money and carbon footprint), it would be easy to dismiss it. However, what it lacks in size and volume, more than makes it up in content. It is a quick, but dense read that will leave you pondering long after you finish it. It may even — hopefully — make you rethink your lifestyle and professional choices.