Dear Designer

Ethical design isn’t a punishment; it’s a true expression of what design is really about

Dear Mike,

Dude. I get that it’s important to work responsibly and ethically, but every article I read about ethical design makes it sound like punishment. What a fucking slog. You make it sound like working ethically is all hair shirts, self-flagellation, and crying. Why are all the articles about ethics so negative? Can we please get something positive for a change?

— A Designer

Dear Designer,

You know what? You’re not wrong. I’m certainly guilty of this. And I tend to come into conversations pretty hot. Obviously, design ethics is a serious issue. But I do tend to dip my quill in more vinegar than sugar when I write about it. Why is that? Maybe because I want to convey the seriousness of the situation we’re in? Maybe because I enjoy writing angry? Maybe I’m just a grumpy old man — who knows. Tell you what: I accept your challenge. Today I am going to write the happiest article you will ever read about design ethics.

I’m going to start by telling you how much I love design. Because, when you get down to it, that’s where all this is coming from. That’s hopefully why we’re all here. We’re all united together in this thing we call design. And yet, we have at least as many definitions for design as we have for God and for what makes a good pizza. For some of us, design is a thing we can see, for others it’s what we can’t see, and for others still it’s the plan that puts everything in motion. For some of us, good design is an intuitive interface, for others it’s a well-designed football play, or the Dead Kennedys logo, or a Robert Altman plot, or an activist action. And, somehow, none of us are wrong. But so much of our ability to work together involves finding people with definitions of design that match — or, even better — complement each other, and a willingness to learn from those we don’t understand.

And yet, I believe there’s a definition that all of us can stand behind: The whole spark of design comes from our seeing another human being attempting to do something, not having a great time doing it, and thinking: I bet there’s a way to help them do that. And then figuring out what that is. That’s it, that’s the whole thing. Whether we’re helping someone fill out a naturalization form in their own language, keep better track of their finances, find the right charity to donate to, keep in touch with someone they love, or just find the right cat gif, everything we design should be in service of making people’s lives easier. Feel free to replace “easier” with “more efficient,” “delightful,” or any other positive word you prefer.

And sure, there are a million ways to solve that equation. There are a ton of methodologies around it. But for all we might argue about “whose methodology is better” online, it’s worth taking a minute to realize that if we boiled all those wack-ass methodologies down we’d eventually get to the same core equation: Design means helping people figure out a better way to do stuff.

You gotta love two things in this business: design and people.

So I love design. I love helping people. As much of a grumpy old man as I am (and I am) I love that I get to spend my life helping people do shit. And now that I’ve been doing this design thing for a while, I even get to help the people-who-want-to-help-people learn how to do it better. I like doing that even more.

And, of course, it follows that I cannot love design that tricks people, or traps people, or separates people, or keeps people confined.

Design! Kumbaya.

Design is done by people. All sorts of people. Anyone who’s figuring out how to solve a problem, within a set of constraints, to make someone’s life easier (their own included) is designing something. So is everyone a designer? Let me put it this way: Remember Chef Gusteau’s book Anyone Can Cook in the movie with all the cartoon rats? It’s true — anyone can cook, and some people are good enough at it to get paid for their effort. So yeah, anyone can design. And a few of us are good enough to get paid for the effort.

A chef who gets paid for their effort has a responsibility to feed people the best food they can cook, and they also have a responsibility to feed them food that won’t make them sick. It’s the same if you’re a designer who’s paid for your effort: You have a responsibility to design things that make people’s lives easier. And if the people you design for are on the other side of a screen, they’ll never see you — much like most chefs never see the people they’re cooking for — but you can find joy in a job done right, and in knowing that those people are better off for having experienced your work.

In an ethical design world, that’s what we’re all doing: Working to improve the lives of others.

I love designers, but not as much as I love design. I love that you want to help people, and, in keeping with our equation, I want to help you do what you do better. As an old man in this business, I want to clear a path for the younger folks coming up behind me. Not because I’m smarter than they are. On the contrary: Many have shown that they’re smarter than me. I want to help them because I’ve got over twenty years of lessons to share. Over twenty years of seeing patterns behind how people behave (including clients and bosses), over twenty years of seeing the same problems emerge again and again, over twenty years of making decisions both good and bad, and over twenty years of figuring out how to avoid obstacles. And because young designers are smarter than I am, they can decide which of these lessons are actually valuable to them or not.

If you’re lucky — and I have been — the up-and-comers end up teaching you a lot more than you can teach them. They come into the field with new perspectives, with more diverse backgrounds, with experiences different from my own. It’s breathtaking and humbling, in the best way.

Back to our chef analogy: Before you start throwing ingredients in the pot, I want you to walk out into the restaurant and look at those hopeful hungry people out there. Some of them are on their first date, some of them got a sitter and are having their first quiet meal together in a year, some of them are having a memorial dinner in honor of a friend who passed, and some of them just had a really shitty day, which this meal could really help them ease out of. Those are the people you’re cooking for. Those are the people you owe your allegiance to. So when the restaurant owner tells you to skimp on the portions, or use yesterday’s fish, or water down the liquor a little bit for the sake of profit, you should tell the restaurant owner to kiss your ass. Because you are here to give people the meal of their lives.

Is the restaurant owner going to be upset about that? Possibly. Might he fire you after you pull that stunt a few times? Possibly. But here’s the thing: Go back out and look at those people waiting to eat. You’re cooking for them. They’re eating your food. You want them to have the best possible meal. That person who had a shitty day? Your meal is gonna make the difference for them. That couple on their first date? Your meal might just be the reason they decide to have a second date. The table having a memorial for their friend? Her memory deserves a great meal. The parents having a night out? Well, they may just name the child they conceive tonight after you, if they aren’t too full after that amazing dessert.

Right now, the biggest problem in design is figuring out how to give designers a better way to do the stuff they need to do. Which means reminding them of how much collective power they have, how much responsibility they bear to look out for those interacting with their work, and building the infrastructure that allows them to do this work without fear of repercussion.

You gotta love two things in this business: design and people.

A chef who takes care of their diners gets a reputation for taking care of their diners. They move on to bigger jobs. They get more staff. Their career is on a trajectory and that trajectory is greased by happy people with full bellies and good memories. The chef who caves to the restaurant owner may have saved their job for a few weeks, but they’ve also set themselves on a different path. They’ll move from shady restaurant to shady restaurant, always working for one creep or another.

Be the person you’d want cooking your own meals. People are the hardest design problem you will ever face. And there’s no pattern for solving them, because people are messy.

I decided to be a designer because I enjoyed designing things. I enjoyed designing things because it helped people. Go be helpers. It’s a really awesome thing to do.

So yeah, I love design, and how it improves people’s lives. I love people who dedicate their lives to improving the lives of others. And in an ethical design world, that’s what we’re all doing: Working to improve the lives of others. Starting with those who need the most help. And if that all sounds a little too kumbaya, well fuck it — this is the happiest article you will ever read about design ethics! So we’re gonna get a little kumbaya.

Are there going to be obstacles put in our way? If there weren’t, we wouldn’t be getting paid to solve this stuff. Are those obstacles sometimes put in place by the very people paying us to remove them? Yes. They’re paying us to do a thing because we’re good at a thing and they’re not, so we can’t expect them to do things the same way we would. (Sometimes people stand in the middle of the kitchen because they think it’s helpful. Let them feel helpful — tell them to go take drink orders.)

At the end of a good meal, if you were raised right, you’ll tell your waiter to give your compliments to the chef. I don’t doubt that even the most renowned chefs enjoy hearing that. No matter how long you’ve been doing something, it always feels good to hear your work had a positive effect on someone’s day. You did the work. You put in the effort. You sweated the details. You used the best ingredients. And you get acknowledged for it. But that’s not gonna happen for designers. No one finishes an online banking transaction and says “Please send my compliments to the design team.” Maybe it would make a difference, so let me be the one to do it: My compliments to the design team. Thanks for taking care of the person on the other side of the screen. They deserved your best work and they got it.


If you have a question, email me and I’ll be happy to answer it. Maybe. If it’s a good question, and answering it could help a lot of people, I’ll be more likely to answer it. “Should I quit my job because my boss is a dick?” is not a good question (and you already know what the answer is anyway).