When is Design Really Good?—Ethics and Design

What we do as creatives is not neutral.

Ethics is a permanent questioning of what is desirable for the good of all and it is unthinkable that creatives do not take part of this. Our work is inherently filled with decisions that in one way or the other will affect another person's life and that is a huge responsibility. 

Since design is part of a system, you are subject to external factors like the interests of clients and trends in the industry, and even though we have achieved a recognizable development that makes our lives easier in the last decades there are also questionable consequences, like what we are seeing with data surveillance or dark patterns.

Those strategies may work in relation to the financial goals of the client but it is not the right approach regarding the well-being of the user. 

What is then, the right approach when it comes to ethics?

Umut Altintas - Orkun Destici.

Umut Altintas - Orkun Destici.


Ethics vs. Morality

First things first, let's define the difference between two terms that can be difficult to distinguish from each other, ethics and morality:

We can say morality relates to absolute right and wrong conduct while ethics represent fundamental thoughts of what it means to act well for you and for others (in respect to a particular class of human actions or a particular group or culture).

Since ethics are not absolute it is important to make them an ongoing topic of conversation in our practice.

The video above is an extract of an interactive documentary called Ethics For Design which is a compilation of 12 designers and researchers from 8 European cities discussing the impact, sometimes harmful, of design on our societies and our responsibility inside the industry. You can watch it online for free.


What is the problem with design?

One relevant idea in the film is that we are missing guidelines for evaluating what is and what is not ethical work. If you don't define some principles it's easier to be flexible and get into work you shouldn't be doing. 

The problem with design at the moment is it reduces complexity. It has this very simple goal of making good products with a very naive view of what is good and what is preferable.

Define good is the problem.
— James Auger (2017)

James Auger, designer and professor at M-ITI Madeira also mentions the lack of understanding of the scale and reach in which we work, which goes beyond our current thinking that mainly focuses on the product that we make:

We rarely think about what’s outside of this bubble, about the real lives, about the real systems in which people live and as a consequence, this is where problems lie. Because we have to think about the world in which our products exist.

Similarly, Peter Bilak, type and graphic designer warns about the dangers of engaging in unethical work, which does harm not only to others but to you as well: whatever you do, you get more of it. If you engage in some kind of strange product it will come back to you.

Copy of Copy of adrian forty.png

Good design gone bad:

Can good design be bad design? 

Designer Tobias van Scheider poses a relevant question on this subject as well:

"Should design by definition always be good from an ethical standpoint? Or can there be good design, even though what’s achieved with it has a clearly negative impact on humanity?"

In his article Did Hitler Have Great Designers? he gives examples of how design can be great from an aesthetics or functional perspective while promoting something far away from a better world, like the case of the AK47 gun or the the uniforms designed and produced by Hugo Boss for the Nazi Party during World War II, which until today are being praised for their good design. 

But can we associate positive adjectives to design with such negative connotations? 

Uniform design for the higher ranking SS officers of the Nazi Party - Hugo Boss.

Uniform design for the higher ranking SS officers of the Nazi Party - Hugo Boss.

Graphic design of Nazi propaganda posters.

Graphic design of Nazi propaganda posters.


As professionals, we excel in solving problems and we are at the risk of getting really good at solving the wrong ones or falling in love with technical challenges or prestigious brands without seeing further away.

This is a broad topic and I don't want to overwhelm you with information so I'll close with three key ideas:

  • It is important to define your own set of values as a professional.

  • Inform and educate yourself as much as possible about context, brands, and products.

  • Do work you believe is truly helping someone.

The goal of this article is to present the problem first and give some resources to think about the subject. To go deeper I'm preparing a second part with tools and ideas to actually integrate ethics in a practical way inside our work, so you can subscribe below to get noticed and share this post to create a dialogue (that we should be having more each time) with your friends and colleagues :)



(1) Roussilhe, G. (2017) Ethics for Design. Retrieved September 01, 2018 from: https://ethicsfordesign.com/

(2) Van Schneider, T. (2016) Did Hitler have great designers? Can good design be bad design?. Retrieved September 03, 2018 from: https://medium.com/@vanschneider/can-good-design-be-bad-design-f76504b8e018