5by5: The Interplay of Design and Ethics with Christine Miller, Ph.D.

A 5by5 conversation with Christine Miller, Ph.D., Clinical Associate Professor of Innovation at IIT, Institute of Design about the interplay of design and ethics

Interview by Twisha Shah-Brandenburg & Thomas Brandenburg

“Proposing viable alternatives to deep-seated organizational biases is one of the greatest creative challenges facing us today.”Christine Miller, Ph.D.

Question 1
How might organizations and designers balance their desire to increase competitive advantage with the needs of users themselves, who don’t always have a say in the terms of how they engage with services and products?

We might step back and distinguish between the desires of organizations and those of designers. Organizations that “desire” to develop a competitive advantage are motivated by market and industry structures and conditions, and by internal strategic goals. A designer who is either employed by or under contract to an organization may be hired specifically to create competitive advantage through design-led innovation. Although there may be agreement on the end goal, there might not be agreement about the means of achieving competitive advantage for the organization, specifically in relation to the degree of agency users have in engaging with products and services.

Through design research designers become advocates for “the user”. They are in a position to negotiate the organization’s desires for competitive advantage with the needs of potential users by creating products and services that are designed as creative “convivial” tools.

Question 2
As designers, what is our responsibility in checking inherent biases that have existed in organizations as we evolve products and services, and what can we do to change them?

The role of designers in organizations has changed over time as the focus of design has shifted away from objects to designing interactions, socio-technical systems, and to the management of design activity within organizations. As this shift has occurred, designers increasingly encounter complex moral and intellectual challenges resulting from their professional design activities.  Many designers today are aware of the intended and unintended consequences of their work on people and planet, as well as for the organizations that employ them. Having that awareness doesn’t mean that designers automatically assume responsibility for checking the “inherent biases” of organizations.

Do we as designers know what those biases are?  Before we can consider what our responsibility is, we had better be able to identify what an organizational bias is and have a language to describe them, to talk about how they operate, and to understand the organizational structures that maintain and reproduce them. Being able to identify organizational biases requires a critical perspective that design education can help design students to develop. Proposing viable alternatives to deep-seated organizational biases is one of the most significant creative challenges facing us today.

Question 3
What other fields should design be looking to learn from as we continue to create solutions and interactions that are ethically sound for all stakeholders?

Although design appropriated the practice and methods of naturalistic inquiry, commonly referred to as ethnography, the related ethical codes that evolved through the practice, primarily through anthropological practice, were not adopted. This is understandable since traditionally the goals and objectives of these two fields differed significantly. Through the struggle to confront its past service to colonialism, anthropology has developed explicit and codified ethical standards of professional practice that have continued to evolve. Practitioners in other fields are also guided by highly articulated moral codes, many of which have legal implications.

Design should also learn from its own: designers like Victor Papanek have advanced socially and ecologically responsible design. Other contemporary designers are experimenting with solutions and interactions that are ethically sound for all stakeholders. For example, designers working in healthcare contrast their training with that of the medical practitioners whose education and training has sensitized them to a broad range of ethical issues. Through working with practitioners from fields with strong ethical standards, designers have become aware of the ethical implications and impact of their design practices and products, and the need to articulate their ethical codes.

Question 4
What role should diversity and inclusion play in design, especially as we increasingly rely on data and algorithms to contribute to design inputs and activities?

We recognize that data and algorithms are not neutral, but are instead products designed and developed by individuals operating under agendas, assumptions, and worldviews that are not representative of the diverse group of stakeholders that are affected by algorithmic logic. The role of diversity and inclusion is increasingly vital in design discourse as feminism and critical race design challenge prevailing institutional notions of “universality,” about what constitutes “contemporary design,” and the extent to which data and algorithms should inform design.

Question 5
How might the future of ethics in design as a practice evolve? What’s missing today that will be important as we design for tomorrow?

The future of ethics in design begins with a commitment to self-evaluation that addresses the ethical implications of design practice from a critical perspective.  What’s missing today are opportunities for both students and practicing designers to engage in meaningful conversations about what it means to practice ethical, values-driven design, and about the role and responsibilities of designers relative to both the organizations that employ them and the diverse publics that are potential adopters of the products of their work.

If you liked this interview join us for a live panel discussion during Chicago Design Week where you will hear Ruth and a group of design leaders discuss their views on the interplay of design and ethics. Tickets for the event can be found here.