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Wednesday, December 3, 2003

The principles of Design we're used to talking about aren't really principles at all. They are usually methods or rules of thumb about design. They aren't about ethics.

Ethics is the study of moral behavior. It is talking about how you talk about moral issues. As science and technology have moved forward, we've begun to understand the consequences of what we do, and those consequences are becoming more far-reaching and more significant.

It's disturbing that no earlier than the mid-1990s ethics was a formal study in design at all. Carl Mitchum in the early 90s wrote "Ethics in Design" which is one of the first writings about ethics in design. There had been lots of discussion about morality (from George Nelson and others) but none of ethics itself. In the article, Mitchum makes the claim that you cannot have a comprehensive theory of design that does not consider ethics.

Design itself can be considered as ethics; the task of design is about navigating the moral dilemmas that we face in our lives. In interaction design, we're looking to promote certain kinds of actions between people. Our fundamental guide should be the quality of those interactions. To be a designer requires principles, because you have to guide what the interactions between people should be. We need to ask ourselves how do we use our talents and to what ends?

Some principles, causes, and values in Design:

  • Good: Affirms the proper place of human beings in the spiritual and natural order of the world.
  • Just: Supporting equitable and ethical relationships among human beings.
  • Useful: Supporting human beings in the accomplishment of their intentions.
  • Satisfying: Fulfilling the physical, psychological, and social needs of human beings.
The first two values have to do with the whole, seeing the big picture. The last two have to do with the parts, the more conventional and more apt to change with the times.

Ethics are how you reconcile the notions of design as a science vs. design as an art. The principles we use should organize our designs and ground us. When buttons are in the wrong place, it is an ethical matter. If we discuss ethics well, we address issues of form, methods, and techniques.

In this era, we have a big problem with Pluralism: everyone holds their own beliefs. Without ethics, the person or group with power, the one holding the gun, wins. And, in the words of Dick Buchanan, "that ain't right." Design allows us to bypass these ideological battles. We are able to hold our personal beliefs but continue to move forward in action via (of all things) projects. Who would have guessed it? But projects are opportunities to circumvent ideological differences in favor of what can be done here and now.

Ethics is all about human decision making, centered around emotions: our desires, enthusiasms, and fears, and Design has been centrally concerned with emotion from its earliest period. Indeed, interaction design is all about emotion: emotion and thought woven together, unfolding over time. "Emotion is the state or capability of having a feeling aroused to the point of awareness." (Dick's definition of emotion) Arousal is form and it develops, as Dewey tells us, over time. The products we make are experiences, arguments as to how we should live our lives, and out of them comes awareness. Emotion makes us aware and awareness leads to decisions. Awareness is ethics, and it leads to actions. What shall we do with our lives?

So why be a designer? It goes back Seamus Heaney's argument about doing poetry: The way something is made ends up having a grounding that goes beyond pleasure to wisdom and connects to the outer world. If we do our art well, its value becomes apparent and we are asked to do more. And in doing (and our core competence, making things), we can change the world.

Just as an end note, this entry is taken from the final lecture of Richard Buchanan's Fall 2003 Design Seminar class. It's been one of the best, most inspiring and thought-provoking classes I've ever taken. I'm sorry to see it end.

posted at 11:33 PM in big ideas | comments (0) | trackback (0)


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