Sunday, February 18, 2018

Is it ethical for designers to function as activists when practicing their profession? If so, when? If so, how?

A version of this post has been published on IxDA's Medium site.

(about my talk at the Interaction Design Education Summit during interaction 18 in Lyon France -- February 2018)

Definitions of the type of design we practice and many of the labels increasingly applied to it (e.g., human-centered design, purpose-driven design, design through collective action, …), the missions and proclamations of many of it’s professional organizations (including IxDA) and more and more of the institutions where it is taught and of the design organizations where it is practiced, the types of projects designers are increasingly choosing (e.g., working on “wicked social problems”), and the nature of the codes of ethics increasingly advocated for designers suggest a strong commitment to activism. 

But activists (tend to) approach a problem with a solution in mind and engage in a variety of activities to see that that solution is implemented. Designers, on the other hand, (supposedly) approach a problem with no solution in mind, and ultimately (should) advocate for whatever solution emerges from a design process influenced by a multitude of constraints. Is it unethical for a designer to function as an activist?

Indeed, design is most often practiced in a context which at best puts community interests at parity with client interests. Is design inherently an unethical profession?

Katherine McCoy wrote this about design education in 1993: “We must stop inadvertently training our students to ignore their convictions and be passive economic servants. Instead, we must help them to clarify their personal values and to give them the tools to recognize when it is appropriate to act on them.” Has that happened? What are those tools and when and how should they be applied? When is it ethical for designers to function as activists when practicing their profession?

As Joe Edelman proclaimed during the closing plenary of this Summit, we have reached a social crisis brought on by design concepts that are most often taught. In my view, there is much that should be taught (and applied) instead, in addition, and/or more often to address this crisis and to help address and avoid others.

According to Ann Thorpe, design as activism can take the form of resistance or protest (as activism is commonly viewed) or can be generative (and often less negatively perceived) via creating alternatives more appealing than the status quo. In my view, there is a need for more and the use of additional or more desirable ways of both; there are more times and additional or more desirable ways to be assertive, and there are more times and additional or more desirable ways to identify the need for and to create alternatives that are in a client’s — and the community’s or even humanity’s — best interests. In my talk, I identified some of these times and some of these ways, as well as ways to help design students clarify their personal values; I included pointers to further information in all cases, but will be elaborating on all of these and others in upcoming writing, talks, teaching, and workshops.

Contact me at (and follow me at @riander on Twitter) if you want help with (or want to help me with) the identification, design, and teaching of how and when designers should function as activists when practicing their profession.

Richard Anderson is a human-centered design practice, management, & strategy consultant. He has led design disciplines in three consultancies, held other leadership/management roles, and freelanced for multiple companies. He is presently Principal of OE Strategy, providing services to organizations seeking to make a positive difference in the world.

Richard was Editor-in-Chief of interactions magazine, helped start and grow numerous HCI communities around the world, has organized and moderated numerous design events, and writes and speaks often about the need for change in the design profession and the need for applying design to wicked social problems (with particular attention to healthcare, homelessness, and ageism). He has taught at the University of California, the Academy of Art University, General Assembly, and multiple conferences and companies. He is now on the faculty of the Austin Center for Design, splitting time between Austin and the San Francisco Bay Area.