Off the Hoof

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Banish the Barbarians: Good Design Requires Great Responsibility


During my time at Vassar, graduating seniors were given the opportunity to sign a social and environmental pledge stating that they would keep close the ideals they held dear during their college years once beyond the university gates:

I pledge to explore and take into account the social and environmental consequences of any job I consider and will try to improve these aspects of any organizations for which I work.

One of the reasons I was so excited to join Mule was because it had social and environmental concerns baked in from the start. Mike and Erika founded Mule in the first place because running their own company allowed them to be responsible for the work—not just after it was in the world but also during the creation process. That’s something that sounds really nice when you’re researching places to work (or, as a client, to hire), but within my first couple of weeks I had concrete proof. Mike handed me a copy of social and environmental design advocate Victor Papanek’s Design for the Real World and told me I had to read it. Not far into the book, I realized I really was home.

The main point we’ve taken away from Papanek’s work is that designers are responsible for the work they put into the world. Most people generally agree that the designer of a car would be responsible if it were flawed in such a way as to cause injury or deaths. The responsibility is no less great with web design.

Design, Ethical Design, Responsible Design, what huh?

One of the problems with clarifying practices is that we feel the need to rename the original practice or category to make clear what we’re trying to highlight or change. So there are competing terms out there for highlighting designers’ responsibility. Among them are “responsible design”, “sustainable design” (which captures certain aspects very well and through connotation obscures others), and “ethical design.” Each tries to make it clear that we’re arguing for a new focus on good practices within design work. But in doing so, it leaves “design,” the original term, the heart of our work, nebulous. If we’re so set on claiming “responsible design,” doesn’t that mean designers are free to be irresponsible and unethical? They just don’t have to subscribe to our term. “Oh, I’m not a Sustainable Designer. I’m a Designer” (or, even more annoyingly, “I’m a real designer”). But as Papanek points out, these “designers” are chipping away at the legitimacy the rest of us have worked so hard to defend and educated clients to expect.

Much has been said about the decadence of Rome when the barbarians were outside the gate. There are no barbarians outside ours: we have become our own barbarians, and barbarism has become a do-it-yourself kit. (Papanek, 53)

What say we banish the “designer” barbarians? Part of design is designing responsibly, adhering to a basic set of ethics, and answering to a set of needs and goals. Those who don’t are doing design badly. No, not just badly—they’re failing to do their jobs.

You don’t have to be a designer to contribute to responsible design.

Who is a designer? Do you have to be the one creating comps or print work? We say no. Our view is that we’re all designers. We’re all part of the process of creating design work, which by definition solves a business problem. Business development staff who write the proposals and project managers who shepherd the project through the process are traditionally considered administration or managerial staff, but the truth is we have an integral role in framing the design work in a responsible way.

And guess what, clients? There’s an onus on you to be active participants in the design process, which makes you a responsible party as well. Your role may be heavier on business strategy and context than designing the actual system, but you should educate yourselves on what to expect when engaging with a design firm or individual and be open to learning from those design partners. Start here.

So what responsibility do we have as web designers?

We aren’t product designers. We don’t have the same responsibilities they do to prevent our results from physically injuring users. Papanek does tend to focus on product design based on both his background and his era; however, his analysis can easily be applied to web design.

Much recent design has satisfied only evanescent wants and desires, while the genuine needs of man have often been neglected. The economic, psychological, spiritual, social, technological, and intellectual needs of a human being are usually more difficult and less profitable to satisfy than the carefully engineered and manipulated ‘wants’ inculcated by fad and fashion. (Papanek, 15)

With Papanek’s principles in mind, we at Mule:

  • Choose the types of projects/clients we take carefully. Our basic criteria is that our design work must be practical. Whether the client provides a service for profit or non-profit, it should make the world a better place, or at least make someone’s day a little easier.
  • Place emphasis on the solution over the aesthetic. We are problem solvers. We begin a project by discussing our client’s business goals and what success for this project looks like. While we do deliver work with aesthetic appeal, aesthetics are far more subjective, so they’re a far less useful way to evaluate success than using an approach that minimizes confusion and anticipates questions.
  • Use our skills for the light side, not the dark side. Design harnesses the power of persuasion, which in a positive light can appeal to a user’s sense of compassion and in a negative light can elicit more selfish motivations. We take pains to keep our design on the ethical side of things.
  • Seek out and defend user mandates. As part of our research process, we speak with current and/or potential users and ask them not about their preferences but their behaviors. Users may not be able to articulate what the site or app must do for them to happily and efficiently use it, but they can tell us what helps them work and what keeps them from it. When people tell us how, why, when, and where they do something, we hear them as design requirements. Later on when we are up to our elbows in CMS specifications and opinions about colors, we look to these mandates to keep the design grounded in needs and act as tie-breakers.
  • Communicate clearly and precisely. We’re big fans of clear and simple natural language. No reason to use jargon when a normal phrase will be just as effective. That goes for language in the interface as well as communicating with each other in the office and with clients. Being clear and direct makes it easier for users to know what you want them to do and why you want them to do it (specifically, they can see the benefits and caveats to be aware of).

Now, go forth! Be a designer. And please, design responsibly.

Image: The Intervention of the Sabine Women by Jacques-Louis David

Resources and Further Reading

Papanek, Victor. Design for the Real World: Human Ecology and Social Change. 2nd ed. Chicago: Academy Chicago Publishers, 1985. Print.

I cannot state this strongly enough. Read this book. It’s the best primer and will surprise you with anecdotes of design solutions possible in 1984 but still not realized due to systems of irresponsible design.

Ethics & Web Design by Dennis Karys

A series of articles on key topics such as budgets and pricing and not having to give the client what they want. Plus he uses Daleks and Cylons in his examples, with a light touch for those who aren’t great big geeks like I am. Join the conversation. Jump in anywhere or start with An Overview of Ethics.

Why We’re All Designers by Laura Weiss

An essay on how design thinking is pervading the business and social sectors.

Tart Up Your Startup!

About Mule Design Studio

Mule creates delightful interfaces, strong identities, and clear voices for useful systems and nice people.
Also, We are funnier than all other designers.


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