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

talk – 20 min | Feb 4 – 13:30

Designers supposedly approach problems without pre-conceived solutions, ultimately advocating for whatever solutions emerge from processes influenced by multiple constraints. Hence, is it unethical for designers to function as activists? Or…?

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, inclusive design, co-design, …), the missions and proclamations of it’s professional organizations (including IxDA), the types of projects designers are increasingly choosing, 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?

In 1993, Katherine McCoy wrote, “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.”

That has yet to happen. Tis time for it to happen.

Richard will review the evidence suggesting that designers are increasingly functioning as and are being encouraged to function as activists. He will elaborate on the arguments that designers shouldn’t function as activists and describe the obstacles typically encountered by designers to functioning as activists. He will then identify the kinds of tools designers need to be taught to enable them to recognize how and when functioning as activists is appropriate.

Richard Anderson

Richard Anderson
OE Strategy

About the speaker

Richard Anderson

Richard Anderson

OE Strategy

Richard 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 & grow numerous HCI communities around the world, has organized numerous design events, and has taught at the University of California, the Academy of Art University, General Assembly, and multiple conferences & companies. He is now on the faculty of the Austin Center for Design.

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