In the current state of the world, it can feel like we are losing our humanity. Technology is creating uncontrollable polarisation. The effects of climate disturbances and political turmoil are driving great migrations of people creating refugee crises, mass starvation and the rise of racist movements. Through all this, we are hopeful. While there is a human capacity to detach from the larger systems in which we work, we know that design, as a profession, is more committed to tuning in and designing for humanity. We are inspired to see a range of new design communities around the world organising themselves to make positive change.
WHAT DOES “HUMANITY” MEAN?
What we commonly refer to as ‘humanity’ is our capacity for compassion towards one another, for the comprehension of our failings and faults and the understanding that fairness and kindness are morally superior to the alternative. The concept of humanity as a human virtue is not a modern ideal. Most forms of religious doctrine and widely held philosophies (Greek philosophy, Confucian philosophy) are underpinned by what Wikipedia calls “altruistic ethics derived from the human condition”. After the Second World War, with the creation of the United Nations, these ideas were adopted as a universal doctrine. The right to life was enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and a set of core principles — fairness, respect, equality, dignity and the right to autonomy — were developed, underpinning all international human rights treaties, including the 1998 Human Rights Act.
Still from non-profit The World Around which aims to bring to light progressive global issues and ideas by reframing architecture, art, design, and technology from the standpoint of human relationships to ecology.
Most professional standards and codes of ethics (including ours, the ICoD Professional Code of Conduct for designers) are also based on these principles and how they apply to the practice of our profession. The right to life translates to health safety standards and environmental impact. Principles like respect and autonomy apply to a wide range of situations from data collection practices to the work conditions of labourers in the production process.
CAPITALISM, THE PROFIT INCENTIVE AND THE BUSINESS CASE FOR INHUMANITY
Business practice has its own set of rules. The overarching objective of a corporate entity is understood to be profit; the common good is optional. Morality is supplanted by legal frameworks. Only what is explicitly outlawed can be acted upon definitively. What is within the bounds of acceptable business practice, can vary a great deal. Thus, it is possible to build a ‘business case’ or commercial justification for immoral or unethical practices, as long as they are (still) legal.
Because designers often work within the scope of innovation, it is not unheard of to find themselves within the margins of the morally dubious not-yet-illegal.
Think sustainability practices before legislation on carbon emissions. Privacy and data collection before GDPR. Working conditions in sweatshops in Bangladesh before the Rana Plaza collapse. Were any of these activities ethical or moral before legislation and awareness? Clearly not. But yet, within that frame of reference, they were not only acceptable but considered sound business practice.
The "Digital Ethics Compass" produced by the Danish Design Centre, a resource that identifies design complicity in infringements on core humanist principles.
Responsibility for these failures in humanity lies with all the people involved in these transgressions — including designers. It is easy to lose sight of the impact of one’s work when it is part of a greater system. In her 1963 book, the Banality of Evil, Hannah Arendt chronicles the ordinariness of ‘thoughtlessness’, a phenomenon of disengagement in which our actions are compartmentalised from the real people they affect. While compassion is an inherently human characteristic, so is thoughtlessness. Humans are capable of focusing on our part of the overall task, ignorant of the larger impact.
On some scale, there are hundreds of thousands of individuals who, through their small contribution, have contributed to the work of corporations that have polluted ecosystems with impunity, duped or manipulated users, and generally made the world a less nice place to live for millions. If designers think of themselves simply as a cog in this machine, then they (we) are sadly a part of this problem.
EVOLVING HOW WE SEE OURSELVES
Thankfully, many designers are evolving and see themselves differently. Besides the challenges of the pandemic itself — medical, economic and political — the upheaval of recent years has brought to light a host of social injustices in which designers are directly complicit and acknowledging. The pressures created by the health crisis seem to have tumbled precarious balances. In the USA, the Black Lives Matter movement erupted, demanding a re-evaluation of racial injustice. Soon, the movement was internationalised, considering the historical legacy of colonisation throughout the world. In Canada, the shameful historical legacy of injustice towards its Indigenous peoples was brutally revealed, soon to be followed by other countries, and efforts were made to reconcile. The spread of Covid disinformation and conspiracies started to make evident the degree to which social media had a polarising force across the planet. War broke out. In this melee, former Google employee, Tristan Harris, became one of the first technology ethicists and founded the Center for Humane Technology, starting a trend towards greater scrutiny of the tech giants.
Still from video 'How Technology is "Downgrading Humans" by ethicist Tristan Harris in a discussion organised by Capgemini on November 14, 2019 in San Francisco.
Design has tackled all these issues head-on with the same kind of activism that led to the founding of the International Council of Design in the sixties. Grassroots organisations and activist designers have proliferated. They are writing books, producing podcasts, creating projects that push forward ideas on diversity and inclusion, personal and professional responsibility and design's potential to make impacts on the world outside of the traditional bounds of the profession.
Here are some who have caught our interest:
During the pandemic, design critic and author Alice Rawsthorn and Senior Curator of Architecture and Design at the Museum of Modern Art (USA) Paola Antonelli launched an initiative they called Design Emergency, to explore design’s impact on the coronavirus crisis. Initially an Instagram account, the project developed quite quickly into an ongoing discussion about the role of design in other social phenomena, from artificial intelligence to climate change and the refugee crisis. The format evolved also, first into a podcast and eventually a book, published by Phaidon. Thoughtfully produced, varied and inventive, the different touchpoint of Design Emergency, provide a fascinating look at ways in which design can and does make a difference.
According to their website, Slow Factory is “an award-winning platform radically imagining and creating solutions to the intersecting crises of climate justice & human rights through cultural change, science and design. The scope of our work is both broad and deep.” A collective of young and diverse activists from a variety of professional backgrounds, the organisation works on awareness and change through programmes that include educational initiatives and grass-roots projects. Slow Factory is political in a way that larger organisations cannot afford to be, and in so doing have galvanised a young audience (their Instagram has over 500K followers).
Author of the book The World Is On Fire But We’re Still Buying Shoes, Leach was, in a previous incarnation, Digital Fashion Editor at the fashion media platform Highsnobiety. His work there triggered a reaction against ‘hype’ culture — the never-ending cycle of new and cool that drives excessive consumption in the fashion industry. In his new incarnation as a sustainable fashion strategist, advocate and writer, Leach has launched a Substack (newsletter) bringing to the forefront sustainability issues in the fashion industry and contributes to a variety conferences, podcasts and magazines in an effort to build awareness on this issue.
The Digital Ethics Compass
The Danish Design Centre has produced a resource that not only identifies the potential areas where technology can break the principles we discussed above (i.e. infringe on the autonomy of the user, hold biases, etc.) but proposes solutions for designers to identify issues and solve them. This tool addresses head-on the myriad of ways that UI/UX designers are being asked to be complicit in infringements of what most people would consider to be core humanist principles. A laudable effort and hopefully an important tool to help designers do better.
Design for Social Innovation
Design for Social Innovation is a book that collects case studies demonstrating how design can drive social change. These studies provide concrete proof that design can effectively contribute to larger issues like public health, urban planning, economic development, education and community development. The initiatives presented in this book are driven by a wide range of stakeholders including government, educational institutions, community groups and think tanks. Knowing that most people do not grasp the full scope of what design is capable of, let alone those people who are in decision-making positions in governments, community organisations, and other potential partner institutions, we salute this initiative to make these projects visible. This book demonstrates the potential for design in areas where it had previously been overlooked or underestimated.
The World Around
Reframing architecture, art, design, and technology from the standpoint of ecology, The World Around aims to bring to light progressive global issues and ideas, through international events, cultural partnerships and educational initiatives. Through partnerships with institutions including the Guggenheim Museum (USA), the Nieuwe Instituut (Holland), the National Gallery of Victoria (Australia) and the Design Museum (UK), the non-profit presents ideas through talks which are available for free on YouTube and a climate prize recognising young designers and architects innovating in the sustainability arena.
Indigenous Design Charter
We saved this one for last because it is one that we are very close to. The Australian Indigenous Design Charter was co-authored by (Former ICoD President) Dr Russell Kennedy and his colleague Dr Meghan Kelly. The project was developed in collaboration with the Deakin University, Institute of Koorie Education (IKE), Indigenous Architecture and Design Victoria (IADV) and the Management and Executive Board of the Design Institute of Australia (DIA) in consultation with Australian and international community representatives. This Charter was adapted to the International Indigenous Design Charter, a living document that pre-exists the pandemic but continues to evolve prompted by calls for the examination of design practice under the lease of colonisation. The Charter introduces best practice protocols when working with Indigenous knowledge and material in commercial design practice. This is a tool publicly available for free for governments, designers and commercial clients interested in the process of ‘decolonising’ design practice with and for Indigenous communities.
The International Indigenous Design Charter introduces best practice protocols when working with Indigenous knowledge and material in commercial design practice. This is a tool publicly available for free for governments, designers and commercial clients interested in the process of ‘decolonising’ design practice with and for Indigenous communities.
A PROFESSION OF HOPE
It is the intrinsic work of designers to search for ways to take one reality, one problem, and to transform it into a better future. We imagine and create solutions (everything from products and spaces to metaverses, information systems, and more), to make something easier, better and more efficient. And we do this for people. At the centre of every project is a potential “user” or users. We think of their capacities, of their way of interacting with the world, but also of their potential failings. In a way, design is forced to be humanistic.
Humans are all unique and ingenious but also flawed, vulnerable and imperfect. If we want our designs to succeed, we must not only consider how a person would navigate in the best possible scenario but also all the ways in which users will fail to do what is expected.
Designers are aware, more than most, of innate biases, cognitive blind spots and physical differences. We see these ways of navigating not as personal failings, but as utterly human characteristics that we need to accommodate. Designers have great compassion for our beloved users. It is with great hope that we see a movement to go beyond this strictly defined “user” at the centre of the design process, to expand our scope of responsibility to consider all the humans who are impacted down the line.
ALTRUISM the belief in or practice of disinterested and selfless concern for the well-being of others (Oxford Dictionary).
AUTONOMY a person's ability to make their own decisions, independently, and decide for themselves what is right for them. The freedom to make informed decisions for one’s future.
BUSINESS CASE justification for undertaking a project, programme or portfolio.
The Business Case evaluates the benefits, cost and risk of alternative options and provides a rationale for the preferred solution (Definition from APM Body of Knowledge 7th edition).
DIGNITY the concept of human dignity dictates that all humans, regardless of the conditions of their birth (class, citizenship, race, sex, religion, etc.), have inherent value. This implies also, that humans have a right to thrive and endeavour to make the best of their lives.
EQUALITY sameness or equivalence in opportunities and treatment.
FAIRNESS what would be considered by all concerned parties as being morally correct, honourable, and equitable.
HUMANITY our capacity for compassion towards one another, for the comprehension of our failings and faults and the understanding that fairness and kindness are morally superior to the alternative.
RESPECT due regard for the feelings, wishes, rights, or traditions of others (Oxford Dictionary).