By Zack Bryant
In the time I’ve been working as a professional designer, the seeds of modernism have borne much fruit.
The tools of design are free and ubiquitous. Design language has become the language of business. We make expensive decisions based on design critique from strangers on platforms like Amazon. Everything is designed. Such seemingly disparate disciplines as marketing, data, urban planning, agriculture, sociology, humanitarian aid, energy, and education are converging in substantive ways. And in the minds of many, the Rosetta Stone for understanding and translating these disciplines is design.
But these emerging models are not neutral in the ways the mid-century modernists might have asserted. The questions we ask as designers and the potential answers that we, along with our clients, choose have consequences.
Do we have the means of observing, evaluating, and changing current systems and processes for our collective good? Those proffering solutions abound: the Academy promotes ever-better frameworks, Silicon Valley regards itself as the pattern to emulate, Big Data gets bigger, Government becomes more ambitious.
Meanwhile, public intellectuals like Ed Ayers at Bunk and Josh Yates at Thriving Cities implore us to slow down and apprehend—perhaps fearfully—the incalculable connections between, well, everything. What, if any, is the role of the designer in this rapidly expanding universe of ideas and information?
The creative community loves to hold up “good design” as a sort of cardinal virtue. An incoming tide that lifts all the boats. Increasingly though, it can seem like the adjective has become a forgone conclusion; as if design is, by its very nature, “good.”
Moving from “good” to “moral”
It may be time to move past simplistic notions of good design and begin talking about something like moral design.
Here, I’m using “moral” to mean concerned with the principles of right and wrong behavior and the goodness or badness of human character and “design” to mean the purpose, planning, or intention that exists behind an action, fact, or material object. I’m also thinking of morality as a bearing or vector, rather than a category. If design, because it represents decisions made by other people, tells us something about ourselves and our world, it seems plausible that those messages are either constructive or destructive. Can we, as designers, assume greater responsibility for the moral trajectory of our work?
Doing so would ask us to confront the possibility that some of our work—even when our intentions are good—is doing real damage. It would ask us to take challenge and critique far more seriously. It would push us into questions of right and wrong, a sort of whole-cost accounting of our own design decision making. And it would require that we contend with and become proponents of truth.
Why this conversation matters, and why it belongs to all of us
Recently, I was appreciating the work of a young designer who’d created a lovely sustainability report for an outdoor equipment and apparel company. His approach was fresh, and he’d perfectly balanced the company’s careful positioning between conservation and consumerism. I asked him how he was thinking about sourcing, printing, and delivering the small books in ways that would live up to the ideals he’d so meticulously typeset. His brow furrowed. He had not imagined that such a thing was his to consider.
I’m certainly not suggesting that this designer was behaving immorally, only that such a narrow focus (in this case on something called graphic design) allowed for blind spots. I would suggest that it would be more moral for him to have a fuller imagination for his vocation.
The pursuit of moral design asks us to cultivate at least three things within ourselves and our practices: True affection, rooted in respect, experience, and specific knowledge; empathetic boldness to confront deep-rooted, complex failures in other designers’ work; and genuine humility in an industry that seems to celebrate hubris and seeing what we can “get away with.” And so it seems to me we must begin with honesty. Our work as designers must always be honest about its intentions, production, limitations, and—perhaps most challengingly—its outcomes.
I’m hopeful but anticipate a difficult road. My vision is that designers become partnered with, and embedded within, clients, communities, and causes everywhere. That moral design is not a thing we do, but the way we get better at whatever we’re doing. That’s why this conversation matters, and why it belong to all of us. The affection, boldness and humility required to even begin moving toward moral design happens in long-term relationships with high levels of accountability.
We are lovers of order. Of progress. Can we also be honest?
About the Author
Zack Bryant serves as creative director at Journey Group, an independent design company in Charlottesville, Va., focused on visual storytelling for clients in the cultural, humanitarian, and educational sectors. Zack will present Moral Design: Beyond Ethical Frameworks at edUi 2018.