This is an extract about ethics from my latest book,
"Intense Design". I have had five serious ethical challenges in
my career and they can be very painful.
expertise in a discipline in order to richly contribute to your field. However,
legal implications arise when you assert expertise. Specifically, you can be
considered liable if you are negligent in your work. The legal terms will be
discussed in more detail later; however, it is helpful to recognize your legal
standing as a professional who ‘professes’ expertise in something. This summary
of the standard to which you might be held comes from the 1954 State of
California’s case law in Gagne v. Bertran, (43 Cal.2d 481). Under the “The
Cause of Action for Negligence,” it states:
of experts are sought because of their special skill. They have a duty to
exercise the ordinary skill and competence of members of their profession, and
a failure to discharge that duty will subject them to liability for negligence.
Those who hire such persons are not justified in expecting infallibility, but
can expect only reasonable care and competence. They purchase service, not
Ethical Design and Legal Considerations
their products better than anyone. They know what they will and won’t do.
However, what do you do when your design is not allowed to be safe? Who
defines, “what is safe?” The qualifications of the user often dictate standards
of safety. Children are assumed to be untrained and unpredictable
(“presumptively capable of negligence,” in legalese). If users are engineers,
they should be considered highly trained and technically sophisticated. Those
claiming a profession are professing expertise in certain areas and are held to
a higher standard of expectations in the safe usage of a product or system.
a design professional, you can be considered professionally negligent if you
are not reasonably competent to do your work, or if you do your work poorly.
There is a standard of care expected by the public and you are responsible for
preserving and maintaining that confidence. The standard of care delivered by a
design professional changes over time. For example, advances in research,
instrumentation, and computer modeling raise the expected standard of
discussions of ethics get very academic and consider high visibility failures
such as the space shuttle Challenger’s
O-rings or Volkswagen’s emission scandal (“Dieselgate”). However, most
designers work for companies that are not going to have that kind of oversight.
Nobody cares about the shortcuts little Company XYZ takes. No regulatory body
is going to bother them, no lawyers will knock on the door, and the media will
not pursue them. However, when an ethical issue does arise and an employee does
what he or she thinks is ethical, some companies will retaliate. The employee is
hung on a pole with the carcass left to warn others, embodied in stories and
corporate culture. When others think about ethics versus job security in this
type of culture, their feet might quiver and they will not feel like they have sufficient
job security to follow their convictions.
businesses can have the same challenges if the owner has no ethical scruples. A
company’s ethics can be determined by one person. Even though the sense of
widely held ethical standards is often supported by statute or regulation,
these are far from comprehensive, and the agencies that enforce them are not omniscient.
Moreover, regulatory agencies are not nearly as effective in rooting out
unethical behavior as a culture where the boss explicitly states that unethical
behavior is unacceptable and acts in accordance. This executive commitment is
supported when coworkers report infractions and employees feel their jobs are
secure when they decide to act ethically. It is further supported when
individuals who take unethical actions are individually punished. This type of
culture makes ethical standards more than a memo from the CEO or a poster on
contend with intense financial pressures. Designers don’t work for free, and
someone has to make sure money is earned. Sales and marketing personnel have
similar challenges. Even though designers often lock horns with them, try
operating a profitable company without sales and marketing employees—you will feel the brute wall of market forces slam
against your stylish studio.
standards need to adapt to changing technology. Artificial intelligence, the
internet, and nuclear energy are examples of technology that require a
rethinking of ethical standards. However, these are difficult issues. Who gets
to decide when artificial intelligence, virtual/augmented reality, and nuclear
energy are used for good or bad? Librarians (and others) have been trying to
protect intellectual property for decades, but technology such as photocopiers,
digital cameras, and the internet have made this goal very difficult.
have far reaching social impact. Many lives have been ruined or opportunities
crushed by benign things such as pain medicines and video games. The internet
presents us with images that we don’t ask for, artificial intelligence curates
our entertainment and information searches, and there are many enticing
technologies that are ostensibly more attractive than a walk in the woods.
There is a long history of technology intended for good but used for evil, from
nails and chains to electricity and the internet.
A well dressed, well-spoken admissions officer told us with
a straight face that they read all the student essays at an Ivy League
university we were checking out. 35,000 admission essays.
This was ridiculous and deceptive proclamation. The sad part
is many applicants spend weeks getting their essay to look perfect. Clearly the
facts are different, but we lie to our young people to present some sort of
ideal impression. Us older, alas, more cynical people know when the numbers
don’t line up.
How many people do you need to read, assess, and quantify
35,000 essays every year? They had an 8% acceptance rate. Why would they bother
to read essays from students that didn’t meet other criteria? What are those
secret criteria that they mask with their “essay” criterion?
I don’t know what they do with these essays. Logically, they
use them for borderline cases and other program goals. Maybe they use keyword
searches, discourse analysis, or AI driven evaluations. Maybe they don’t read
most of them. The sad part of this deception is the false promise it makes and
the wastage of applicants’ time.
And then we have the world of art in which branded artists
seem to be more important than the art itself. We have art trying to squeeze
into STEM education and thereby belittling art and selling it as design and
styling. All with the catching acronym STEAM.
Recently a museum displaying the works of French
Fauvist-style painter Etienne Terrus discovered that more than half of their
collection was counterfeit. Counterfeits are humbling. The fact that counterfeiters
spend time doing this work has a flattering component. However, it highlights
the contrived values that can put fine art into the same category of DeBeers controlled
diamonds. Perhaps this is why people love Bansky.
We all struggle with honesty. Read John Murray’s “Sanctity
of Truth” if you really want to be humbled. I had my own business for a while
and if you don’t present your best face to the market you won’t last long.
Listing your string of failures isn’t normally a good marketing plan. It is humbling that both academia and art, which one would think are
purveyors of a type of truth, struggle with what honesty means.
WWI ended 100 years ago. It brought ugliness to people’s
lives and the nature around them. Ugliness and beauty – we don’t like to talk
about these attributes yet we step on cockroaches and not butterflies.
Several articles have appeared recently about the artist Anna
Coleman Ladd’s work on making masks for injured WWI veterans. The facial
disfigurements created sad scenarios in which soldiers did not want to visit
their mothers. Soldiers’ own children “fled in terror” at seeing their faces. Ladd’s
work was appreciated by injured soldiers. One soldier wrote, “Thanks to you, I
will have a home. The woman I love no longer finds me repulsive, as she had a
right to do.” (1)
Being comfortable with oneself is important; however, we do
find some deep appeal in beauty – however that is defined. We preserve what is
beautiful in museums and throw the ugly stuff in the garbage.
Fortunately, we can see through surface features. I had a
friend who had a very large mole on his face. After knowing him for a while, I
no longer saw it. Now I don’t remember where it was.
I have worked with people who have disfigured features and
overcoming repulsion is the first step in developing compassion. However,
repulsion is something we consider even when awash in self-empowerment
education. The struggles with acne, warts, and bad teeth are truly difficult for
many. More profound disfigurement can cause even deeper struggles.
We wish to surround ourselves with what is beautiful, we don’t aspire to wear cubic zirconium and wrinkled clothes. Designers need to understand the notion of beauty and its connection with many fundamental elements of design.
Human faces are symmetrical left to right but not top to bottom. We find this interesting and appealing. Variety attracts, sameness is boring. Perfect symmetry and perfect skin appears fake, we are intrigued by small amounts of asymmetry and “flaws”.
Most importantly, we expect to see what we are used to – a visual stereotype. Therefore, we are fortunate that Ladd and other artists and designers restore beauty to the world around us. Even the damage of WWI is replaced by new births and nature’s recovery of battlefields.
(1) Alexander, Caroline. “Faces of War.” Smithsonian
Magazine, February 2007.