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Ethics and Design

A recent article in Fast Company, titled “Stanford’s Most Popular Class...”, dealt with a class titled ‘Designing Your Life’.  The first time I was introduced to the idea that one could 'design' their life was when I was a graduate student at Berkeley. Over the years, My friend and mentor C. West Churchman—a polymath Professor at UC Berkeley—had written and lectured on the concept of the ‘Design of a Life’ with a focus on questions of ethics in whole systems. He was very concerned with the ethical behavior of individuals within business, governmental and institutional organizations as they ‘designed’ or planned interventions in complex social systems. Ethics was at the center of designing behavior from West’s perspective.

West Churchman and Harold Nelson, Mill Valley, CA (1990's)

Reading further in the Fast Company article on Stanford’s class, Bill Burnett—the Executive Director of Stanford’s design program—is quoted as saying:

… "Design doesn’t speak to ethics and spirituality and all those things, but they work within its frameworks. Our only bias is, hey, we can make the future better." "

Given that Stanford’s design interest (e.g. commodified ‘design thinking’ etc.) has a strong focus on mercantile interests this is the sort of design axiom you would not be surprised to see coming from within the University. However, statements like this cannot go unchallenged given their implied foundational character and potential influence on future design praxis and practitioners. The power invested in getting to ‘frame and name’ design inquiry and practice is too consequential to not be confronted when so far off the mark.

Design is a ‘service’ meaning that it is focused on human relationships. Human relationships are grounded in ethical protocols and “all those things” in the case of good professional designing.  Designers are not just ‘hired guns’ making stuff better. Designers are part of a complex interrelationship of clients, stakeholders, and design agents integrating values, aesthetics, spirituality, and facts  to formulate desirable futures. Where can future designers go to prepare to become responsible and accountable design professionals?


  1. The other issue with this quote is that "better" is fundamentally an ethical question. Although I was never fortunate enough to hang out with C. West Churchman, I feel as though I got to know him a little through reading so much of his work, such was the personal connection he created through writing. I concur that one of Churchman's most important contributions was to place ethics at the core of designing and managing social systems. This is a concern that is noticeably absent from today's discourse around design thinking. If we could re-introduce just one Churchmanesque question, I would propose the following: how might our design intervention be degrading the wider system? If design teams were to seriously reflect on this question before commencing redesign, throughout the design process, and especially following breakthrough success, then we would go a long way towards re-engaging with design's ethical core. We might produce a form of designing that is more critical, more modest, more radical, and more courageous.

    1. I concur with that idea of considering how and what we are doing to affect the wider system when we are designing. There is a lot of talk about "innovation disrupting things", but it never seems to be serious enough to forgo the "innovation" or to incorporate mitigation into the process.

  2. I would only assume that at Stanford a course on "Designing Your Life" would touch on Ethics, Design Judgment, and the Arrogance of Design as a core foundation from which you become competent to design your future. In contrast to Burnett's statement that "Design doesn't speak to ethics and spirituality and all those things" the reality is, designers deal with “those things" constantly. They should be part of each designer's "tool box".
    I would submit that many designs go wrong because they lack the depth of intention to include ethics, critical thinking, and core values that brings wisdom to design judgment. For instance, without these things in your self-design toolbox, how do you make good decisions about selecting your “prototype” for study and judgments about whom and what to emulate? There are plenty of celebrity bad actors in every field of endeavor out there to choose from.
    And another thing; Ainsley O’Connell who wrote the article, made a couple of comments that I would challenge. This is when she criticizes, “the exhausting pursuit of “flow”, leadership, positivity…was as if self-improvement, after all, can serve as a stand in for salvation.” Then follows with, “One phrase in particular-“being intentional”-was what caught my ear. I’d only ever heard it in church where pastors often talk about “intentionality” in prayer, giving, or other behaviors.” These comments reflect a fundamental misunderstanding about design. Design in not a religion. The meaning of words and phrases don’t always transfer from a religious context into a design context. For example, “create” means something totally different when talking about design than it does when reading the bible.
    As a 75 year old designer, who is part of the 20% that found my passion and who continues to design my future as an ongoing wicked problem, I’d like to quote Churchman from his Gaither Lecture series on Thought and Wisdom. “Wisdom is thought in action” which presents the “possibility of human progress toward and ideal.”


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