Do Designers Have a Moral Mandate?

Technology has, among other things, paved the way for mediocre design. One of the hallmarks of the digital age is the elimination of barriers; once those walls are down, anyone with a laptop can get in.

At the same time, we found ourselves in an increasingly digital daily environment, in which “design” is often relegated to adding a filter to your SnapChat photo and calling it done.

Yet we know good design continues to matter. We see it in some phenomenal magazine cover design this year, and in the beautiful and utile fonts being released. We also see it in design philosophers and educators like Jessica Helfand, author of “Design: The Invention of Desire,” published by Yale University Press.

Helfand shared her thoughts on design in our modern world with Ken Gordon of Continuum, writing in PrintMag.

“Design matters because people matter, and the purpose of this book is to examine precisely this proposition: to consider the conscience-driven rules of human engagement within which design must operate,” she tells Gordon.

One of the challenges, however, comes from the low barrier to entry.  “If design now belongs to everyone, can there still be rules—for conduct, for ethics, for those humans around whom we’re supposedly centering things?” Helfand asks.

She warns about the oversimplification of design, and indeed the “let’s break this” mentality of the current culture. Helfand clearly sees the potential blowback from this attitude.

“There was a great article by Cliff Kuang in Fast Company recently in which he warned against design’s over-simplification as a badly missed opportunity (and I couldn’t agree more). But simplification is safe, and designers often see themselves as the peacekeepers, the ambassadors of smoothing things over. It’s not clear that this is the best path forward,” she notes.

“The danger, for me, is that most of us are a great deal more likely to act reflexively rather than reflectively.  If you add to that the degree to which design so easily confers a kind of false authority, and the fact that young people eagerly deploy their work out into the world without considering the response or consequences of their often complex actions (students of design are at the epicenter of this, in my estimation), then we cede a kind of moral responsibility,” she continues.

In our industry, design is an integral and yet routine part of what we do. Do we embrace it with humility and high regard for the human experience? Are we up to the challenge of design thinking and how it impacts our larger world?

Helfand believes that, if that is to be the case, we better start educating our students to learn how to learn, “to let the scope of opportunity unmoor you from your expectations, your assumptions, your involuntary biases. I worry when I see young people enthused by the superficial promises of technology—the wealth and success, the celebrity, the power.”

We are more than the “kit of parts” that the data-driven consumer environment makes us out to be. Perhaps we’ve had enough of the numbers game, and are ready to embrace a design ethos that is once again centered on humans and their actual experience.