Cool ads – crappy products. The role of the designer and design ethics


There is quite a bit of attention on emotional design out there. Today we have conferences, books etc. But we also have a strange silence and emptyness when it comes to ethics in relation to design in general.

Is the current focus on emotional design partially an attempt to hide the fact that we are making weak, unnecessary, irrelevant, or harmful products? One example: those car companies that insist on selling gas guzzlers, or resist fully switching to the production of fuel-efficient hybrid cars.

Every other add on TV seems to be about a car. Cool ads – crappy products (usually). Unfortunately for automobile companies the ads are not the end product – the carbon-polluting car is the product. It’s hard to sell something that hurts people and their environments.

Designers are leaders and as leaders I believe it is our responsibility to advocate for the end users of our designs within the context of our business environments.

Designers are the translators between business and customers. We translate the messages business want to promote and we use user-centered design to translate what users want into products and services.

This also means that designers may perceive themselves as getting “caught in the middle” between business interests and what may be clearly a better, more ethical design, –  they may see themselves as “having to choose sides”.

If you have ever felt like this I would like to remind you that the expressions above are “either/ or fallacies” and it doesn’t have to be an either/or equation.

The interests of business and the interests of the user are related, are sometimes inter-dependent and can be win-win symbiotic relationships.

Businesses don’t exist in a vacuum, they cannot survive for long if they antagonize the interest of people. Most people may disagree with me here, but I think we need to also realize that the paradigm is changing. (those who disagree look up “disruptive innovation” a type of innovation that is often focused on the short-comings of existent business-customer-user models).

The logic of “us vs. them” in business vs. user /customer to me seems a bit out of touch and outdated. It’s the old-garde of marketing. Users are not flat cardboard cut-out entitiess– they are three dimensional complex human beings who play multiple roles and cultural identities. An user is also an investor, a strockbroker, a designer, a retailer, a salesperson a business person, a reporter, a community leader, a mother, a father, a daughter, a product reviewer. In other words, we are all potential users, (or we may all know an user of your product) – learn to recognize the different roles we play. Learn to recognize that there may be only a couple of degrees of separation between your users and the rest of the community.

Our communities are not all guided by the single value of money. We value our health, sincerity, transparency, trust, reliability, honesty, social responsibility, humane goals. Businesses need to learn to recognize how this calls for design ethics.

When you take actions that hurt users you may be also antagonizing your investors, your politicians, your standards boards, your governments, your product reviewers, your bloggers, your media, your retailers – (indirectly you may also be hurting yourself and your family).

Most systems have a human factor a.k.a. emotion, attitude, pain, memory, embarrassment. This means that if your system has hurt, inconvenience, mistreated, made someone sick, abused, embarrassed, someone – that person will tell others- “buzz marketing” will spread quickly.

As designers, we are here to make our businesses aware of the voice of the customers. We are here to provide you with warnings about risk scenarios. We are here to remind businesses that anti-humane design is quickly becoming a thing of the past. We are here to remind them that hiding behind cool and seductive designs is not the answer. We are here to remind them that people are intelligent and are able to distinguish surface-gloss value from larger social multi-value.

Design is a great tool to insure sales. But it is more effective when it is combined with a great product that is “on the side” of the consumers – when you look at the big picture this is also the “side” of your friends, your investors and your communities. There is brand value there, there is loyalty value there.

Related on this blog:

Fast forward innovation to socio-ecological innovation >>


2 thoughts on “Cool ads – crappy products. The role of the designer and design ethics

  1. Designers in business, govt. are leaders….who Seem to be torn between advocacy for business goals determined and achieved through the manipulation of the whole; i.e. human needs, desires and natural resources, and their inherent experience as human beings to advocate human needs and desires that will foster health and regenerative capacity for the evolution of the whole. Human ecologyis the study of the human relationship with our built and natural environments. There is a social and ecological organization that is the outcome of those relationships.

    Profit is not the enemy, but rather it is the perspective from which profit is understood and therefore manifested or reified in our built environment and social organization. In current perspectives profit is seen as what is left after an assumed expense or expected cost to human and natural capital. What if profit could be understood as the conditions for allowing abundance? Abundance would be realized or valued as the natural occurrences or behaviors of regenerative whole systems design. Such that all human activity would be directed toward creating capacity for whole systems succession and evolutionary health. The focus then shifts from success of the parts at the expense of the whole; costs hidden within the scale of time and distance, to a focus on the whole whose health is determined by the relationships of the parts to create conditions for balanced feedback, multiples connections for functioning resilience, multiple functions for succession, and development before expansion. What would design from this perspective look like? How would this perspective then be manifest in the designs of our built environment?

  2. uxarchitecture

    In my consultancy work, I describe design as a creative tension between three stakeholder groups; 1) users; 2) business; and 3) builders.

    Users seek practical, economic, emotional and existential value. Business seeks to maximise benefits or reduce cost and risk. This can be quite subtle; it’s often not about money. Builders (architects, developers, project managers look to minimise cost and risk. They may well also look to grow their skills and reputation through innovation.

    The very best design projects find the “sweet spot” between these potentially conflicting goals.

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