Saturday, May 14, 2011

Design Thinking and Ethics

What does design thinking – the practical imagination that enables us, as Herbert Simon put it, to turned existing conditions into preferred one – have to do with ethics – the assessment of good and bad behavior or right and wrong actions? What can ethics, an analytical field, contribute to a creative field like design, and what might design thinking, of increasing interest to disciplines searching for more innovation, add to ethical thought?

The practitioners of design and ethics have a core competency in common: both have an interest in understanding human behavior and in analyzing human needs and interpersonal relationships. Ethicists focus that interest toward determining what someone should or should not do in a conflicted situation, while designers direct that interest toward the creation of environments, products, structures, or systems that accommodate people’s needs and direct their actions.

In both cases, the question of what constitutes the good invariably arises. What, an ethicist might ask, defines a good character or a right action, and what, a designer might asks, determines a good resolution of the right problem? At the same time, both fields remain resolutely applied and particular to specific cases or circumstances. While design and ethics both have plenty of theories that seek to guide judgment, the test of those ideas inevitably comes through the analysis of a particular problem in a given space or time and what the most appropriate solution to it entails.

Likewise, both disciplines proceed to assess such things in similar ways. Ethicists and designers will typically gather background and contextual information to help them understand the nature and scope of a problem or conflict, look a the reasoning behind and consequences of various responses to the situation, and arrive at a conclusion or solution that seems to address the greatest range of issues or requirements in the simplest and clearest way possible. Often, the best resolution of a dilemma arises from the most thorough assessment and most creative response to it.

While ethicists do not have design codes, at least not anything enforceable, designers have codes of ethics. In that sense, the two fields have an asymmetrical relationship, in which ethics influences not only the nature of designers’ work, but the actions of designers themselves. Design, like all areas of human activity, thus has a subordinate role in relation to ethics, and designers’ behavior toward others – clients, communities, colleagues, contractors, and so on – comes under the regulation of ethical codes, much as their decisions often come under the restrictions of building, fire, and zoning codes.

Designers may, on occasion, gripe about the latter code restrictions. However, they know full well that such constraints also set limits that help define the nature and scope of their freedom to create. As Nietzsche, one of most nihilistic of ethicists, once wrote, great artists “dance in chains,” making their work look effortless despite – and because of – the restraints placed on it by the community and by the artists themselves. Creativity involves not only the search for the right problem to solve, but also the pursuit of the restrictions within which a good solution can emerge.

Codes of ethics, though, have a much different role and relationship to design than do the codes that seek to protect the health, safety, and welfare of people affected by what designers do. While human health, safety, and welfare all have moral dimensions and implications, ethics goes far beyond the minimum standards that designers must adhere to in building codes. Ethics asks of us to be our very best, to maximize our potential as human beings and as human communities. Just as aesthetics helps us achieve beauty, ethics helps us achieve goodness, and that is a beautiful thing.   

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