Blogless: Blog of Design Less Better.

The long road ahead

Today, DLB tries to put our house in order, laying out some steps for the task ahead: developing our positive discussion of design ethics.

Two weeks ago, I wrote a post about children and advertising. The point of that post was this: we don’t find it conscionable to advertise cigarettes to kids. In fact, we seem to find it so uniformly unconscionable that we’re willing to make it illegal. This indicated to me that we have here a wide-spread and serious moral commitment.

Since I wrote that post, I’ve been thinking more about the role of children in the advertising culture, and specifically about this legislation. It seems to me that here we have a stable empirical starting point for what I hope will become our positive discussion of design ethics (following both our argument for the pragmatic role of ethics in design, our diagnosis of the trust relationship at the heart of advertising, and of advertising’s pursuant follies).

That said, I think the cart has been put just slightly in front of the horse, here. While we may (or may not) have stumbled on the empirical clue for our ongoing positive discussion of design ethics, the development of this line seems to me nevertheless very tricky.

In the interest of taking design ethics seriously and getting it right, then, there are some fairly significant unanswered questions left to address. While I am convinced that I will not answer a single one of these questions definitively here on BlogLESS, I am also convinced that having some rough and ready answers will provide the kind of scaffolding we’ll need to develop any serious practical principles.

Leandro Ehrlich, Too Late For Help (2008), Installation view, Lower 9th Ward
Leandro Ehrlich, Too Late For Help (2008), Installation view, Lower 9th Ward (via)

Today, then, I’ll merely index the issues which I want to partially address over the next months. Each of these questions — on my view — need either to be answered or proven irrelevant by any sufficiently robust theory of design ethics.

Open Questions

  1. What is an ethical design?
    1. What is a “design” in the first place? To what kinds of objects, processes, etc. will a theory of design ethics apply?
    2. Why should there be any ethical concerns that are relevant to the success of a design?
    3. What is a legitimate algorithm to determine the “rightness” of a design? Is “rightness” what counts? Is it all that counts?
  2. Should normative moral consensus legislate ethical design?
    1. Why is it important that codified ethics gel with our intuitions in the first place?
    2. Is the best moral heuristic democracy? Is a tyranny of the majority legitimate?
  3. How can we account for the fact that designers with otherwise fine moral compasses are responsible for unethical designs?
    1. Doesn’t the fact that a designer tries to be ethical count for anything?
    2. Can their designs be justified by some subset of rules that apply specifically to the practice of design in free market economies (or some other set of relevant practice-specific rules)?

I’ll jump right in on Wednesday, and do my best to pick out what it is we mean here on BlogLESS when we talk about “design.” (Maybe Nick will help me out with this on Tuesday or Thursday.)

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PaulFeb 16, 2009

Comments on this post


Design for me is best defined as an application of psychology principles to visual communication. If you think about it that way, perhaps it’s easier to identify the ethics issue by linking it with ethics as understood in the realm of psychology.

Gus M. at 4:07pm on Mon, Feb 16th.


Hey Gus,

I like where you’re going with that, but I’m not sure it catches all instances of design much better than the definitions I quoted above.

While I would agree that the strategic implementation of psychological or cognitive science-type principles can generate a design that’s effective on many counts, employing that in the definition just doesn’t seem to exclude all the right things. For example, Sergei Eisenstein famously applied psychological principles to visual communication, but we don’t tend to think of The Battleship Potemkin as an object of design.

Secondly, putting the fence around “visual communication” seems overly restrictive to me. After all, software has designers who rarely if ever consider the visual domain (of course I am excluding the part of software design we call UI design). Similarly, we have “sound designers” in films, games, etc. – people responsible for designing the non-compositional audio elements of some media project.

I’ve actually come around in the last day to rejecting the Design Council’s definition as well, based on a concern similar to this latter. I’ll write about it tomorrow.

That all said, the idea of deploying psychology or cognitive scientific principles as criterial for picking out a design is interesting, and it does seem promising to yoke that to an ethical framework. Despite the fact that I’ve gone in a slightly different direction at the moment, it’s definitely food for thought.

Thanks for your interest, and especially your comment.


Paul at 12:19pm on Thu, Feb 19th.


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