Does design have to be truly altruistic to be ethical?

23 Apr 2019 - Anna Rzepczynski

Educators, researchers, designers and leaders from all design disciplines gathered in London this April for the 2019 Design Management Conference. With an emphasis on the pace and uncertainty of change in the world, talks and discussions focused on understanding the dilemmas designers face and how we can address both the challenges and opportunities this creates.

Three positions on ‘good’

Ethical design is a hot topic at the moment across design communities and organisations. But what is it? How do you do it and how do you build it in to your business?

It could be argued that ethics essentially encompasses a single word: good. The definition of this word poses multiple meanings which were consequently addressed at the conference by various thought leaders.

Craig Walmsley, Senior Director of Design Strategy at Sapient and Philosophy scholar presented a very engaging and challenging presentation that drew on philosophy to help us define ethics and this meaning of ‘good’.

I am no philosopher and would do a huge disservice to Craig and those alike to even try to communicate these vast insights. But at a very high level, here are three philosopher’s positions on ‘good’.

  • Johnathan Bennet: good is a consequence, a consequence of actions. So the greater the sum of action, the greater good.
  • Immanual Kant: good is something we will, and if we all will it the greater the impact.
  • Jesus: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”

Craig Walmsley summed this up as “good means other people”, though if this is the case, human centred design must be an honest start.

However, we must go beyond our immediate interpretation of human centred design and beyond our immediate user groups, drawing on philosophy and considering the broader impact on unwitting bystanders.

With that in mind, doing ‘good’ may not always have a business benefit but a broader positive impact.

Ethical concerns in the development of AI

Another theme from the conference and an area of technology and innovation that is drawing the attention of those particularly concerned with ethics was artificial intelligence (AI). The panel discussion on the second morning explored concerns about bias in the development of AI, specifically the potential impact of human bias during development.

There were many discussions around what measures could be taken to avoid this in areas where there is currently poor diversity amongst developers (primarily white and male) and innovation is still not always supported by a human centred approach.

The importance of leadership in design

The conference wrapped up with roundtable discussions and those that I contributed to surfaced conversation around leadership.

I surmised that leadership in design is more important than ever to drive this ‘good’. Be that inhouse from within an organisation or through a consultancy. However, our interpretation of leadership to enable this integral.

Leadership is facilitation, not a job title. In a hierarchical structure, leadership can be up (C-suite), across (peers and colleagues) or down (direct reports). Therefore it is the responsibility of every part of the process, everyone in an organisation to lead us toward ‘good design’.

“Are you still watching Gilmore Girls?”

I shared this thinking with my colleagues when I returned from the conference and included an example from Netflix that could be argued as an ethical design consideration.

More of the same can be harmful. Most digital interactions are designed to drive ‘more’. More contact, more gratification. Netflix is modified to show extra content without stopping. However, after you have been watching for a while, Netflix will pop up on screen and ask if you are still watching.

Is this to prompt you to take a long hard look at yourself having sat there binge watching, covered in snacks for hours? This is arguably an act of ‘good’ to consider the wellbeing of a viewer. However, this could simply be a hunt for accurate data on engagement. But does this matter if a byproduct is for the greater ‘good’?

I personally don’t know the answer, but this example did what it was intended to do - starting a conversation that I hope you will continue.

If you would like to find out more about how Orange Bus practices ethical design, please get in touch with us at

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