A Response to 'Dear Designer: Bad Work Is Always Your Fault'
by Grainne O’Flaherty, Design Enterprise Studio Member, March 2021
Ethics is not something new to consider in regard to design, however, with the growth of the digital design industry ethical consideration has become not only more complex in regard to legislation, but more insidious and dangerous for the low level designer attempting to traverse a legal minefield while supporting themselves and their family.
Mike Monteiro’s article “Dear Designer: Bad Work Is Always Your Fault”, published on June 26th, 2019, answers a user submitted question; “I work at a large company. Decisions are made way above my pay grade. I’m able to influence small things, but not the larger picture, even when I know decisions, we’re making are unethical — such as using what I know to be a dark pattern to keep our users from unsubscribing. I certainly don’t want to get fired. If the decision is coming down from management, can I even be held responsible?”.
Monteiro begins by acknowledging the complexity of the role of a designer, both professionally and ethically. He draws parallels to that of an accountant in regard to the line between looking successful in work and breaking the law. He then brings up the story of James Liang, the Volkswagen engineer serving a 40-month jail sentence for designing fraudulent emissions software. Stating that he in his trial had claimed the orders were given to him from management.
He goes on to discuss Uber’s push to be labelled as a software company after their Greyball scandal as software companies are substantially less regulated than other companies. Monteiro uses this point to carry the conversation on to the ethical requirement of companies such a Facebook to follow proper licencing and regulations as digital technology is no longer a small industry. Comparing the role of a designer to that of a pilot, with users/passengers putting their digital/physical safety in the hands of a more qualified professional and the subsequent expectation for the designer/pilot to take this responsibility seriously.
Monteiro states simply that if a designer is given unethical requests from their higher-ups, it is their job to stand their ground and say no; stressing that “everything you have a hand in making bears your fingerprints.” And letting ethics slide without complaint will give you the reputation of a designer that will regularly disregard ethics.
It is vital for designers to safeguard themselves
After reading this article my first reaction is to agree with Monteiro; it is the designer’s responsibility to protect not only themselves but also the users they are creating for and using their creative autonomy is vital to ensure that this takes place. Large companies have the finances and resources to protect themselves from ethical scandals, while the employees often don’t; it can be easier in the company’s eyes to throw an employee to the wolves for ethical misgivings instead of taking the hit themselves and so it is vital for a designer to safeguard themselves before pleasing the business.
As a designer myself entering the professional field this is an issue that I am acutely aware of and this knowledge acts as a guiding force to constantly cover my own back. In my current job as a social media producer for a magazine this can be as simple as considering the social implications of posting videos online that may lead the audience to think that staff of the business were breaking COVID regulations to attend fashion shows. While the scale of damage may be much smaller than given examples by Monteiro, there are still potential legal ramifications; and even just not properly crediting photographers could lead to lawsuits.
While the company I am currently employed by is open about being able and willing to protect their staff, this may not be the case as I progress through the work world. It is a level of transparency that I would wish to see from larger employers. If they know they’re not going to cover for the little guy, let’s be open about that and allow staff to put their own safety in place through unions.
This advice given is based on the hope that either businesses are asking for ethical transgressions unknowingly, or that designers will be able to team up with other employees to promote sound views and values in regard to business ethics. It doesn’t, however, consider the possibility of a work environment that openly encourages unethical behaviour…
This thought leads me to the well-known issue of ethical preservation vs monetary preservation; whether a designer feels stronger about preservation from legal action if issues were to come to light, or the need for a stable income. This highlights the dilemma that the more an employee relies on their work income to live, the more likely an employer may be able to persuade them to not only break the law but implicate themselves in the long run.
This begs the question, why is the onus of guilt placed on the smaller fish in the pond and how can we as designers fix a broken system that persecutes designers for the wrongful orders of their bosses?