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Should Designers Adopt a Code of Ethics?

November 26, 2019, 4:14 PM UTC

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Welcome to Business x Design, a new newsletter on the power of design. In this email, we discuss whether designers should adopt a code of ethics. What else would you like to see from us? This newsletter is a work in progress supported by you, our readers. Reply to this email with your suggestions and feedback. 

Last week’s Business x Design concluded that designers have a responsibility to add values as well as value. I noted that, while design can boost profits, it also has potential for more profound contributions to a company’s mission, identity, culture, and obligations to stakeholders.

To those from other specialties, this broad claim might smack of hubris. As a data scientist put it to me at Brainstorm Design in Singapore this year: “What makes designers think they have a monopoly on truth and virtue? Why should designers have any greater expertise in ethics than somebody from sales or IT or accounting?”

I don’t have a good answer to that. But it’s clear that within the design community, “design ethics” has become an urgent debate, raging across books, blogs, design websites, and TED Talks.

At issue: Many designers fear that they’re aiding and abetting business models that manipulate users into surrendering personal data, buying stuff they don’t need, and engaging in socially destructive behaviors. They also feel complicit in the rise of digital platforms that have polarized politics and systematically discriminated against women and minorities.

This angst is new. For years, designers’ favorite lament was that executives who controlled corporate resources refused to grant them a “seat at the table.” Now that they have that seat, many designers worry they are being coopted for unethical purposes.

A chorus of designers is urging the industry to form a design code of ethics, similar to those adopted by doctors, lawyers, priests, and even computing professionals. The Design Vanguard, a group of influential business tech and design leaders including Google Venture’s Kate Aronowitz, IDEO’s Tim Brown, Airbnb’s Joe Gebbia, IBM’s Phil Gilbert, and urbanist Liz Ogbu, has adopted a 10-point Design Pledge.

Mike Monteiro, co-founder of San Francisco-based Mule Design, supports such a code. (Here’s his mockup of one.) He argues designers need to learn to “just say no” to clients. “When you hire me as a designer, I do not work for you,” he writes in a new book, Ruined by Design: How Designers Destroyed the World, and What We Can Do to Fix It. “I may practice my craft at your service, but you haven’t earned the right to shape how I practice that craft… I’m not there to do your bidding, I’m there to solve a problem or reach a goal that we agreed upon.”

London-based designer and writer Cennydd Bowles is skeptical of codes. In Future Ethics, a thoughtful book published last year, he writes: “Ethical conventions don’t themselves solve ethical problems: thorny moral questions still pervade medicine and engineering despite the fields’ prominent codes of ethics. Codes can offer some structure to ethical debate, but are usually to vague to resolve it.”

Still, I think it’s a debate worth having. And as design’s power becomes more and more apparent, some structure is almost certainly better than none.

More design news below, curated by my colleague Eamon Barrett.

Clay Chandler
@ClayChandler
Clay.Chandler@Fortune.com

VISION, EMPATHY, SCALE

Tesla Cybertruck
(Photo by FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images)

Keep on truckin'

Tesla’s Cybertruck has divided opinions within and without the design community. Blade Runner art director Syd Mead described the angular pickup truck as “breathtaking.” Others have called it ridiculous. (To me, it looks likes it was cropped from a sci-fi video game run on low-res graphics.) But at least they’re trying something. Fortune

Will it work?

WeWork is cutting close to 20% of its staff in a major restructuring as the formerly buoyant lessor of co-working spaces comes crashing to Earth. Some 2,400 staff are being let go. While WeWork struggles to stay afloat, the open-office, hot-desk culture that it helped popularize is—once again—under fire, too. Fast Company

Okay, Uber 

Continuing the theme of “disrupters” rupturing, Uber may lose its license to operate in London after the city’s transport regulator found the taxi company was “not fit and proper.” Transport for London says Uber allowed unauthorized drivers to pick up 14,000 rides last year, a major safety breach. To make its cars safer, Uber recently announced it will begin audio recording rides, at the driver or passenger’s request. Fortune

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

The Best-Kept Secret in Men’s Tailoring Might Be This Savile Row–Trained New York Rabbi by Anna Ben Yehuda Rahmanan

Exclusive: Facebook, Apple, and Google Among 50 Tech Companies Working to Save America’s Largest Guest Worker Program by Nicole Goodking

Employees’ Values Today Signal a Workplace Paradigm Shift by Fortune

In His First Speech in His Own Voice, Sacha Baron Cohen Takes on Big Tech by Ellen McGirt

Should ‘Fintech’ Fear Big Tech’s Push Into Banking? by Robert Hackett

Design That’s Got Users in Mind New York Times

DISCUSSION

It's the circle of life.

Olson Kundig Architects have unveiled renderings of an “after-death facility” in Seattle, where human bodies are allowed to decompose into soil. The center was designed for Recompose, a funeral service startup that offers human composting as an alternative to burials or cremation. Recompose, founded by Katrina Spade, is the first U.S. company to offer human composting since Washington state legalized the practice last year.

I support the idea. The tradition of burial is a tremendous waste of resources—consuming both valuable land and, a lot of the time, vital organs. Recompose claims the facility will allow a body to compost within 30 days into a nutrient-rich soil that can feed plants and trees. 

You can check out photos of the facility here. It looks genuinely peaceful, and a natural setting for a natural ending. 

This edition of Business by Design was curated by Eamon Barrett. Email him at eamon.barrett@fortune.com.