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Ethics of design — Service Design Melbourne

On 17th August we were pleased to host Design Chat #13 on behalf of Service Design Melbourne.

The event was attended by around 50 people, and centred on topics close to the heart of many designers:

  • What does it mean to do ethical design work?
  • How can we ethically engage with and speak on behalf of others in design research?
  • Are we considering the ethical implications of our design work?

Panellists Yoko Akama (Associate Professor & Design Research Expert, RMIT), Matiu Bush (Healthcare Innovator & Design Integration Lead, Bolton Clarke) and Kate Goodwin (Experience Design & Strategy Lead, PaperGiant) shared thoughts from their experience in academic and design research leadership; healthcare innovation; and justice and social impact research and design. The session was facilitated by our Research Director Chris Marmo.

Things we talked about

  • The ethics of human research consent, and the importance of robust data collection practices — The panel discussed ways of ‘softly’ approaching participants who are already experiencing trauma (e.g. victims of crime, people experiencing grief); the need for respectful treatment of participants with cultural and linguistic diversity; and the importance of emotional wellbeing for both participants and researchers, particularly when dealing with sensitive topics.
  • The appropriateness (or otherwise) of speaking on behalf of others — Yoko argued that it is not possible to speak on behalf of others and so we shouldn’t, Kate argued that there are communities and groups (for example, incarcerated youth) that cannot speak for themselves and so we have a duty to represent them.
  • The ethics of working with those perceived to be ‘less ethical’ (such as tobacco or gambling companies), in the interests of making positive change — can we, or should we, work for companies that do ‘bad’ in order to help them do some ‘good’? Matiu’s attitude was an emphatic “Yes! We can and should do good in bad places”, and while he thought gambling was redeemable, he agreed that Tobacco was a particularly difficult one.
  • Being able to safely call out when we’re uncomfortable with what is being asked of us as designers — the panel argued that we shouldn’t be afraid to voice an opinion on the ethics of a client’s ask. The consensus was that if we can’t call these things out we shouldn’t be ‘designing’ in the first place. The panel discussed the need to foster environments where robust design feedback can exist and result in pragmatic change.
  • The importance of thinking about the ‘downstream’ impacts of the products and services we design — what are the long term implications of what we put into the world? To be ethical is not just to do ‘good’ in the immediate confines of the project, but to also consider how your work will change things long after you’ve gone and affect people who you’ve never met.

An interesting comment came at the end from Brad Haylock who warned of the risk of ‘using your gut’ without asking why you might feel a particular way about a problem — he called for an interrogative and reflective approach where we don’t assume that our ‘gut’ is without bias.

Thanks

Thanks to attendees for coming along and making thoughtful contributions (question-comments, or “commestions”) to the discussion, and to Tristan Cooke and the organisers of Service Design Melbourne for making the event possible.

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