What Is The Role Of A Designer?

{ 🤔 } — Ethics for Design

In January 2017 my associate and I closed our design company because our paths were becoming more and more distant. Following this event, I seriously started to question my design practice. I had many doubts before, but the daily tasks of running a company had kept me tied-in, without much time to think.

Two weeks after the closing I decided, without really thinking about it, that I would travel within Europe. My goal was to meet designers and researchers that had influenced me, and make a documentary about them. I sent 14 emails, 13 people replied within 3 days, and 12 were positive and agreed to meet.

One week later I would start a 2-month Europe trip, interviewing designers in 8 different cities.

I prepared my questions, and defined a topic for the documentary:

Is it possible for designers to write a hippocratic oath so our practice would be less disastrous for human beings?

Obviously, the core question was about Ethics. After my first interview with Alain Findeli, I understood that my question was naive if not idiotic.

Ethics is about the question, not the answer — especially for designers. I threw away my questions and went to my interviewees more open-ended, genuinely hoping to learn more about Ethics, personal responsibility, and how they handle that in their practice.

I realized quickly that my knowledge of Ethics as a philosophical concept was too thin. I started reading the core books of occidental Ethics (Aristotle, Spinoza, Kant, Mill) and design ethics (Tonkinwise, Fry, Papanek, to name of few).

These were not an easy read, but over time it was beneficial to articulate complex dilemmas in ethical design.

Furthermore, designers and researchers of all kind helped me understand ethics through their work. I’m thankful for the time each one of my 12 interviewees took to discuss with me. They welcomed me, sometimes for a few days, and broke bread with me.

As a matter of fact, I’m still meeting half of them on a regular basis, and we’ve since started collaborating on various projects.

Challenging Design Norms

From the beginning I wanted the documentary to be interactive, but I had had something even more special idea in mind for the few months leading up.

I was really fed up by social feeds, especially when it comes to video. It’s just a non-sensical layering of video/subtitles/autoplay/sound/music/fast-paced editing. It’s not about the information anymore, but about what someone has decided you should feel. It’s a logical result of the engagement race, it’s a recipe for alienation, and it should be contested.

So we made an interface where the user can choose the medium they want to prioritize, whether text, image, or video. At least this way, the viewer is active and mindful about how they want the message to be delivered. The editing itself followed the same principle: no fast-paced edit, one framing only, no emotional built-up.

Two friends joined me at this stage: Clément Le Tulle-Neyret, for the art direction and the graphic design, and Sylvain Julé, for the technical direction and web development. The project was challenging, and we had no money to fund it, but we did it anyway, and I’m really grateful to both of them.

Setting Up A Path

Six months passed from the beginning of my journey in Europe to the final export. Six months in which I only thought about Ethics and what it means to me. These 6 months were crucial to articulate my own ethics and to renew my worldview and my work ethos.

Here are some of my personal key findings:

  • Ethics mean nothing if not practiced in Politics. Politics means how we organize the city for the well-being of all its citizens. It doesn’t always rely on any political party or power systems.
  • People, businesses, and corporations claim to be ethical, to have values. But ethics means nothing if you cannot see how they’re applied to real dilemmas, and real actions for the well-being of others. Next time someone tells you they are ethical, don’t ask what they stand for, ask them how they applied their ethical principles to real-life problems.
  • By the way, be skeptical of ethics shortcuts like labels. It can be a smokescreen, so go have a look beyond it.

Design is mostly inadequate to real-life, urgent problems. In the current geopolitical situation, the only right thing designers should work for is climate change and its many related issues (immigration, social tensions, biodiversity loss, pollution, etc.)

Find your scale and work on one of those fields with real communities, not users groups or personas.

Engage in complex issues long-term and don’t try to solve them through technological means only.

Design must become autonomous from Economy. Design ethics are quite simply neo-liberal economics ethics. Design is an economic lubricant.

If you look at Design’s history, you’ll understand that design is a service-based discipline used to maintain and enhance consumption cycles. If you look even closer then you’ll understand that the human that designers so proudly put in the middle of their practice is not a human. It’s a persona inherited from neoclassical economics: the rationale being (also search for homo oeconomicus.)

I believe that so far most of the design industry never really designed for a real human, only for this rational persona. Ethics mean to think critically about what you’re doing and adjust until you put the well-being of others (yourself included) in the middle of your practice.

It has been 1  year since I’ve finished the documentary and my practice has completely changed. I’ve lowered my needs, put my practice into politics, changed my goals and met with fantastic citizens and local communities to talk about what they really need. Every day I’m asking myself if I do the right thing. I don’t have the answer for that but I know I’m happy doing it.

You can watch the documentary Ethics for Design here.

If you want to contribute to next the issue of Phase Magazine, just drop us a line:

Gauthier Roussilhe Avatar

Gauthier Roussilhe / Designer & Writer

Gauthier Roussilhe is a designer and writer using design fiction, writings, research to explore critical futures.