(No) ethical design under capitalism
Published: 30 August 2023
Designing in an ethical way is difficult. I think capitalism is a major reason, because it
- limits our design process;
- sets problematic project goals;
- and ensures design is primarily used to enable capital growth.
So, I try to find ways to escape or dismantle it, such as:
- working with and for people who want to work ethically, too;
- making other values measurable, besides just capital;
- designing without getting paid for it;
- and teaching others to design.
I hope this helps other designers, too.
- In short
- Focus on capital growth
- Escaping capitalism
- Further reading
Design sucks. I love finding the right interface pattern, I love listening to users, and I love beautiful products. However, my transition from university to a job has still left me disappointed. I was hoping, as most designers I know, to make the world a better place. We try to make a product easier to use, which should better the user’s life. If we want to go the extra mile, we consider sustainability, accessibility & inclusion, mental health, well-being or just ethics in general.
We also try to convince our employers of those values. We might explain that diverse teams lead to higher productivity. We explain that inclusive and sustainable products sell more because they work better for everyone or are just more attractive. Or we calculate the return on investment of accessibility since it saves money by preventing legal actions.
However, I feel that we rarely achieve our desired utopia of sustainable, healthy and inclusive products, services and systems. Recruiting a more diverse group of research participants costs ‘too much time,’ using a more durable material is ‘too expensive,’ and providing information to help customers save money ‘decreases the profit margin too much.’
Focus on capital growth
The major blocker seems to be our neoliberal capitalist system1. It has one main indicator for success: the growth of capital, or generating more money. Not just that, but the way we set up our economic system makes the accumulation of capital the most likely outcome. Through that, it limits our design process, sets problematic aims for our projects, and only uses design to enable capital growth.
Ethical design isn’t allowed to hurt the bottom line
Just look at all those arguments for inclusion and sustainability I mentioned. They each end up saying the same thing: you should care for this topic because it will help us earn more money for the company. Either through more sales, higher productivity or lower legal costs.
So, we are arguing for these topics by aligning them with capital growth. Sure, it helps limit the amount of problematic effects (pollution, misogyny, racism, etc.) from whatever we design. However, this also means anything that doesn’t add monetary value doesn’t get addressed. And even if something ethical helps create more turnover, if it costs too much we have to ignore it anyway.
For example, adding an automated accessibility checker to the development pipeline is probably fine, but performing accessibility tests with participants takes ‘too much time,’ and thus money. If we can’t come up with a convincing cost benefit analysis for ethics, it will just be ignored.
Our scope limits us in preventing harm
Another roadblock is of a different scale. We have some control over the layout of a page, the setup of research activities, or the features of a product. However, the overall concept or aim of a product is often already decided. That also means we’re sometimes just applying bandaids while actively doing harm.
- We could make a large webshop more accessible and easier to use. That means more people get access to online shopping, which could improve their lives. But it also puts more pressure on warehouse employees and delivery drivers who are already exploited. It also leads to more consumption, so more extraction of natural resources.
- We could switch the plastic of a disposable bottle to a recycled or bio-based version. That might reduce the CO2 impact of the bottle, which is great. However, it’s likely to then get advertised as being ‘greener,’ (leading to increased sales) while the product itself still isn’t sustainable.
Design always serves capital growth
Sometimes, we’re lucky and we get involved earlier in the creation of a product. We might be called strategic designers, or we can influence the direction of product development as researchers. Still, we’re beholden to the focus on economic growth, because it dictates what organisations invest in. Designers, either in-house, freelance or through an agency, will only be hired if there’s:
- enough money within the organisation and;
- it’s plausible that there will be a return on investment.
This means that ‘rich’ companies (such as those with a high turnover, large reserves, or high revenue) are more likely to be able to hire designers. Sadly, those rich companies are often also the ones who exploit their workers and natural resources the most, because that’s where the profits come from. So designing in that sense is just enabling capitalists2: it produces more money for the people who own the means of production, without substantially helping anyone else.
It’s not just companies
Charities and other non-governmental organisations are less likely to have that budget, except, maybe, if it helps them get more donations. Governmental organisations, then, might seem to escape this trap by not being focussed on turning a profit. However, governmental organisations still often feel the need to decrease spending, because they have to function within the capitalist system. This means they also need the funds (from taxes) to hire designers.
The need to cut costs incentivises those organisations to hire designers when it promises to deliver a return on investment. If administrative software or more user-friendly citizen-facing apps lead to less time spent by employees of that organisation, it will reduce operational costs: a great investment.
The focus on increasing productivity and efficiency isn’t necessarily a bad thing, of course. It’s not bad to make a governmental website more user friendly. It helps both citizens and civil servants save time on repetitive and boring tasks. We should, however, watch out for the potential detrimental effects. You could easily imagine an organisation that decides to remove the options to call or visit a counter, because ‘the website is now easy to use’. The exclusion of people who need those options is likely to be ignored when we’re focused on profit.
To me, this doesn’t make me feel particularly good about the work I’m doing. It all makes it seem like we can’t design ethically under capitalism. However, I see a few ways out of this depressing train of thought.
Not everyone acts rationally
First of all, I feel like I’m repeating one of the problems of some major economic theories: viewing all ‘actors’ as rational decision makers. In reality, of course, no one acts (completely) rational.
There is a downside to that: sometimes the long term outlook of decreasing potential legal costs might not even cut it to ‘sell’ accessibility to your boss, if it only costs money in the short term. Or racist, destructive, misogynist or otherwise unethical tendencies might survive, even if it hurts the economic bottom line.
The upside: sometimes people and organisations will do things which are good for people and our planet, even if it doesn’t lead to capital growth. Designers are not the only ones who are trying to improve the world, so with the right people in the right places, we might be able to work on good things. This might be the case in companies with owners who aren’t that interested in getting rich, or governments where politics sets targets other than just cost reduction.
Creating wiggle room
We don’t have to wait for the right place and time to finally be able to do some good, though. Luckily, there is some wiggle room. We can create and use that space, for example by doing guerrilla accessibility/inclusion/sustainability work: not asking for permission but making the product better, anyway. The next step, as mentioned earlier, is building the business case, even if that doesn’t work for everything. Lastly, we can also try to influence the strategy. Making ‘ethics’ measurable makes it tangible and could help you convince your boss to make some decisions not just for the money.
Designing without an employer
Another option is designing outside of your job. This takes a bit more effort, dedication and imagination. It could look like building non-capitalist3, communal alternatives to values which companies or governments provide right now. Repair cafes, (tool) libraries and co-owned farms are some great examples. You could put your skills to use in designing the communication, reservation systems and logistical chains for those organisations.
If actually starting a co-op sounds a bit daunting, showing alternatives to capitalism in a lively way through art, could be a smaller way to put design to good use. Or, as Wesley Taylor said in a critique of design thinking by Rebecca Ackermann: “Let’s try to imagine and acknowledge that capitalism is not inevitable, not necessarily a foundational principle of nature.”
Lastly, remember that we can’t always do everything on our own, and that we don’t have to. Capitalism tends to reduce us to individual consumers instead of humans with social connections, but we can fight that. We can share skills with non-traditional designers, to allow communal design. That opens up the field of design and makes it more likely that good, ethical design happens. It allows everyone to shape our environment, instead of just the capitalists who can buy our design skills.
And this is mostly a reminder for myself, but it’s probably a good idea to involve others and watch your physical and mental health, so you don’t burn yourself out. Because burnt out, we’ll achieve even less.
Writing this down helped me make sense of my frustration with designing in a capitalist society. I’m quite sure the frustration is here to stay, but at least it feels like I might be able to use that frustration in a productive way. Hopefully, it helps you, too. And otherwise, at least it’ll help me feel a little less like design sucks.
Luckily, there are others, too, who have written about ethical design and capitalism.
- Next to the earlier mentioned critique of design thinking by Rebecca Ackermann, I also liked Maggie Gram’s analysis, which also ends by pointing out that we won’t solve our wicked problems by doing iterations instead of finding one complete solution.
- Curt Arledge discusses the limits of the ethical designer, also pointing out that “most of the decisions that influence a design are made long before designers get involved”.
- Astrid Poot is researching ethics in relation to design and has a slightly broader and different view on what makes it difficult to design more ethically.
- iA was possibly even more direct by saying “There is no point discussing “ethics”, if, in the end, all you believe in is cash and power, if everything you are motivated to do is geared towards increasing your user base and your ROI.” in their article on ethics. Then, they analyse the use of the word ‘ethics’.
- Erik Olin Wright wrote about how to be an anticapitalist today. It provides a short analysis of capitalism and shows four ways people try to be anticapitalist. It makes it more specific, which is quite nice. I’m not sure about “the only viable options” part in the conclusion, though.
- In Design after Capitalism, Matthew Wizinsky writes a far more comprehensive critique of capitalism and its link with design, before explaining possible ways and shapes of design ‘after’ capitalism.
- Design for the Real World by Victor Papanek is a classic book discussing how designers should do better. It’s outdated in some respects (both technology and language; the latest edition is from 2019, but most of the content was written in 1970 and last updated in 1984). However, a lot of the things Papanek argues for are still relevant. I feel like it does lack the capitalist analysis, even though it scratches the surfaces in a few chapters.
On my to-read list is Future Ethics (Cennydd Bowles).
Thanks for proofreading, Anna!
Neoliberal capitalism is a broad and vague concept, as most political ideas are. I think it can be defined by its focus on decreasing regulation, privatisation of state-owned companies and reducing governmental debt. The capitalism part means that there should be a market where people with money (capital) have the freedom to invest it in ventures which they deem worthy, but through that, it makes growing your capital attractive (or even imperative). This, in turn, makes it less likely that capital is directed to creating a more healthy, just and sustainable world, if the alternative is growing that capital. ↩
In case you’re still not really sure what capitalists and the means of production are: Marx described a difference between two classes; the capitalists and the proletariat. The first group has substantial amounts of money and owns companies. With that, they own the ‘means of production’ or the things which allow you to create something else of value (a product or a service). For a factory, that could be the building and the machines within it. As a worker (part of the proletariat), you can’t create the products which are made in the factory without those means. For digital designers, for example, this is more muddled; I could own a laptop and some software which I then use to create designs. So, I can easily own my means of production. ↩
‘Non-capitalist’ is probably just as big and complex a concept as ‘capitalist’ itself. In this case, I mean an organisation which isn’t owned by a small group of individuals who then own the means of production. Whether that means that there are no owners (only maintainers), whether a building and tools are owned by different individuals who contribute their part or shared among the group, I don’t know. ↩