Redrawing the lines: design accountability

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Recently there’s been a glut of articles and commentary reporting on the remorse of social media techies and Silicon Valley engineers, looking back with regret on the inventions they innocently delivered into the world, and the dystopic side-effects they have had. They argue that these technologies, largely financed and powered by the advertising or ‘attention’ economy, are affecting our brains, our attention spans, journalism and public discourse, politics, and democracy – and not in good ways. This Guardian piece gives a fairly comprehensive overview:

Google, Twitter and Facebook workers who helped make technology so addictive are disconnecting themselves from the internet.

Here are some other pieces on a similar theme:

This seems to me to be a new incarnation of an old failing. One could see plenty of problems in the industrialised world as sharing the feature of – somewhere along the line – a designer or engineer or creative professional not thinking beyond the box circumscribed by the interests of the client (which is, most of the time, the interests of profit).

This led to a debate with my partner about the extent to which inventors, entrepreneurs, designers etc are responsible for the longer term impact of things they have designed. (This seems particularly pertinent now given the systemic plastic disaster). On the one hand, it might be very difficult to predict the way things are going to go, to see the specific widget you are working on as part of a broader (future) problem, to see your part in a bigger and complicated system. On the other hand, these waves of public regret might prompt us to reflect on design accountability and where the limits should be drawn.

The typical position of the designer/ engineer in industry is one of buck passing, giving ultimate moral responsibility, or accountability for outcomes, to the client or some higher authority within the business. But when there is little structural incentive for corporations to behave ethically, or seek anything beyond their own profit, designers might want to reconsider this position.

Tracing accountability is admittedly made hard by the fact that our work happens upstream (it’s design, not delivery), and by its methods. Design has been described as ‘serious play’, provisionality is central to its logic and practices (brainstorming, speculating, simulating, prototyping). This serves to obscure the fact that we are always prefiguring certain things, embodying particular prejudices, making some outcomes more possible or likely. And in presenting our provisional ideas, we aren’t simply putting options on the table. We are creating possibilities, and even if we are not involved in implementation directly, we have some relationship to what happens next.

I think we need – especially as design starts meddling in government and social issues – to start questioning the lines and limits of professional accountability, and to relatedly start talking about professional identity: why are we in this game in the first place? Each individual might feel differently – but it’s a conversation to be had, at the very least.

And if there is some discrepancy between intent and outcome, this conversation must include what we would do differently, in practice. To quote Cameron Tonkinwise,

“Ethics that you don’t have to make sacrifices on behalf of are empty and impotent”

Considering my own area – social design/ design for government – I think a good place to start would be to balance out the characteristic optimistic register of practice with a bit of catastrophic thinking and conspiracy theorising. We often develop our ideas through lateral thinking tricks. What if we also asked ourselves, ‘what is the worst that could possibly happen as a result?’ ‘Who might stand to profit from this?’ ‘Who might exploit it?’ ‘Whose nefarious purposes might this inadvertently serve?’ And, as a follow up, ‘how could we do our best to ensure that didn’t happen?’ In some (many?) cases the only answer might be to not do that thing, not present that option to the client, not pursue that line of thinking. And of course it might ultimately mean not doing that kind of work. Not designing needs to become understood an equally valid act on the part of a professional designer.

4 thoughts on “Redrawing the lines: design accountability”

  1. Hello. Yes – agree with everything. Think we have to make sure that the process isn’t hijacked by another kind of politicisation though – people who come with their own idea of what a ‘nefarious purpose’ might be. Because that isn’t neutral, and if designers are so easy to swallow one narrative, they could just as easily swallow another. Is not intervening/designing automatically less political than intervening/designing? I’m thinking particularly about people who felt that anybody other than the state providing services or addressing some kind of need was a nefarious purpose. Or rather anti-reform interest groups. I’m thinking of occasions when more progressive clients in the public sector will avoid engaging with some groups because they know it will delay things or introduce too much risk-aversion into a project. So in those cases, it’s not the designer who is ignoring the political interests, it’s the commissioner. The designer can just be rather passive to it, I suppose, if they’re being paid.

    1. Yes I suppose I’m arguing for a more active (rather than passive) stance – recognising the political potential in any action/ proposition, and widening the net in terms of the things we take into account in evaluating design ideas. There are consequences to our speculations (for example, tweeting a prototype from a hackathon, reporting to a public sector manager on how ‘change-ready’ their staff are, segmenting a population according to particular psychological characteristics), and we just should not get away with producing stuff and making it public without thinking about it properly. Re your point about swallowing narratives – I think there’s also something about what we do and don’t see as designers: we see humans and their characteristics, typically, but don’t have such a good a handle on non-human things like institutions, laws, regulations, discourses, ideologies etc.

  2. “widening the net in terms of the things we take into account in evaluating design ideas” – so this is the most important thing, in my view. Particularly in the wake of GDS evangelism. Addressing user needs may not be the most important consideration in deciding whether or not to intervene/ design. And that’s particularly true when that decision about progressing with a design process (say from discovery to alpha) is part of something that began around a spreadsheet looking at what to cut (although everyone pretends that it is operating in some kind of vacuum, where all that matters is a purist analysis of user and need). However, I’m not sure it’s the designers’ responsibility to call that out. Particularly when they’re being paid. It’s like expecting turkeys to vote for Christmas. It’s commissioners who set these projects in motion and maintain their supposed political neutrality.

    1. I’m not sure being paid to do something absolves you of moral responsibility. This is my point, basically. There is an idea of ‘profession’ which puts an ethical or moral code of conduct (in theory at least) before making money. The design industry – apart from architecture perhaps – has never really had that. And I’m arguing it should.

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