Ethical design, legacy, and how to not drown at sea.

Design, Musings

I have a vivid memory from high school. My English teacher was talking about legacy. He’d be disappointed to know that I can’t remember how this applied to the book we were studying (or even what book that was) – but the life lesson still remains. It all boiled down to a simple question: will the planet earth be a better place for you having lived on it?

I’ve been thinking about legacy quite a bit recently (don’t worry – I’m not dying) and how this applies to me as a designer. As designers, we’re in the business of creating things. Whether that be a mobile app, a website, or a company’s brand identity. Something exists today, that didn’t exist yesterday because we made it. With that comes a responsibility.

Now, this isn’t one of those pretentious designer blog posts where I challenge us to change the world. I don’t need to challenge us, because we already are doing it. Perhaps not in fundamental, paradigm shifting ways, but we are changing it nonetheless. We release products out into the wild with the hope that they will affect a user’s life in some way. It may be a client product, or your own side project, but if it’s aimed at users (which it surely is), then it is designed to make an impact. I’m challenging us to consider the ramifications of that impact.

Let’s talk about everyone’s favourite punching bag: Facebook.

In 2012, they began a truly terrifying study. Facebook data scientist Adam Kramer altered the the balance of emotional content displayed in a selection of users’ daily newsfeeds during one week. That selection was 0.04% of users. Thats just under 700,000 real human beings. That’s more than the entire population of Montenegro. That’s a LOT of people. To fully grasp the purpose and results of the study, I suggest reading up on it in detail. However, let me break it down to a shamefully simple sentence: if a user’s Facebook news feed is primarily negative statuses, does that affect their own emotional statuses? Short answer – yes. Kind of.

Why is this so important? Because design does provoke an emotional response. Let’s take colour as an example. Colour matters. It provokes an emotional response. Now, I know that all  designers have that one friend – the one who thinks that you don’t have a “proper job”. You know who I mean. Those friends who says that colour doesn’t matter and say you’re over-thinking. They’ll even demand that they never even notice the colour of a logo. In short, they’re wrong, you’re right. Let’s move on.

Flags are a great example. You know that flag on the beach that screams – “if you go into the sea now you will definitely die!” – it’s red. I wonder why? Maybe because colour matters. Design matters. It affects emotions. I know this, you know this, and Facebook sure as hell know this.

Now, this isn’t a rant about Facebook. I don’t want to focus on what others are doing. We need to focus on what we are doing. So, what can we take away from this?

1. Designers should care about users. We must care. We’re to be their champions in the face of stakeholders and marketing executives who obviously will valuable their balance sheet more than their users. Our job is to be the counterbalance. To provide a product that meets a client’s needs but not at the expense of their users. It’s called “user-centric design”. Write that down. Tattoo it backwards on yourself so that you see it every morning when you look in the mirror. It’s important.

2. Our products can have a real world impact on people’s lives. This impact may not even be the main purpose of our products. It could be a side effect that we haven’t considered and we haven’t considered it because we haven’t done our job properly. We need to be thorough and we need to be considerate. Love what you do, and love the users for whom you do it.

So, back to my English teacher. Consider this, when you eventually leave this world, you’ll leave behind you a catalogue of products. Is the world better or worse off for them? It’s not about how you want to be remembered – that’s self-centred. It’s genuinely a question of design. Are we designing for good? What can we do to ensure we stay on the right path? Can we look back on our work with pride, or are we filled with regret? Once again, it all boils down to a simple point: will the planet earth be a better place for you having lived on it?

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