What does it mean to question everything? What path will my insatiable curiosity lead me down? Can I exhaust myself with new knowledge? What does it mean to accept the status quo?
These are some of the questions that I binge over at 3:00 a.m. when I am bored with Netflix, I’ve run out of Instagram stories, and have had a little too much to drink while listening to Rina Sawayama.
As I grow into interaction design I carry with me the influence of my past experiences in various disciplines including architecture and interior design. However, after 7 years of design education I have found that discussions on design ethics and values are not prevalent enough in academia. I can’t help but imagine the implications of nurturing students without instilling in them the importance of designing ethically, especially at the scale that many designers are working on today.
Essentially, this short essay is a reflection of the lingering questions I have about what it means to be a designer today.
The Impact of Design
Let me start by stating that I believe design has the potential to be used for both the (-) and the (+). By holistically evaluating the experiences we craft we can better understand their potential outcomes and impacts. With that said, I believe it is important to understand the repercussions of what we make and to hold ourselves accountable for what we release, or help release, into the world.
Being a queer latino man I have experienced first-hand the implications of poorly designed systems that massively distribute erroneous information on people outside of mainstream culture. Many of these sources of misinformation alter people’s perceptions of others through mechanisms of fear fueled by the unknown. I believe that fear of the unknown drives alienation, stereotyping, and eventually apathy towards those who are different. Someone, in company, is in charge of designing these problematic systems that promote negative behaviors and beliefs with profound effects on countless individuals and communities.
While I am well aware of the role design plays in the pervasive nature of these systems — I also believe that design itself can be used to combat it. However, in order for design to be employed positively the designer must have a solid ethical foundation to drive self-awareness and criticality in his work.
With my background and context evermore present, I find myself coming back to the following themes within my work, my life, and our current culture — and I’ve become very interested in how design, and the designer, can both alter and redefine human behavior.
13 Introspective Conversation Tabs
- If design is the vision of an individual aimed at potentially impacting the lives of others, its motives and outcomes must be scrutinized. What are your ambitions? Have you looped through all the possible scenarios? What does your vision mean for me, for yourself, and for the general public? Have you considered the array of possible outcomes?
- Have you thought beyond the premature boolean answers , what lies between what appears to be a simple yes or no decision? What about the grey space, the in-between, the margins? Have you accounted for all the variables? The human error? Has your thought process been automated?
- Who is at the end of the wire? Who is receiving your output. What is the value of your input? Who is your audience? Have they been outside lately? Are they minimizing windows? Will you solidify them hostage to your creation? How will your creation and design affect them? Will it improve or further decrease their quality of life?
- What world are you designing for? Do you design for the cold or the warm touch? Do you realize the differences? Is your extension unplugged from the glass? Do you augment to further imprison? What senses are you augmenting? Which one has priority over the others and why? Is this the designed outcome you would want for yourself?
- Are you blurring or building boundaries? Are you designing for loneliness or connection? Are you simultaneously creating both? What role does addiction play in this scheme?
- Is love and emotion part of the equation? Is your design spreading love through likes? Are you designing for human to human interaction or is human to computer the end goal? If so, how will this shape the future of interaction and who inevitably will design for such interactions?
- What does it mean to create a community? What is the threshold between the virtual and physical? Is your design altering what we value most? Is the redefined value of our values applied to what is most meaningful? What is the meaning of community today, 50 conversation tabs?
- Do you design for watching? Do you watch through a lens? What do you watch? What is your design meant to make me watch? Do the algorithms you design determine what I watch? Do you design so that someone can watch me sleep? Do you want to keep me hooked to the brightness of my nightly companion? Does the algorithm keep me awake and alter my circadian rhythm?
- Do you facilitate the easiness of my swiping? Does the swiping improve my relationships? What will be the valuable relationship to design for in the future? The relationship I have with my device or my partner?
- Do you design for emotion or their replacement? Is the new set of emotions constrained to just angry, love, wow, sad, like, or haha? Is your design helping me convey emotion or avoid them? Is emotion being redefined? What does it mean to emote if I can’t in real life. Where is the boundary between the real and virtual? Does such a boundary exist anymore?
- Do you design to confuse me with dark patterns that subconsciously manipulate me to increase your profit margin? Do you create zones of misleading cyber profits? Does your economy take into account my wants or has it tracked me long enough to predict it before I am even aware myself?
- Do you alter me to lead the best version of my life or the alter life that most benefits you? Are you aware of the boundaries, or the lack thereof, of your designs?
- Have you crafted my persona yet? Did you find me on a search engine? What is my avatar? Who should I be? How do I fit into your story? How will you make me fit to justify your design?
These quick reflections and questions are grounded on the type of work I’ve been exposed to, that of my peers, and my immediate context. Despite being short, I find them useful in starting a critical analysis of the products I create and use.
I firmly believe that as designers we have a responsibility to remain vigilant of both the reach and impact of our work on people’s lives. Someone will be impacted by what we make and obliviousness/unawareness is not an excuse. Therefore, it is critical that we question our work through numerous lenses and perspectives.
I am constantly encouraging myself to think critically. To question everything. To design like I give a damn. To do good. As a user I can only hope that the designers designing for me think in a similar manner.
Finally, to design means to be creative and to be creative means to produce, to create. Every creation has a purpose and consequences. Consider these implications thoroughly — be brave and willing to disagree if it means standing up for your ethics and values. Do what is right. Don’t become desensitized. We need to look out for one another.