14 July 2006

Accountability, intelligence and moral obligation in design processes

[A rable on Big and Small Design and ethics]

Whenever we design something we work against a number of constraints, such as esthetics, functionality, market, usability, innovation and so forth; we try our hardest to make the best whatchamacallit within those constraints.

Often, though, some of these constraints goes against our more human notions, such as the designers accountability linked with her intelligence, and her moral obligations towards herself, humankind and the universe at large. Basically, I'm addressing the designer's - the individual human that does design - responsibilities both through the design process and for the end result.

Have you ever designed something good, only to be told that you had to design it slightly worse for some reason or another? What do you do? Does it matter? Are you asked to make something pretty only to be told that it must be blue on green in slightly off-putting gradient? A lot of people would say that they're paid by X to design Y, so what's the big deal? The big deal is that you're human. And even worse, you're a human individual.

As human individuals we have our own individual version of morals and ethics that guides us in our everyday life, and we're all fine with this, and quite often embraced and hailed as the very thing which makes us, well, human. On the other hand people are expected to do what they're paid to do.


Accountability, intelligence and moral obligation in design processes

There's the consultants notion of "paid to do" which given them the oppertunity to say no to that money and no to do that job. It's still hard to say no in this business-driven world, but at least they can.

Then there's the employed persons notion of "paid to do" which is somewhat tricker; does the person have enough disapproval for a job to actually oppose doing it? What happens when she doesn't do it? Will her job be in danger?

Businesses have very few ethical guidelines that takes the individual into consideration.

Just do it, and get on with it

It seems to "get over it" or "get over yourself" and "just do it and forget about it" are some popular ways to "solve" this issue. I personally detest these; why does someones values have to be comprimised due to a system that holds no ethical values? I think it's a fair question; why are we building systems in which people live that undermine the very thing that makes us "people"?

Are we trying to take the clinical road of natural rule? Or the opressive dictator path of cold business? Or are we willingly undermining human qualities whenever money is on the line? A lot of systems are fed through greed, be it in power, money or other commodities, through promotion, gifts, saleries, bonuses, positions and so on, all in the name of making more profits.

Most people go along with these systems because we're ultimatly greedy beings ourselves, and because profits lead to progress. Right? We're getting paid, what's the problem? The paycheck is ultimately all that matters! Screw the world; I want to get paid!

There's good and bad design

There's good and bad design, even in the way you design a business, corporation, departement, branch, country or world. Any bad business is designed that way. Any bad country is designed that way. Any bad person is, when it comes down to it, designed that way. It may be design by commitee or design by firm or design by fiery young angry men or design by the individual himself. But never think that these things just happen due to some crazy natural laws or human notions or magic or pixie dust or God or whatever; these things are designed through human interactions.

We can only blame ourselves. Enron was designed to be bad. The designers probably didn't try to design it so that it would blow up and take so much with it, but that's probably because - surprise! - the designers were bad.

A manager of a branch can design the interaction between the people to a large degree. Just like we design products, we can design attitudes, environments, platforms, spaces, interactions, workflows ... endless streams of design.

A lot of us call themselves designers by trade, be it graphical design, interaction design, visual, product or information design, but the truth is that we're all designers, and surely need to treat our various jobs as we approach design in general;

Whenever we design something we work against a number of constraints, such as esthetics, functionality, market, usability, innovation and so forth; we try our hardest to make the best whatchamacallit within those constraints. We need to make intelligent descisions about our designs, fold moral and ethics into it, make them usable and innovative. We need to design life better.

What is better design?

Better design is when you design something, the positives for all (and remember; we're talking about a model of design in which ethics and morals are an important factor) far outweigh the negatives for a few.

If we're to design a new combustion engine the ethical constraints should also include things such as pollution and its effects, availability of the fuel and the effects of creating this fuel. In fact, the ethical model here extends quite a number of steps away from the capitalistic model which cares about profit now instead of ethical profit over time.

I personally have respect for every living thing as part of my ethical model, and that includes those living things that supercede me as well. The future is full of living things that I shall never meet, but I do recognise that they have the right to be born into a world where I haven't soiled their drinking-water. In fact, I value their right to untaintedness more than I value any short-term profits.

If we keep on designing stuff based on short-term profits, where will we end up? This is a principle that works within any design concept, from making a paperclip to shaping the world we live in; short-term design won't last bar few exceptions. So when our design is supposed to be short-term, how can we expect anything else? If we specifically design a bad interface to our OPAC, then that's what we're stuck with. If our road-system was short-term designed, then we must face the problem of that in the long run.

None of this is new

None of this is new. I've said nothing here that people can't nod to and recognise. So why bother?

I'm worried. In the next 30 years a number of things will have changed dramatically ; no or little oil, with amazing prices for anything based on that, from plastics to petrol. Less vegetation ; a warmer world, less uptake of carbon-dioxide, meaning poorer air quality, more health issues. Less diversity ; plants and animals everywhere are in decline (either in quantity or quality), from fish and whale down to trees and food. More humans ; more demand on our resources, more socially unsound interactions, more war, more famine, more stubborn humans who design for the short-term.

I'm worried about the lack of design processes when we are designing our lives. We've established they are a crucial part of business and organisations, but somehow not life? It seems we prioritise short-term profits over life. It sounds crazy, but I've stopped and looked around lately; where do I see evidence of a better designed life?

I must have take a wrong turn somewhere; I must have come to a different world than I thought ; This is not the one I wanted to live in.

3 July 2006

OzIA 2006 : the coolest little IA gathering

I've been quite busy lately with all sorts of different things, but of all the different busy stuff I've been doing the thing I'm most excited about is the OzIA 2006 Retreat, a small conference on information architecture, held in Sydney (Australia) at the end of September.

I did the design and templates, while Eric handled coordination, content and nitpicking. I'm actually really pleased with the whiteboard look; it is exactly how most IA's I know work and how it usually looks. :)

I may hold a presentation there too about Topic Maps, data modelling and implications of information design, which links into things like category- and field theory, cognition and natural philosophy of complex systems. I'll let you know, but I'm definitly going to be there, so all I can say is, see you there!