A Portfolio and blog for Mustafa Kurtuldu

Design, economics and ethics

Are ethical choices economic or moral? In this article, we look at both

I feel that we as an industry are sometimes a little unwelcoming to newcomers and at times can come across as a little condescending. Especially when beginners are caught using technology or tools that are deemed too simplistic.

Take WordPress, the free content management system used to power blogs, that makes up ~30% of websites on the internet. Also ~80% of sites use PHP, the programming language that powers for WordPress. But both are universally often mocked by the developer community. They are seen as too easy, technically broken and not used by REAL developers.

Both PHP and WordPress are, however, easy to use for people who want to get stuff done and accessible with people who do not have a computer science background. There is a creation tool tradition that the most accessible tools to use are the ones that get adopted. It doesn’t matter how intrinsically bad they may be, if they work they’re used. This can also mean something that was previously difficult to do now becomes democratized. The world of type saw this in years past. Many developers who spent years learning hardcore skills feel that novices are undercutting them. It’s almost like a class issue, as in traditionally educated computer science graduates making the ‘upper’ and ‘middle’ class of tech, and the rest who would make up the proletariat. How we treat the newcomer bothers me and this behavior is one of many ethical challenges that we face; another is the toolset and culture that surrounds human-centered design.

Recently a colleague shared these tarot cards, designed by Artefact, which help guide designers about the potential pitfalls of their creations and to think about the ethics behind them. So when you are coming up with ideas in a workshop, you might take a look at “The Radio Star” card, which asks “Who or what disappears if your product is successful?”. So you might be solving a challenge by fixing a problem, but you could also be causing a much bigger issue for another group in the process.

“Don’t just ask, “how might we?” ask, “at what cost?”
-Rob Girling and Emilia Palaveeva, Artefact

‘Design thinking’ is a term thrown around like ‘blockchain’ or ‘organic’ but when you break it down, it is just a series out of activities that can be followed by those who never went to design school. When at college we are asked to come up with a solution for a brief, this usually involves some research, then multiple ideas developed on your own, followed by a final crit session. In design thinking workshops you get groups of people to work similarly, also known as convergent and divergent thinking. So rather than settling on the first thing you come up with in isolation, you develop a series of ideas, iterate, and collectively solve a distinct problem. But we seldom dig a little deeper to ask about the impact design decisions will have on other groups of people. For example, you could create apps that inadvertently encourage addictive behaviors, which in turn could ruin lives, or perhaps you end up disrupting another industry altogether, leaving others unemployed.

I have always found these issues challenging because at another level you could argue that these ideas are about entitlement. Some people have the privilege of being ethical because they can financially support themselves and not do a job that they are being forced to do. It takes a b̵r̵a̵v̵e̵ ̵s̵o̵u̵l̵ someone with the economic power to say “NO” and back that up by leaving the place of work. But if we all did it then perhaps the cost wouldn’t be so significant, but the first who do will always suffer. Just ask Colin Kaepernick.

In 1995, Thomas Hine wrote an article in the New York Times, about Frank Gianninoto’s design of the now iconic Marlboro cigarettes packet. At the end he said “Everybody knows, intellectually at least, that great packages don’t always hold good things. But that is a truth that the best packages try to make people forget.”

Being principled in the tools that you use as developers or designers, or challenging the ethics of a brief is essential. We need to remind ourselves of this every time we come to designing something new and objectively challenge the design brief so we can create things that are truly user-centered. We need to adjust our thinking or else we could end up creating more problems. But at the same time, we have to be honest about the place of privilege and strength we come from before talking down to others about the choices, or lack of, that they have to make.


This article is for a new youtube series called “Designer Vs Developer”, which you can see here on our Youtube Chrome Channel. You can also listen to a longer version of the conversation by downloading or subscribing to our podcast.
First appeared in Creative Review.