Service Design Melbourne

Design & Ethics #1 2018: Is ethics in design just a professional question?

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2018 Design & Ethics series kicked off with a rich discussion on where and how ethics feature in our professional and personal lives. It was led by Lucy West and drew from her research topic in her Masters of Design Futures (RMIT) coursework, joined by Harriet Wakelam (IAG) and Jeremy Yuille (Meld). This is a partial and personal report by one of the participants, Yoko Akama.

We started with Lucy’s provocation: “As design increases its reach, designers have the distinct opportunity to embody and share ethical practices as part of their methodologies, approaches and ways of working. But, are the ethics of design just a professional question? What role does our humanity play in our ethical design practice, and does our practice reflect our own cultures, values and experiences?”

In response, Harriet and Jeremy led the charge in conversations about specific moments of decision-making. These moments are touchpoints that designers are invited into to shape, yet these touchpoints are also entangled in far broader systems. So where and how should we intervene in such systems – systems like time, language, knowledge, ecologies, futures, market-based economy, culture, colonialism… – that impact on what we do? This triggered discussion on what agency we (as designers) might have in making such interventions? Paraphrasing Jeremy’s point that “challenges often find us” as designers, how do we guide people, like clients or customers? Harriet described “design as a pattern that we overlay on a situation”, which led us to consider what bias and assumptions are already built into such patterns when we are stewarding people to make the ‘right’ decision?

Conversations took a turn when other participants began to question the assumptions made when referring to ‘design’. Design is not neutral. The version we commonly use originates from the West, has legacies of industrialisation and modernism embedded within its language and ways of acting. The unsustainable and neoliberal world that design has helped to create can arguably be called unethical. Bonnie reminded us that we were meeting on the lands of the Kulin Nation, and asked: “what have we forgotten to listen and learn from, by people who had warned us about the world we now live in”? Rachel mulled upon the scales of short/long term, micro/macro ethics and commercial/communal tensions that our culture, system and understanding poorly supports. Ryley then shared the Social Design Toolkit as a resource developed for and by communities in the Global South to arm themselves against well-intentioned Social Designers. Instead of needing dependency on design, how do we create conditions for people to self-determine what their futures should be? Such troubling (but compelling) conversations will likely continue in the next Design and Ethics in June, led by Ryley Lawson and co-organised by Jaskaran Singh Bawa – so watch this space!

*Design and Ethics—Communities of Care and Contest*
The second Design and Ethics event aims to make space for emergent and pluralistic ways of talking about and practicing design. What place does solidarity have amongst early-career practitioners trying to find space in the industry? How are we able to contest, challenge, and critique the understandings of design that are embedded in our communities?


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