Moral responsibility


Talking about moral responsibility isn’t easy.  We all have our moral successes and failings, and bringing the topic up can be a touchy subject.   Your “moral failing” may be considered nothing by one person, and your “moral high point” might be considered a grievous sin by another.

In spite of this,  we should be at least be able to show others our own moral North Star, and try to sail by it.   It is also helpful if others can clarify what truly needs to be done (and not done), especially with regards to our working lives.

In the past week, I came across two people who work/worked in the real world (designers) who are shining of examples of doing ones work (profession) with a moral compass.

The first was Mike Monteiro, who has a classic presentation, “F*ck you, pay me,” which should be seen by every working artist or consultant.  That presentation was great.   Following some of his other presentations, most notably “How Designers Destroyed the World,” he brought up the issue of what designers should be working on. For example, he brings up creating an ad for a cigarette company; one is “a youthful indiscretion behind the barn,” but making them your life’s work is nothing to be proud of.   He’s also not fond of Facebook and Mark Z, who have screwed up people’s lives because of bad design (when 1 billion people use your service, even a one percent error can translate to 10 million screw-ups, all with potentially disastrous consequences).

In the talk above, he brings up Victor Papanek,  who wrote, Design For The Real World, who stated some pretty amazing things (way back in the early ’70s!). Picking up the book this week, it was apparent why he was so influential.     From the preface of the book (with shades of George Carlin):

“There are few professions more harmful than industrial design…

but only a very few of them. And possibly only one profession is phonier. Advertising design, in persuading people to buy things they don’t need, with money they don’t have, in order to impress others who don’t care, is probably the phoniest field in existence today. Industrial design, by concocting the tawdry idiocies hawked by advertisers, comes a close second. Never before in history have grown men [and women] sat down and seriously designed electric hairbrushes, rhinestone-covered shoehorns, and mink carpeting for bathrooms, and then drawn up elaborate plans to make and sell these gadgets to millions of people. Before, (“in the good old days”) if a person liked killing people, he had to become a general, purchase a coal mine, or else study nuclear physics. Today, industrial design has put murder on a mass production basis. By designing criminally unsafe automobiles that kill or maim nearly one million people around the world each year, by creating a whole new species of permanent garbage to clutter up the landscape, and by choosing materials and processes that pollute the air we breath, designers have become a dangerous breed. And the skills needed in these activities are carefully taught to young people.

“In this age of mass production when everything must be planned and designed, design has become the most powerful tool with which man shapes his tools and environments (and, by extension, society and himself). This demands high social and moral responsibility from the designer. It also demands greater understanding of the people by those who practice design and more insight into the design process by the public…

“In February of 1968 Fortune magazine published an article that foretold the end of the industrial design profession. Predictably, designers reacted with scorn and alarm. But I feel that the main arguments of the Fortune article are valid. It is about time that industrial design, as we have come to know it, should cease to exist. As long as design concerns itself with confecting trivial “toys for adults,” killing machines with gleaming tail-fins, and “sexed-up” shrouds for typewriters, toasters, telephones, and computers, it has lost all reason to exist.

“Design must become an innovative, highly creative, cross-disciplinary tool responsive to the needs of [humankind]. It must be more research oriented, and we must stop defiling the earth itself with poorly designed objects and structures….

“In an environment that is screwed up visually, physically, and chemically, the best and simplest thing that architects, industrial designers, planners, etc., could do for humanity would be to stop working entirely. In all pollution, designers are implicated at least partially. But in this book I take a more affirmative view: it seems to me that we can go beyond not working at all, and work positively. Design can and must become a way in which young people can participate in changing society.

Preface to “Design for the Real World,” by Victor Papanek. 1963-1971

We may not have, “electric hairbrushes, rhinestone-covered shoehorns, and mink carpeting for bathrooms,” but Mike Monteiro’s talk points out the oodles of iPad covers, useless and repetitive apps, and other such trivialities in the 21st century.  Replace (or add to) ‘industrial designers’ with ‘software designers’, and its relevance expands.   How many software folks work on games, or on useless apps and startups, all trying to be bought by Facebook or Google?  Anyone, from engineer to scientist can be included in the above; how many work on real world problems, versus trivialities?

The world has real problems.  We may not be able to solve them, but it doesn’t mean we should roll over and do nothing, or worse yet, contribute to them.

Questions for the week:

  • How close are you sailing to the true north of your moral compass?  What stops you?
  • How do you handle folks who sail against your own moral compass?  Do you work for them?  Do they work for you?
  • Not everyone can sail to the true north of their moral compass; what gets in the way?  What stops us?

Mike Monteiro’s talks are available on YouTube.

[Compass via Wikimedia Commons]


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