Screen shot 2012-06-27 at 3.17.23 PM Theory

Anyone Can Design, Only a Few Can Be Good

Design has never been more accessible than at this moment, and design is getting more and more accessible. Not only are design tools more user friendly, design thinking is a skill-set that is used from call agents to CEO’s. This is a very good thing, it makes that almost everything we see, hear, feel, taste or use is designed. As a designer this makes me happy.

What doesn’t make me happy, is a bad design. Which is exactly the downfall of the design age we live in, everything is designed, but only a few things are designed by actual designers. And you can tell when it’s not designed by a designer, even if it’s not that poor.

A good designer is ethical by definition

Image source: http://darkpatterns.org


So what is this unique element that separates the designer from the marketeer, copywriter, programmer and the rest of the world? I believe that design ethics separate the designers from the rest of the world. In fact, the stronger the design(ers) ethics are, the better of a designer he is.

Designers naturally have the urge to do the right thing. Historically, this was to make things look pretty rather than ugly. Today, I think the right thing to do is to make things good, rather than bad.

Defining ‘good’ is simple. Something is good when it is made in such a fashion that the person who is using it will appreciate it. This still means we have to make it pretty, but it also means we have to make it useful, usable, safe, fast, reliable etcetera.

To achieve this, you rarely find yourself taking the easiest solution to a problem. In fact it rarely allows the designer to know the solution of a problem at an early stage. Hence, this is our design process.

Exactly at the design process we find the base for design ethics. Being able to follow your own process, or at least follow a process that allows you to design good is where a designer separates himself from a lot of other professionals. A good designer is able to persuade a reasonable client to follow a good design process in order to get the best design for its users. However, when forced into a process that doesn’t suit your design approach, it means as a freelance designer you sometimes are forced to turn down an assignment, or as a design professional to disobey the procedures within the company you work. Generally you can find the ethics for a good design process in design principles, a good example for such principles are Chad Vavra’s 10 Principles of Interaction Design.

Another important part of ethics, is the end product you design. The ubiquity of design allows everything to be designed. However, the designer is always somewhat personally responsible for what happens with the product he or she designed. As a human being you should know what part of the world you want to participate in, and what part you don’t want to be associated with. I found that many designers are very ‘ethical’ people in that sense. Personally; I will never work for gambling products or child marketing. Others might never work for the weapons industry or even banks.

Conclusion

In a world where design has become part of our society, the quality of design lies more in its ethics than the designers skills. The definition from good design has shifted from good looking to being good itself.

The way good design is created, and what exactly that is, is something every designer has to define him or herself.

There really isn’t a whole lot more that will help designers define good but mostly design good things more than design ethics. If you are a designer, you should already be aware of your design ethics. Stay faithful to them, and make both your world and my world a little better.

Comments are highly appreciated! You can also discuss this post on Hacker News

11 comments

  1. Linards

    Thank you for the article, was simple and very insightful at the same time. I like the idea of starting from two directions in the process, I think it gives you some peace of mind that you are doing well. Have not tried that yet, but looking forward to implement basic thought of the better design. Cheers, all the best

  2. interactivechris

    Cool article, but what if you’re designing to increase conversion or improve usability? I created a lot of stuff for the goal of conversion – using design not only as a usability but also as a marketing instrument.

    There is a lot of psychology and thinking behind persuasive design and I found myself quite a lot of time in the position that I was forced to let go of my usual design approach: my designs looked not “good”, but were working like hell (measured via A/B tests, user groups etc, funnels).

    So, is it up to the designer to define what is good design?

  3. Curtis

    @interactivechris. Basically the answer is in the article that you aren’t a ‘Designer’ if conversion rate is your primary motive. Your more a ‘marketeer’.

    Your designing by the numbers, not the ‘good’

  4. Matthew

    Interesting piece! I certainly agree that good ethics and judgement often make for good design. When I think on this more it seems obvious that everyone ought to be doing what is right/good for the people they are serving. Full-time designer’s just have the potential to affect far more interactions of a greater number of people than the ‘average Joe’ perhaps would.

    I think interactivechris’s last question is begging a more fundamental metaphysical question which I’m sure we’d have various answers for: who defines what is good?

    I think the reason bad design is so prevalent (even by full-time designers) is precisely because many of us define our own ethics. In other words, the heart of the problem is usually a problem with the heart.

  5. mary

    a good designer is sometimes forced by customers not to draw too inovative sites because they are afraid to try something new. so this is the sad thing

  6. Mary Specht

    Great post. It speaks to the need for designers to have great negotiation skills. Making a case for ethics isn’t always easy, especially when other team members may push for shady tactics to make an extra buck.

  7. Adam

    I like this pure and simple idea that designers are moral and bad design comes from straying from “designing” and moving towards marketing/numbers/etc

    the only issue I see for this to work is the designer must have executive control over published content which (in my experience) is rarely ever the case – thoughts?

  8. Naomi Niles

    I believe you’re right. The biggest source of angst for me throughout my design career is doing things “wrong”. Almost all of the projects that I’ve taken on that I’ve seriously regretted were because I felt strong-handed by clients or some other force to do things in a way I didn’t feel comfortable with.

    Not things I considered “ethical” per se, but things like taking shortcuts by not doing enough research upfront, etc.

    Whenever I’ve voiced concerns, clients and others don’t get it. They think it’s me implying that I’m upset because I want to do things my way, primadonna like. But, it’s not that at all. I just want to do things the right way, like you mention.

    Like interactivechris, I’ve done a large amount of conversion optimization work, which I agree tends to be more of a marketing activity. I believe good design can still find a place somewhere in there though. It’s really a case of balancing the needs of the business with the needs of the user. It doesn’t have to be one or the other. It’s almost never easy, but it’s not impossible either.

    I’ve also refused to employ tactics that I think make for a bad user experience, but typically increase conversions. For example, pop-up module windows. I hate them, users typically hate them, and I can’t see how they can really help a business connect with it’s customers in a meaningful way, long-term.

  9. Ian Hamilton

    Just two things, the image asking if the design pattern of pres-selecting add-ons is ethical.

    No, it isn’t. As a result it has now (as of October) been made illegal throughout the EU. All European countries must now implement their own specific laws forbidding that design pattern within the next two years.

    Secondly about being able to appreciate it – I disagree strongly with this. In my experience good design is usually exactly the opposite, so transparent and easy that people don’t even realise it’s there.

    It may incite an initial emotional reaction, allow you to satisfy all of your goals, and leave a lasting impression, but all of these things can (and often do) happen at a subconscious level.

    So rather than actively and consciously appreciating something, the hallmark of a good design might be successful conversion, or it being the first destination that comes to mind when trying to satisfy a similar goal in future.

    Lastly, about looking pretty. This is not in the slightest bit important for the vast majority of sites, as they are functional transactional or information delivery systems. Certainly none of the most popular websites (see alexa) got there by looking pretty.

    Visual design is very important, but not in terms of ‘looking pretty’. It is important in terms of inciting an initial emotional reaction, usability (visual cues and emphasis), branding and competitor differentiation. A website could easily fail on all of these things but still ‘look pretty’, in which case the visual design effort was completely wasted (for everyone other than the designer who’s personal aesthetics it pleased).

    Also just to contribute to the comments debate about ethics Vs conversion, user goals Vs business goals. In almost all (but not every) circumstance the two can be aligned.

    If you have a marketing site the fundamental business goal is to reach as many people as possible. If you have a transactional site the fundamental business goal is to obtain as many conversions as possible. So it’s a case of explaining good design principles in terms that the business can understand, which is relatively straightforward due to the wealth of existing examples and case studies showing the difference that usability tweaks make to things like reach and conversion.

    What’s essential is to be able to communicate and sell well, and not just, as I have often seen, reduce it to “I think this approach is best” – say that and you’re dead in the water, because if your boss or client thinks differently, like it or not you’re working for them and their opinion therefore carries more weight.

    Until a site is actually launched, every stage of the design process from specs to wireframes, moodboards to fully realised PSDs, is simply an illustration of an idea, and it’s your job to sell that idea, inculding the ethics. I’d actually say that’s just as important a part of your job as the designing itself.

    So returning to the first point as an example, preselecting add-ons.

    Tell a business that you think that’s unethical and you’ll hit a brick wall, as the chances are that the main business goal is simply to make money, and on the surface of it you’re saying something contrary to that.

    Instead if you explain exactly why that is bad for users, ie. chance of inadvertently purchasing something they didn’t want, and then how that translates into business value, ie. short term possibility of increased revenue but resulting in damage to brand perception and customer loyalty, then it becomes a much easier discussion, especially if you can introduce some research (or borrow from others’) to get some data to back you up. It doesn’t have to be hard quantifiable data either, anecdotal is extremely powerful – not many things speak more powerfully to a business stakeholder than a video fo a potential customer having an issue with their product.

    If the research doesn’t back you up then chances are it’s your ethics that are at fault, and the thing that you think is bad is actually something that has genuine value to end users.

  10. Ian Hamilton

    Hah oops that wasn’t two things was it.

  11. Richard de Vries

    Hi Ian,

    That has got to be the longest comment I have ever read. It’s almost longer than the post itself :-) To be honest I agree with almost every point you make there, conversion != bad ethics. Conversion is the perfect driver to align business goals with user needs. However, I do believe that, as a designer, you should always design things people will appreciate. I agree that sometimes (and perhaps very often) this means that whatever system or user interaction is active it isn’t actively noticeable to the user. This in itself is not a new aspect to design, when designing a magazine (and thank god I never have to do that!) you also make 99% of the page plain and let only a few things stand out. But hiding interactions can be something a user can appreciate.

    I didn’t know about the pattern becoming illegal in the EU, but I am very curious about the implementation of this law, it seems like applying old laws to new environments. Like you pointed out, in the long run these ways of conversion optimalisation are short term boosts that in the long run make companies lose more money than it will gain.

    Thanks for the comments Ian! (And also thanks for the comments everyone else!)

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