What is a Design Crime Against Humanity?

I got a call from an eager industrial design student day before yesterday. His core question for me was: What is your Design Ethic? He was really asking me about my design philosophy.

A definition: Ethics are a branch of philosophy that addresses questions about morality—that is, concepts such as good and bad, noble and ignoble, right and wrong, justice, and virtue.

Part 1
Real Ethics and Industrial Design (This applies to Advertising Gurus and Graphic Designers too)
How people are treated, and how honesty is handled in the course of a design project, are indications of the Ethics of a Designer. I believe morality clearly deals with truth. I am not a relativist. You see relativism is at the top of the great long inclined slope to failure. Truth is truth. Simple. Clear. Of course issues can become grey (a good color for a designer) and less than clear as they are hashed around. Morality deals with you, people around you, decisions you make, cause and the 10 commandments. Rarely does morality deal with design. But, sometimes it does.

The edge of the immoral category can be seen when a product is brought to market that is a poor solution. Maybe it creates a feeling of frustration in the product user. Maybe it causes them to scream in frustration. This is immoral and a design crime. Even worse, maybe it looks great and does not work worth a flip. Great looks and poor function = a kind of mass-produced assault on the kind customers that want the thing. Let’s call it a design crime x quantity sold or a design crime against a slice of humanity. Designers should know the long arm of the feds already hits companies for certain kinds of mass-produced failures.

Long ago – in the mid 80’s computers that exceeded the defined standard of electronic emissions could be fined $125 per day per product sold. I believe it was the FCC that thought of protecting us in this way. Of course this is 100% a function of the product. This is also the FCC allows us to watch OTA (over the air) TV without significant interference . It is the way you can make a cell phone call and not have a WiFi signal scramble your loved one’s sweet voice. Back to it. Designers that draw people in with a hot looking product just to provide a poorly functioning one have also just given all industrial designers a black eye.

I do believe it is immortal to mislead people though design. I believe you can rank the level of this type of failure. The more of the misleading product you make, (quantity) the worse it gets. So I guess that problem can range from less bad (made just a few units) to more bad (made a few hundred thousand). I have a designer friend who, as a young designer, was taken into the client’s warehouse. You could see boxes of product stacked to the ceiling and lined up as far as you could see (this was way before “just in time” manufacturing). An ocean of kraft colored board and the client’s logo proudly printed on each and every box. The older designer, the one with his name on the door of the design firm, told him “if you make a mistake and it gets into the product, look how it is amplified. Look how many times it is replicated.”
Well it is true. If you launch a design into the market that causes frustration, think of how many times that frustration happens. If it was a big selling product you could have pushed the tipping point of frustration right over to start a revolution. You could cause the economy to take a dip. Of course, it would never go that way. But clearly, this is wrong. Problems multiplied just equal more problems. It is immoral because people in their frustration feel mislead or lied to. Mass production leverages this way up. Deception is deception. Quantity is Quantity.

The real power in design, the big win – is in finding the design approach that excites people, that solves real problems, that is simple to understand and easy to use. The big, big win is in while doing these things, it is also beautiful, elegant and feels good to hold or touch. The big, big, big win is where this product becomes an extension of the company brand and exceeds the expectations of each customer. When this incredible phenomenon is multiplied into the hundreds of thousands of units and you can imagine row after row of pre just-in time kraft colored boxes with the company logo you have to just be pleased that design has done a very good thing. Think how many kind buyers of your product may have just crossed the tipping point into material happiness. Not the ultimate happiness, fleeting, but a smile is a smile. Mass production leverages this way up. Oh Happy Day. Ooo – Behold the Power of Design.

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