Ethics in Service Design

Inspired by the recent New York Times article about anthropologists collaborating with US Armed Forces in the Middle East, design anthopologist Dori Tunstall raises the issue of ethics in service design over at Design Observer.

How should the design community respond if the U.S. Army asked us to join teams to do “service design” projects in Afghanistan? What if Uncle Sam wanted our design thinking?

Many of the comments to her post seem not to make a distinction between ethics and personal preference. Others limit the input of the community to questions of performance integrity and product integrity, i.e. owing clients our best work, and holding solutions to a standard of fitness for purpose.

It’s not clear to what extent Tunstall’s question is particular to the field of service design. The discipline seems to be ahead of the curve with its focus on a “triple bottom line” centered around not only financial but environmental and social concerns. Issues of geo-politics clearly fall within those realms. This begins to form a shared language for discussing matters of ethics; in fact, it makes the conversation unavoidable.

Richard Buchanan’s “Design Ethics” in the Encyclopedia of Science, Technology, and Ethics is a good source for exploring the impact of designers as moral agents.

A fourth ethical dimension of design arises from the service nature of the design arts, and presents some of the most difficult ethical issues designers face. The design arts are fundamentally a practical service to human beings in the accomplishment of individual and collective purposes. … The potential for moral conflicts and dilemmas is so great that in this fourth ethical dimension the ethical problems of design are essentially the same as the ethical problems of citizenship and practical living in general.

Buchanan often cites the Nazi concentration camps of World War II as an example of exquisite design leveraged for an exceedingly immoral and horrible purpose. As long as designers are human, design will never be a morally neutral act.

Update: Anne Galloway on the reaction to Tunstall’s article over at Purse Lip Square Jaw.




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