Episode 12: Design and Ethics

In the Season 1 Finale episode, Sushi and Angie discuss some of the ethical questions a designer faces.


We talk about the manifesto made at Techfestival in Copenhagen this year: The Copenhagen Letter

We talk about technological unemployment.

We talk about the inconvenience that is Planned Obsolescence.

We discuss the importance of Design Leadership.

We mention Pantone‘s colour of the year 2018.

We talk about the staircase at Alliance Francaise, Bangalore that is both elegant and inclusive.



Episode Transcript

Angie: Hi this is Design Lota.

Sushi: The podcast where we talk about life as Indian Designers! I’m Sushi.

Angie: And I’m Angie!

Sushi: The end of the 20-17 is fast approaching. I feel like this year just went so fast.

Angie: I think, the speed of each year is directly proportional to the average wifi speed that year.

So are we going to do something like “the year in design”?

Sushi: Wow sounds like a lot to discuss

Angie: Maybe we could simplify it

Sushi: Will robots officially take over our design jobs?

Angie: Will there be new kinds of design jobs in the future?

Sushi: Will the gap between the rich and poor continue to increase?

Angie: Will our lives on the internet become more legitimate than our lives offline and will our memories be stored on the cloud?

Sushi: Is there any chance that global warming can be reversed, we don’t have to eat plastic fish, and all the coral reefs don’t die so we can still take up Vaishnavi Murthy’s offer to learn scuba diving?

Angie: Breathe Sushi, Breathe!

Sushi: Seems like a scary note to end the year on!

Angie: Actually, it all seems to boil down to ethics. Maybe we should talk about how, we as designers have a role in all this!

Sushi: Should designers really care about ethics? I mean, who defines what is really ethical in our world which has practically got every shade in the grayscale?

Angie: I think that’s precisely why designers should care about ethics. In fact, just this year, the Copenhagen letter for technology was drafted by technologists, designers, philosophers, educators, and artists. This was at a conference called Techfestival at Copenhagen. The letter – which is actually a manifesto – touches upon a lot of points around taking responsibility as designers and builders of technology. One key point they made here is about moving from human-centred design to humanity-centred design.

Sushi: Yes, that letter gave me some hope for the future. Also it’s great to know that there are people reflecting on these important questions about our future as people and as designers. What do you think about the part about gleaning data without consent and treating human beings as commodities?

Angie: You know what they say sushi – if everything is free, you’re the product! (haha)

Sushi: But there is a fine line between invading someone’s privacy and using their data to create or sell targeted products and services.

Angie: You know, we designers have always been about the needs and wants of people. We talk about what gets attention visually, what makes someone click on a button, look at something or not look at something, or compels them want to buy and use a product. Studying motivation and persuasion is like getting a hold of a treasure if we are able to crack it. But there are implications to our actions as designers.

Sushi: Yes, like at what point does immersive become addictive? And who should take responsibility for that consequence?

Angie: Some features can even be like digital hidden sugar in products – and this doesn’t come with an ingredients label. Algorithms deciding what you would like to see or maybe it’s more like what someone wants you to see.

Sushi: But as with any other substance abuse, it can be argued that the user still is the one who makes the decision to consume it. So, a manipulative algorithm is still something I can deal with. What shocked me is the AI that can design a logo!

Angie: Oh yes, you told me about this! How does that work?

Sushi: I came across this website, where the AI asks you a bunch of questions about your brand and creates a logo for you. I tried it out just for fun and it was really quite terrible, but I can see how AI can get smarter over time and actually become okay at this. And people who are willing to settle for mediocre and uncreative logos might find this cheaper. So, this begs the question what is the future of design jobs…if there will be any at all!

Angie: That’s an important question, Sushi. One that probably was asked during the industrial revolution too. Deciding to employ an AI for say, a logo could be a cheaper, less time-consuming and less complicated –

Sushi: Because you can’t drive you AI designer up the wall with your last minute – small 100s of changes?

Angie: Okay, that might just be the real reason. But yes there is something called technological unemployment where loss of jobs happen because of advancements in technology…we are probably at the brink of something like that…

Sushi: Yes, that leaves people at the bottom of the food chain quite vulnerable. I can imagine how this can contribute to the ever widening gap between the rich and the poor. The good news is there are a lot of Indian designers getting involved with the handicraft sector, and this kind of uplifts and values the whole act of doing something skillfully by hand, which no amount of automation can replace. Now this is what I call ‘design for good’.

Angie: I’ve always found that term kind of funny – design for good? As opposed to what?

Sushi: Well, I don’t think there’s really a “design for bad” unless you’re working for the mafia. I think the term “design for good” is just pointing towards a deliberate effort to take certain values into consideration- like sustainability, responsible production, etc…and I believe that this is a direction design should head in anyway! Another way one could look at “design for good” is probably in terms of designing for social enterprises, or providing livelihoods to marginalised groups.

Angie: I think the flip side to this conversation is also the question of why we consider a group of people in need of upliftment. Sometimes we may have to just observe and learn from them and not sell “empowerment” to them.

Sushi: But there are clearly some marginalised groups in our society, and they’re not exactly happy with their status quo…they may have aspirations, and I think we need to make an effort to identify these issues to help level the playing field. Like designing assistive devices for those with special needs. So selling empowerment isn’t what we’re trying to do here…

Angie: But do you think it’s okay that these assistive devices are being profited from?

Sushi: Profit may be one of the goals of the company selling these devices, but I think the very fact that they have spent time and resources in developing these products is a step in the right direction. This is where I feel that while it’s important to design objects and experiences tailored to those with disabilities, the larger goal must be inclusiveness.

Angie: So there shouldn’t be a special category for those with special needs, but their needs are taken into consideration while designing anything, right?

Sushi: Yeah! And when something is designed keeping inclusiveness in mind, it stands to benefit everyone and sometimes even gives way to new innovation. For example an elegantly designed slope to the entrance of a building could replace the need for separate stairs AND an ugly looking wheelchair ramp on the side, that’s kind of been forced into the layout. I’ve seen a few really interesting ones. I really like the one Alliance Francaise Bangalore.

Angie: So maybe one of the key components of ethics is inclusiveness. Speaking of inclusiveness, there are situations and spaces specifically designed to keep out certain types of people, creating an exclusive sort of “club”.

Sushi: Are you talking about design conferences?

Angie:  I wasn’t, though it could apply there as well! I’m talking about a very intentional design choice to exclude – for example hostile urban architecture – seats in public places that are designed to be intentionally uncomfortable so that people don’t lounge around for too long.

Sushi: One of the companies I did a project with, wanted me to design a reception area, that was connected to the entrance in such a way that to  visitors, it seemed like an open office, and gave them the perception that they could walk in and walk out, but they couldn’t see what was actually going on inside the building. Because they had the issue of competitors sending spies. I think the key is to not make visitors with good intentions feel unwelcome, but being cautious at the same time.

Angie: You know, another way to really inconvenience someone is planned obsolescence. Like buying a pepper mill which you can’t refill, so when the the pepper is over, you have to spend twice the amount of money and buy a new pepper mill.

Sushi: Those ones are flooding the shelves these days…all in the guise of “convenience” or “smart packaging”. And I find this happening a lot with tech as well. I buy a laptop, with a year-old technology, and two years later it gets declared obsolete! And there’s just one chip in there that changes everything.

Angie: I think that’s also because technology is changing rapidly and there is also a market for people who want that latest feature to play with and putting it out there can result in more innovation. But I get where you’re coming from – where it feels like the new shiny thing is forced on you and your older gadgets becomes useless in an instant.

Sushi: Yeah, I still think the user should have a choice to keep using their product if they are satisfied with its performance. I’m sure there are ways to allow that to happen, but companies may not be able to profit as much?

Angie: Profit is one of the reasons, yes. But maybe it’s also a huge bother keeping track of all the versions, fighting compatibility issues…

Sushi: Have you heard of the circular economy model? It’s all the rage..though a large part of it is still theoretical in the Indian context. One of its aspects is designing products for longevity, which means they are easily repairable and upgradeable too. So you don’t design a product that you later have to figure out how to repair or upgrade. You engineer those facilities in while designing the products.

Angie: That’s quite fascinating. I do feel that products are of lower quality these days to make room for the newer and better thing. Just today I was discussing with some friends about how the previous generation had gas stoves that lasted 20 years or so but now the products don’t seem to make it that long.

Sushi: That’s so true. At a glance, especially these household appliances look a lot sleeker than they did 10 years ago, with the so-called “modern designs”, but really, just adding an outer shell of elegance and a bunch of features isn’t helpful if the product conks off in no time.

Angie: Yes. And if it does conk off, there are hardly any repair shops anymore, thanks to this consumerist culture.

Sushi: You know, often there are products – and I specially see this trend in India – there are products that are marketed as “Made in Germany” or “made in Japan”, so there’s this perception created among us Indians that the quality and design must be undoubtedly great, and many times, these products don’t work as well as they should. I had such an experience of buying a so called “German Sharpener” from a Kajal brand that promotes themselves as very ethical. It just wouldn’t sharpen evenly, it made a mess and my kajal pencil shrunk to a tiny stump just after a few days, with hardly any usage. When I complained to the company about this, they refused to believe me saying it was a “German” sharpener. Yep. That was their response. I even sent them a video to prove it, but in the end they replied continuing to insist that it was German, and hence flawless and offering me a 10% discount on my next purchase as a goodwill gesture.

Angie: That’s just the worst!

Sushi: Funny thing is, for the longest time, I myself couldn’t believe it was a problem with the sharpener because at the back of my mind I had this notion that “Hey its German! German products are flawless” but the truth is, anything made by anyone can have flaws, and while this is a small issue, its a lesson, that we should be aware of these things, and be able to call out the emperor’s clothes.

Angie: True! It’s not justified to market a product that doesn’t work by saying it has superior design or “it’s from faareign”. And also you hear this term “reputed company”. What that used to mean was the products were of good quality. Now I’m not sure what it means anymore.

Sushi: When we brought a brand new fridge from a “reputed” brand known especially for making fridges, I did not anticipate that in the very first week, the freezer door would would break.

Angie: Do you think that was a quality issue?

Sushi: Yes, to be more precise, inappropriate material was used. It was this thin plastic – the same grade of stuff used to make those transparent rulers? Why would they use such a weak material on a part they knew was prone to stress and freezing? So the first question on my mind was if this was poor material choice by the designer, or negligence by the company.

Angie: Yes, in the long journey from design to production…our concept changes a lot of hands. But we must be aware of what eventually happens to our designs when they meet the person it was intended for, while accepting that sometimes it goes beyond our scope. But we shouldn’t stop noticing and talking about it and do something about it if we can.

Sushi: I’ve experienced times when I’ve designed something, and once its handed over to manufacturing, those people make changes that they think will bring down the cost, but totally ruins the design, or takes away from the user experience. Because they are not thinking about the user experience. And when you confront them, they just say “no problem.” Of course there’s a problem dude! That’s why we are even having this conversation!

Angie: Yes, there are ‘business’ reasons why we find a different product than what we envisioned and this might mean a compromise in quality and lowered user experience. I think here is where we as designers must learn to be stronger advocates of design making business sense eventually.

Sushi: Do you think that this already happening today? Getting a design a seat at the boardroom table, so to speak?

Angie: Yes, now we hear terms like designpreneur and there are companies that have designers as founders where the empathy-based approach has led to business success. So, I do think change is on the horizon

Sushi: So we need a humanity advocate in higher places, I guess. And also each designer thinking in this way and demonstrating the change it can bring can make business believe in it.

Angie: Yes, the more we are able to cut through to other so called non design layers of the whole decision making, building and production process, be it digital or physical, the more we will be able to put in that human centred touch. I heard a line the other day that I loved. Design is too important to be left to designers. So I think helping your organisation think in the designerly way – actually I don’t even think we should reinforce the bubble by calling it the designerly way…but just sharing the tools like empathy with other departments can bring change. We do see some companies lately openly making a decision to be ‘design-led’ and that’s a good thing.

Sushi: So when you freelance or have your own design studio, your business is pretty much design-led. You also get to take decisions, like if you don’t want to design, say, cigarette packaging, or you don’t want to rip off a design feature from another app…but as a designer working for a large organisation where you’re just one tiny cog…how do you say no, or avoid such work?

Angie: I think how and if you would say no would depend on how serious the implications of your work are and what your own personal value system comprises of. It helps if we equip ourselves as designers to have those difficult conversations with say – a client or a boss who wants that copied feature and go to the heart of why they want it – and see if the deeper need around that can be addressed.

Sushi: Yep, seeing from multiple perspectives, and empathising. After all, the client is human too!

Angie: Yes, mostly. :p Hey listeners, how was ‘the year in design’ for you?

Sushi: Did you face the ethical question in your design practice this year?

Angie: and oh, do you like the Pantone colour for 2018?

Sushi: Ah ultra violet. I don’t like it yet, but I could start to.

Angie: I wasn’t asking you Sushi 😛 So listeners, do tweet to us @designlota and tell us all about it.

Sushi: You can find the transcript and references for this episode at

We’ll see you in 2018, in a brand new season of Design Lota – the podcast where we talk about life as Indian Designers.

Angie: until then

Together: Bye!


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