The 1 rule all designers should live by

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

When Thomas Heatherwick’s 2012 Olympic cauldron unfolded its 204 petals on a warm summer’s evening in London during the opening ceremony, many gasped in awe. It captured brilliantly, in a moment, the optimism and human achievement that’s the core of the Olympic spirit. It was something that no-one had seen before, nor expected; unique in its boldness, arguably setting a new standard.

Yet this spirit of unadulterated optimism seems to be short supply. I was surprised to read in WebDesignerDepot that some of design’s great and good have felt it necessary to publish a list of Designer Oaths. Modelled on the Hippocratic Oath every modern doctor and physician swears by to protect their patients, these designerly ones set out to ensure that design — in all its forms, practices, glory — doesn’t get too big for its boots and, ominously, that the end result ‘does good’.

The oaths are built around many fundamentals of the daily routine of a designer including judgement, empathy, human-centeredness, and creativity.

Yet underlying them all is a sense, a belief — a deeply false one in my opinion — that the designer needs to be reined in, that, if left unchecked, design is harmful and must be treated with more responsibility. This sentiment reflects a much wider social ambivalence about human beings, both designers and users alike.

For example, one principle says design must be: “ecocentric and holistic [but] avoiding those twin traps of behavioral manipulation and pure profitability.” Another contradicts this, accepting the possibility of behaviour change, saying that: “it may also be within my power [as a designer] to adapt a life; this awesome responsibility must be faced with great humbleness and awareness of my own frailty.” It ends with much pomposity (as many of these statements do), stating: “Above all, I must not play at god.”

Let’s get some perspective. Show me design that does not involve refashioning resources (that is, making something out of nothing), that does not change behaviour, or does not contribute to the profitability of a clients’ business! Surely all of this is essential to the impact and success of design.

Elsewhere, the oaths can only result in the curtailing of creativity, imagination, and ambition — all in the name of the end-user. While no-one would argue ‘users’ should be ignored, it’s a sad state of affairs if the potential for intelligence and sensitivity from the designer must be so denigrated: “the best design sprouts from the user’s understanding of their own needs, not the designer’s dreams, assumptions, or aesthetic preferences.”

In the same vein, another continues: “I must aim to understand the consequences of my practice, with great humbleness and awareness of my own biases.” This can only weigh the designer down with an even heavier sense of moral and ethical responsibility, including: “to relieve systemic suffering; this awesome responsibility must be faced with great humbleness and awareness of my own limitations.” It ends with the familiar catechism: “Above all I must not play god.” While all this may or may not have some effect on the quality of design, it will certainly make the day-to-day of design work dreary and burdensome for designers.

What is striking about all the statements is not their pomposity, but that they have put on a pedestal the kind of design that believes it can solve all manner of social, political and economic woes.

The oaths are noticably evasive about the creativity of making material things. These days, for a designer to admit to being involved in making ‘stuff’ is a bit like admitting to liking burning coal or killing lions. Instead, it is more fashionable to aspire to design that is concerned with paradoxically (even though the authors would not admit it) designing for behaviour change.

Many of the most noticable, cutting-edge designers are actively engaged in working out how to change how we live. Arguably, they are helping fill the gap where politicians and policy makers no longer feel willing to take a lead over, or prefer to defer to other experts other than themselves.

Take healthcare. Globally the debate is about how to use design to encourage a preventative agenda that reduces the number of people who are admitted to hospital for lifestyle illnesses, such as smoking or overeating.

While there is a genuine challenge in cutting healthcare expenditure, these designer interventions (along with many other social policy initiatives) are part of a wider concern about who should decide whether or not it is morally correct to use it to change lifestyles.

Designers have every right to decide who to work for, who to not get paid by, and to imbue their work with all the best intentions possible. But it must be recognised that in areas such as healthcare and behavioural design, they very quickly end up involved in decisions that are arguably beyond their skill set and remit, that is, ‘playing god’.

Ethics and design rarely sit well together. Asking designers to judge whether or not their work is good – morally or otherwise – is like asking chefs to judge their own cooking. The only arbiters of whether something is good can only be the clients, the end-users, the people who have ultimately paid for it, commissioned it or bought it.

The wider problem is that these debates tend to end up curtailing innovation and creativity at a time when we need it most. We live in a world of underdeveloped promise, of how to make more use of materials, techniques, processes, when many are reluctant to take risks and think about problems in new ways. The future of driverless cars and transportation; the imagination needed to find new uses for materials like graphene; of how help a growing developing world who are hungry for resources, growth and higher living standards — these can and should excite designers.

Yet if designers trade in an unfettered, questioning spirit for a set of ethical and moral responsibilities, we will all suffer. It is not that designers can do no wrong, but surely me, you and the rest of the public are the best arbiters for what is good for us, useful and otherwise should be ignored. Is it not enough of a problem to make design that fulfils the brief, without worrying about all this other stuff? God knows there is enough bad design around.

We can only have that privilege if designers have the space to get on with what they are good at. That means letting them produce brilliant work like Heatherwick’s Olympic cauldron. It equally means being critical, cutting things down to size, like the dreadful, unreadable 2012 Olympics typeface.

Designers need only one rule: to be ambitious. Do that, and let the world decide if you answered the brief, or even better, if you went way beyond it.

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