Our society has blurred the boundaries between individuals and businesses. Designers, gatekeepers of users’ needs and desires, are increasingly challenged with business briefs and constraints. Many of the designers and entrepreneurs I meet and interview are concerned about keeping their career positions or businesses alive and thriving, while social responsibility and authentic user-centered practices are left behind or completely disregarded.
Designers are designing a world that is business-centered without knowing it.
In the past few years, design and startup culture have changed the rules of economics, reshaping various aspects of our lives. Creative and business people started to have a huge impact on our globalized society. However, not many of the designers and entrepreneurs I’ve met are fully aware of their social and environmental footprint. The perceived level of social responsibility is far lower than its real impact.
Business thrives because of well-paid, good design and strategy, but rarely are social and environmental responsibility assessed. In addition no useful data is poured back into the pipeline. Internal transparency is sacrificed on the altar of productivity, and what should be human-centered design becomes too easily business-centered design.
While I don’t expect super-capitalistic CEOs to be sustainable and ethical, I would love to consider designers and engineers a little more moral and sensitive to environmental issues. Unfortunately it seems that fast-paced economics and job instability are elements of designers that are irresponsible by design.
Measuring Design Value and Impact.
While many design-focused companies are improving their metrics regarding the impact of innovative design strategies, there are still a lot of companies that think they don’t need to improve their social or environmental footprint. Many of these companies think that if they recycle their paper or install waterless toilets, they have done their job correctly.
Focusing on fast prototyping and testing to improve both the product and its outcomes has nothing to do with putting humans at the center of the stage. The assumption that if a product is successful it is also the best product for the user (and therefore the company) is a dangerous one. Measuring the social impact of a design choice is often hard and not always possible because data is not sufficient and evaluations are not part of the workflow.
Renowned firms like Frog made their success by focusing on developing custom business strategies, reinventing the way system-level value piles up and fits within newly designed metrics. They know perfectly how to provide structural solutions for each business challenge, depending on industry, company, or timeframe. But what if you couldn’t hire a big design firm that improves business performance while minimizing social and environmental impact?
Removing the Conflict of Interest.
We ask people. We ask designers and audiences to provide more useful and meaningful information and share their thoughts. New business opportunities can show up sooner in the design process. A.I. and algorithms can be used for disruption but also for building cohesive communities of users and customers. Design leaders of every breed and kind are converging on common grounds to ethically organize their teams, that are now winning public stages all over the world.
If you are a designer you may feel better (or worse) knowing that
…over 70% of product’s life cycle costs and environmental footprint is determined during its design phase*.
Companies that are working out strategies to conquer the market as fast as possible are no longer serving the people that once constituted that market. Eventually, they may not be able to ethically serve the society as well.
Knowing and measuring the social impact of a business strategy, a design choice, or a marketing campaign should be easier and more commonly recognized as a good practice at our workplaces and more widely practiced in our everyday lives. I personally apply few simple rules that help me navigate my own social and environmental impact.
Why are we making that choice?
We need to keep asking ourselves for what final goal are we sacrificing our time, energy, and values. Every individual is at the center of their own diagram with input and output signals and graphs. Knowing where we stand as individuals makes it easier to compare our choices to the ones made by our managers or colleagues. Design ethics can be a topic that designers are discussing with growing interest from the business community.
Grade every choice we make
(or do our best to do it), trying to be as rational as possible. I have seen many creatives and leaders starting their projects with all the best intentions but ending up in an intricate set of self-imposed rules and unmanageable complexity that makes it almost impossible to analyze the impact of those initial design choices.
Share and inform.
If everybody else in the room knows the why and the weight of our choices, it’s easier to stimulate constructive conversations about good design and values. Without creative participation and quality time to play, any statistic or number may be challenged or manipulated. But if team members can immediately experience the benefits of a more participative and socially responsible design practice, this will allow for the creation of advocates within the same team.
If you really feel nerdy about what international leaders and lawmakers are trying to achieve these days, you may be interested in The Question of a Frugal Mindset in Western MNCs by the Hamburg University of Technology (TUHH) Institute for Technology and Innovation Management.