Exploring: Design + Ethics

This past week, I was happy to take part in an incredibly eye-opening event UC Irvine. As the sponsor and facilitator of the event, it was my responsibility and privilege to connect and empower our panel of speakers through the broad spectrum of Design + Ethics. It was serendipitous for a small studio to be a part of this event given that our mission is to become a collective of creatives who use our gifts together through design to bring peace to people's lives. This event created a beautiful space for us to facilitate a conversation with industry leaders who also use their gift of design to bring peace to people's lives—a match made in heaven.

Since this discussion was centered around Design + Ethics, we could literally talk about anything that involves living things—and we sure did. What I thought was going to be a conversation about designing products or technology quickly became a conversation rooted in the importance of human beings. The panelists all seemed to have something critical in common: a passion for the individuals within their team or organization. For me, as an agency leader, it was refreshing to have conversations with design and marketing leaders outside of consulting and business development talk. Facilitating this event allowed me to dive deep with all of the speakers, and we did not waste one second with small talk. Instead, we went straight into sharing our passion for Design + Ethics and why this topic is so powerful.

The conversation was not recorded, so here is my reflection on the conversation

Roderick Crooks kicked off the event with his insightful keynote on Design + Ethics from an academic perspective. He set a bold tone for the discussion, as a professor in Department of Informatics at UC Irvine, saying "universities are asleep at the wheel" as far as ethics are concerned in how they approach design. His talk was insightful, expressing how varied the topic of ethics is and stressing the importance that it must be integrated into every facet of design, not forced to stand alone and dealt with later when it's too late. One point that drove the topic home for me was the concept of Tech Exceptionalism: most would agree technology and design is great and innovative but is it being used for good or for evil, and how do we build a future that is human-centric rather than making humans obsolete?

The second keynote speaker blew the topic wide with here advocacy. Renee Cummings, a Criminologist & AI Ethicist, truly wowed me and it's safe to say every other person who was listening. Three questions Renee asked fueled the discussion of the panel to follow, "Do we design to oppress or to liberate? Do we design to empower or to disempower? Do we design to include or to exclude?" She went on to communicate that it is our responsibility to ask the tough questions in our industry because the direction we are currently going in with data and AI is creating "a digital chokehold", a term she coined. "A digital chokehold very similar to the chokehold that took George Floyd's life." As a black agency leader, her words vibrated through my very being. Her words rejuvenated the way that I lead my team of designers in order to overcome this digital chokehold for future generations. Who would have thought we could fight systemic racism with design? It makes sense if you agree with my thoughts around design thinking is a privileged way of thinking. Renee said it best, "we must rebrand what good design is."

As we transitioned into the panel discussion, I made sure to maintain the energy and passion ignited by the keynote speakers. With expertise ranging from employee experience to user experience, health and wellness to sustainability, product design to marketing & brand design, and academics to criminology the panelist brought a wide breadth of experience to further explore this topic. There were many gems of wisdom, but here are just a few.

Jinal Shah, Vice President of Marketing at Feather, stated "The companies I have worked at helped offer more dimension and substance to my moral principals." This lead to questions such as "What is the larger mission we're working towards?", How are you constantly balancing what you need to do for the business to achieve this larger mission? And what are we doing to work towards it?" She mentioned that designers are seeking understanding, but how do we achieve this without living in the problem we are designing for? I believe her questions and perspective are words to live by for those who may not find fulfillment in their work or are entering into the workforce. Take the time to live in the problem you are solving, it will make your designs more impactful, fulfilling, and most importantly ethical.

When it comes to keeping to the mission of ethical design, it bleeds into the million-dollar question: who do we work for? Damon Deaner, Director of Employee Experience Design at IBM, made the comment "we want our 9-5s to look a whole lot more like our 5-9s." This showcases that personal values and company mission do overlap, whether we want to admit it or not. It's not enough to push aside what's important for the sake of a paycheck, but often it's a privilege to be able to do so. Damon brought up a conflict that most people face everyday and could be discussed more, do I do what I believe to be morally right or what pays more? How often have you faced this dilemma in your career? Honestly, I've faced it 10+ times this month.

Here is a riddle for all my designers out there; True or False, if xy = xy, experiencing empathetic design causes you to design more empathetically. Of course, I'm not going to answer it for you. However, Josh Neuroth, Sr. Director of Product & Marketing at Cyxtera Technologies, stated that "as employees use software that empathizes with them, it will translate directly into how they empathetically design." This begs the question of how we go about building organizational empathy and software that understands the user in a way that focuses on the human condition. Josh went on to say that product leaders must operate as "Social APIs" within their organization in order to gain buy in from all departments. Josh inspired many with his perspective and can be a beacon of hope for other product leaders.

Lastly, Ali Hussain, SVP and Head of User Experience & Design at American Specialty Health, believes that in order to make these shifts while improving design and the way we work, we have to go against the status quo. He says, "It is not just a paycheck, we should request more from our leaders and expect value alignment with our leaders." I could feel Ali's passion for his work and it's not a coincidence that he calls himself an intrapreneur because it requires the passion of an entrepreneur to overcome the legacy mentality of large corporations. He said something every designer should hear, "designers must cultivate the courage to ask and make unpopular decisions." I believe that by simply asking more questions we can be more empathetic to each other. by holding a posture of not knowing, we are more inclined to ask questions.

Sustainable and purpose-driven design is a journey that never ends, and it's conversations like these that become a critical part of that journey. For this reason, I approach all gatherings from Peter Blocks' perspective, “The key to creating or transforming community, then, is to see the power in the small but important elements of being with others.” I always ask myself, how are we going to be when we gather together? This empowers me to approach each conversation with purpose in order to make sure the time is beneficial for everyone involved. And in this case, I'd say it was.

This conversation allowed us to gain an academic, civic, and business perspective of Design + Ethics in 90 minutes. It is not often that a conversation bridges the gap between multiple disciplines, this panel not only did that but did it with an incredible group of leaders in design, setting the stage for a healthy, diverse community discussion. I'm proud to have played a small part because I know when good conversations happen, anything is possible.