Highlights, Quotes, Annotations, & Marginalia
But if you want to wade into the murky waters of the tech industry; if you’re wanting to think more deeply about the power and ethical responsibility you have in this industry; if you’re perplexed but not in despair; if you’re ready to think about the direct impact our work has on the individuals and families exposed to the experiences and products you help create; if you’re ready to turn off the faucet; rip the plug out of the sink, and put your mop to use—this book is for you.
The world is on its way to ruin and it’s happening by design.
The goal of this book is to help you do the right thing in environments designed to make it easier to do the wrong thing.
We’re going to learn how being a designer is being a gatekeeper. We’re about to become humankind’s last line of defense against monsters.
I intend to show you that design is a political act. What we choose to design and more importantly, what we choose not to design, and even more importantly, who we exclude from the design process—these are all political acts. Knowing this and ignoring it is also a political act, albeit a cowardly one. Understanding the power in our labor and how we choose to use it defines the type of people we are.
Speaking of Victor Papanek, this book wouldn’t exist if I hadn’t read Design for the Real World as a young designer.
In the words of the great Margaret Mead:
Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.
Always a great quote and it reminds me of The West Wing (1999, Warner Bros.)
For years, the libertarian con artists of Silicon Valley have been telling us they want to change the world. But when the people at the top tell you they want to change the world, it’s generally because they’ve figured out how to profit even more from those below them.
Our labor is what makes us special, and what gives us power. When we turn that labor into a force for making the world better for the largest number of people possible instead of using it to make a few people even richer than they already are? Then, and only then, we may be actually able to change the world. Then we get to go home and live ordinary lives.
Most professions worth their while, and capable of inflicting harm, have ethical codes of some sort. It’s a sign of maturity and responsibility, and there’s a price paid for not following it, which may include losing your license to practice.
The internet is a harassment and abuse factory in part because designers implemented things they shouldn’t.
About a year ago, I decided to write a code of ethics. It’s open-sourced. Take it. Make it better. Treat it like a living document:
A designer is first and foremost a human being.
When you do work that depends on a need for income disparity or class distinctions to succeed, you are failing at your job as a human being, and therefore as a designer.
A designer is responsible for the work they put into the world.
When we ignorantly produce work that harms others because we didn’t consider the full ramifications of that work, we are doubly guilty.
A designer values impact over form.
A designer owes the people who hire them not just their labor, but their counsel.
A designer uses their expertise in the service of others without being a servant. Saying no is a design skill. Asking why is a design skill. Rolling your eyes and staying quiet is not. Asking ourselves why we are making something is an infinitely better question than asking ourselves whether we can make it.
A designer welcomes criticism.
A designer strives to know their audience.
What about empathy? Empathy is a pretty word for exclusion.
A designer does not believe in edge cases.
A designer is part of a professional community.
A designer seeks to build their professional community, not divide it
A designer welcomes a diverse and competitive field.
A designer takes time for self-reflection.
No one wakes up one day designing to throw their ethics out the window
We are not hired hands, we are not pixelpushers, we are not order-takers. We are gatekeepers.
On November 6, 2016, Donald Trump received 2.9 million fewer votes than Hillary Clinton. The Electoral College—originally designed by elite white men to entice agrarian, slave-owning states to join the union—handed the election to the candidate with fewer votes, who also happened to be a white supremacist. It was designed to work that way.
The world isn’t broken. It’s working exactly as it was designed to work. And we’re the ones who designed it. Which means we fucked up.
There are two words every designer needs to feel comfortable saying: “no” and “why.” These words are the foundation of what we do. They’re the foundation of our ethical framework. If we cannot ask “why,” we lose the ability to judge whether the work we’re doing is ethical. If we cannot say “no,” we lose the ability to stand and fight. We lose the ability to help shape the thing we’re responsible for.
Sure, everyone remembers Frankenstein’s monster, but they call it by his maker’s name.
Excessive speed gets products through that gate before anyone notices what they are and how foul they smell.
We need to measure more than profit. We need to slow down and measure what our work is doing out there in the world.
People don’t see the things they’re rewarded for as problems to fix.
A good algorithm is the equivalent of breaking up with someone over a text message and then turning your phone off. It’s cowardly. Good leaders should aspire to have their fingerprints all over hard decisions.
When you hire me as a designer, I do not work for you. I may practice my craft at your service, but you haven’t earned the right to shape how I practice that craft.
Those of us who grew up designing things online need to realize the repercussions of the work we do. We’re no longer pushing pixels around a screen. We’re building complex systems that touch people’s lives, destroy their personal relationships, broadcast words of both support and hate, and undeniably mess with their mental health. When we do our jobs well, we improve people’s lives. When we don’t, people die.