On Ethics and Politics in Design: A Selected Bibliography

During my first year Seminar course, we were tasked with tons of readings ranging all over the map on the other factors that influence design. Design is not created in a vacuum, and so we discussed topics like platforms, cooperatives, power, agency, futures, humanitarianism, and ecosystems and their relations to our work. 

It felt like my first year honors class ethics seminar all over again. 

But there were some amazing readings, and some decent discussions in our group that explored these in detail, with us agreeing (and disagreeing) about their value, their influence, and the roles they play. 

As an assignment for the class, we had to hand in an annotated bibliography on related readings. Since we never had to turn it in (design school!) I've selected my favorites for you to read and explore here. There were so many other interesting articles I read, but didn't do a bibliography for. If there's interest, maybe I'll do another one of these in the future...

Design Education’s Big Gap: Understanding the Role of Power by George Aye

Author George Aye describes the gap between conventional design education and one that incorporates acknowledging power in design scenarios. He simplifies this by stating that because designers in social sectors tend to be thought of those with the answers, they often forget that they are privileged and that their role gives them power over those they are trying to help; while potentially true, this somewhat undermines the work of many institutions that work to instill these values today. And while one can argue that many design educational institutions don’t teach or discuss these models, Aye elaborates that this should change, going on to explain power asymmetry, shifting design expectations, and listing questions to ask yourself about your role in design. He also ends the article with a slew of resources to further explore the topic.

As our class discussed the roles of power, agency, and violence, this complements our discussion on how to change the narratives that have been in play. It focuses on how we might change and shape designers’ roles of power, and by acknowledging the colonialism embedded in our society can work to shift power back into the people we are designing with.


Design in a complex world: Expanding the Concept of Design by Daniel Christian Wahl

Whal starts off saying “the design concept on the whole has become more and more encompassing,” relating to the trend of design to no longer be siloed into graphic design, architecture, and products, but to also incorporate “a fundamental influence in most human activities.” He explores this idea through a multitude of views: that science is another form of design, using the idea of identifying and understanding from things that occur to illustrate their relation; that worldviews are in themselves types of design, and become expressions of how we design. While exploring these and more, he notes that design has the power to create and destroy, and that ethics are built into how we must approach our work.

As our class never explicitly, but broadly, discussed ethics, this work explores the system of design as a larger topic that infiltrates all other human modes of work and sees it as a connector where many do not. Whal incorporates topics from politics to products in the exploration of design as a connector, albeit a bit shallowly due to being an excerpt from his PhD thesis and not its entirety.  


How a Data Visualization of Sperm led to a Scientific Breakthrough by Jesus Diaz

Can design allow for things other than a pretty picture? This article highlights the emergence of a scientific breakthrough in, as the title suggests, how sperm moves... all because of an effective data visualization. The scientists wanted to show the proper technique for educational purposes, they worked at both molecular and atomic levels, mapping the movement via a physics model. Because of this approach they ended up being inclusive rather than reductionist, and able to see something that would have been extremely difficult otherwise.

In a program that doesn’t focus on design skills in a traditional way, it’s interesting to see the effect that these more traditional routes can collaborate and integrate into science and other applications, creating a richer world for research and exploration. As an example of bottom up strategies and emergence, it’s important to remember the value in seeing.


This Alternative Credit Agency Lets Immigrants Bring Their Credit With Them

Here’s a design quandary: when you move from place to place, how do you prove your trustworthiness? While trust takes many forms, this article explores Nova Credit, a credit company that works to provide new American immigrants with access to credit. Typically, these people become invisible upon arrival in the sense that their previous credit history from their home countries do not transfer to the US versions, making it harder for them to get an apartment or a car. Nova Credit is trying to change that by instituting a new “credit passport” that works across 15 countries, keeping financial history data that transfers when you move.  

As a company focusing on financial inclusion, they are designing to give agency and power to those who traditionally have not had access to it. As the creators come from families of immigrants or are immigrants themselves, it’s interesting to see how they’ve approached this problem from a new angle.


Here’s a (Crazy?) Plan to Bribe Crows to Clean Up Cigarette Butts by Adele Peters

Is it ethical to use animals to clean up after humans? Are crows deserving of rights? In a continuation of our readings on ecosystems, this article explores humans horrible proclivity towards tossing cigarette butts into the street, adding chemicals and plastic to already tainted environments, and using crows to clean up after us. Touching on behavioral science and design, they explain the concept of crows being rewarded for disposing of butts in bins labeled CrowBars.

But how does putting a cigarette in a crow’s mouth affect its health? Science has proven them toxic to humans, so there is little chance crows will not be harmed. The article notes this and says the designers will search for another way if that is the case, but why even look at this avenue when it should be human’s responsibility to clean up after themselves?