Ethical Design?

2 months ago I was contacted by a renowned design consultancy looking to recruit designers for their new London offices. I was flattered and thrilled by the new opportunity and couldn’t wait to become a part of a company that declares that ‘We focus on three major themes that define our future: Future Citizens, Smarter Living, and Healthier Lives’. Reading this statement I was positive that the design work they are producing would be responsible and ethical.

Claiming to ‘shape our future through design’, I was surprised to find out that the agency’s main clients were financial institutions and a large oil company. I wondered whether the design agency actually believes that banks and energy companies should be those who shape our future and if sowhat kind of future would that be?!

Taking a short while to think about their offer, I realised it would’t adhere to my believes and ethical principles and so i decided not to take it. Refusing the offer instigated a serious of important questions I had to ask myself:

  • What is ethical design?
  • Who is practicing it?
  • Can I make a living out of it?

Ethics’, google says, is a ’moral principles that govern a person’s behaviour or the conducting of an activity’. I realised I needed to define for myself what are those moral principles that governs my behaviour. The more I think about this subject the more I realise how complicated this topic is. I realised that ethical questions are usually loaded with contradictions and dilemmas that needs to be explored, discussed, and sometime remain unanswered.

In an Essay by Marvin BartelEthical AestheticQuestions for the Designer’ he’s listing a few important questions for designers:

How do we reconcile individuality and conformity? How do we reconcile tradition and innovation? How do we reconcile needs to consume with needs to conserve? What is proper role of single use and multiple use space in our constructed environment? Should we use materials honestly? Can we leave a place better than we found it? Who cares and how is caring learned? How important is aesthetics compared to function?

Using these questions as food for thought, I wish to embark on a journey exploring what is ethical design?

Each week I will focus on one company, organisation or group and try to see whether the work that they produce is indeed ethical as it promises to be.

This week I decided to focus on a project called 25m2 of Syria, a real Syrian home replica inside IKEA’s flagship store in Norway. For this campaign, IKEA teamed up with Norwegian advertising agency POL and the Red Cross.

In a statement POL said: The iconic IKEA-posters and price tags told the story of how people live. Lacking food, medicines and access to clean water.
Caught in the crossfire of Syria’s civil war. But most importantly: On every little tag we let the public know just how they could help.

My initial thoughts about the campaign were very positiveIKEA decided to use the store space to promote awareness and raise money to a crisis that is happening in a different part of the world. Rather than seeing it and reading about it in the media, visitors got a close, tangible look at a real war-zone home.

Spending some time thinking about it and sharing it with close friends I began having second thoughts about the good intentions of the campaign. Does IKEA actually care about the life and wellbeing of the Syrian people or is it just using the crisis as a cynical publicity stunt? After all, IKEA hired a marketing company to produce this installation. The immense difference between the bare concrete Syrian home and the shiny IKEA displays feels almost uncomfortable- making the divide between ‘their’ world and ‘ours’ almost impossible to bridge.

The main 3 concerns the campaign brings to my mind are:

1. Normalisation of crisis– is by placing a Syrian house in the middle of ‘clinical’ IKEA we are actually turning the war, pain and suffering into something normal? Something we shouldn’t be shocked by?

2. Harmful call to actionthe main call to action of the installation is to donate money to the red cross. Donating money is very important, especially for organisation like the red cross however, I’m wondering whether we shouldn’t also be encouraged to take more proactive action? Understand why this crisis started in the first place? Who is in charge of resolving it? How can we make sure something similar doesn’t happen again?

3. Mass media itemI’m wondering whether the campaign and it’s coverage in the media encourages healthy conversation around the topic or whether it is just turning it into ‘another click bate’ in our feed?

To summarise, I think this campaign is very creative and it will be wrong to label it ‘Unethical’ however, it is important to question campaigns coming from huge corporations. We must ask ourselves: what is their real purpose and motive, who is benefiting from it, and what is the social impact it has on the public?

I would love to hear your thoughts about the topic in the comments!