Rethinking The Dark Side Of Design

Why we need ethical, sustainable approaches to Design – and how to get there

First, a condensed history of design – as I have experienced it in my career.

A very long time ago, let’s say approximately the 1990s, major companies had a different approach to design to the one we are familiar with today. Project teams (they probably didn’t even use the term Design) would come up with new product ideas. They’d build the concepts (generally based on flaws which they perceived with existing products), and consultants might help if they could spare the time from the grand Business Process Re-engineering projects that were the order of the day…

As the project advanced, these ideas would be tested with focus groups. The ideas would be presented and people who had been selected by a Market Research Agency would react to what was in front of them.

You can no-doubt see the problems. The designs were already biased towards existing perceptions and implementations. They were based on an inside-out view of what matters. I recall Rachel Higham, MD of IT at BT, referring in a speech to how the company used to use its own employees “as proxies for customers” in the design process. That really was the way it worked.

In short, the perceptions of the people who were responsible for producing products were assumed to be good substitutes for those who were using products.

When Design Thinking came along

Design Thinking has changed a lot of this for the better. We now have reasonably systematic processes for incorporating user needs, desires, psychologies, interactions… into product design. It’s not perfect, but it’s a lot better than the inside-out approach exhibited by nearly all major corporations in the past. (I wasn’t picking on BT. Most major companies had a similar approach in the 1990s.)

If you are part of the Design Community you may know the origins of Design Thinking and just how far back it goes. It traces its origins back to the 1950s and has been called several different things along the way. It’s also evolved as a discipline, so none of the previous names really describe what it has become.

What is clear is that DT became mainstream in the consulting and business community only in the last decade, and there are still plenty of people who have never heard of it. It came along shortly after people understood what the letters UX (User eXperience) stood for. Its impact has been profound. Even disciplines such as Strategy have started to incorporate prototyping into the strategic process.

The big but…

You probably sensed that a “but” was coming. In fact there are three.

Firstly, some of the most harmful things we have in our digital world have occurred in the full context of advanced UX and Design Thinking.

Perhaps I am naïve in thinking that these two disciplines are a force for good, but they have not prevented some of the big bad things, such as addiction to digital devices or online betting. Perhaps these powerful design tools simply got into the wrong hands.

Secondly, we do need to think about optimising designs for things other than the user. That’s a bit shocking, but my contention is that by optimising systems principally for the user, we’ve ignored many other stakeholders.

Thirdly, digital as a whole, and UX as one of its constituent parts, have played a huge role in non-sustainable practices.

The prime example of how this has played out is Uber. It’s a highly optimised system to give instant gratification (rides) to users, at low prices. This user-based design success is less attractive when you look at it from the view of:

  1. Drivers (who flit between Uber, Lyft, Deliveroo… in an attempt to earn a living)
  2. Shareholders (who defer returns seemingly indefinitely)
  3. Regulators (who have to account for the safety of passengers)

Back to the drawing board

At, we’ve started piloting a new approach to designing anything. There are four new things that we are doing and believe to be critical to the process.

  1. Working out an ethical position for the thing that we are designing. This involves deciding what matters most and stating the principles that will apply.
  2. Considering the unintended consequences of the thing that we are building. Unintended consequences are very hard to spot, but that doesn’t mean that the design process is freed from the responsibility of considering what we don’t want to happen as a result of our work.
  3. Designing for sustainability, in two senses. Environmental sustainability is well understood, if poorly delivered by many companies. We emphasise a second sense to sustainability. A business is sustainable if it is not prone to collapse or a sudden change of direction. It’s our view that many of the largest digital-meets-physical businesses are unsustainable and that something has to change here.
  4. Measuring on ethical (and sustainability) dimensions. If it’s possible to state ethical principles, we believe that it’s possible to measure how well our designs are fulfilling them. “What gets measured gets done”, so why not measure beyond money and subscriber numbers?

We are at an early stage with It appears to be striking a chord with a few major clients who are looking at new ways of designing and initiating projects. What is encouraging is that a few FTSE100 companies are engaging with us at the pilot stage; they are participating in the design process, which is great.

I suspect this is because any methodology they will get from the consulting majors is already a costly orthodoxy.

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