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Design Ethics: Guiding Principles for Moral Design

Design Ethics: Guiding Principles for Moral Design

Design is an integral part of our everyday lives. From the apps on our phones to the websites we visit, design choices made by developers and engineers affect how we interact with technology and each other. As design becomes increasingly essential, discussions around design ethics have moved to the forefront.

What principles should guide designers in building responsible, moral products? How can design be leveraged to create positive change in the world? In this comprehensive guide, we will examine the key issues surrounding ethics in design and propose actionable ways designers can uphold ethical standards.

What Are Design Ethics?

What Is Design Ethics

Design ethics refers to the moral framework and guiding principles designers use to ensure their work promotes ethical outcomes. Like medical or research ethics, design ethics provide a code of conduct around responsibly designing products, services, and systems.

Design ethicists grapple with challenging questions at the intersection of design, business, and morality:

  • How can products be designed to respect user privacy and autonomy?
  • Should persuasive, “addictive” design patterns be avoided?
  • Do designers bear some responsibility for how users utilise their products, even if it harms them?
  • How can inclusion, accessibility, and diversity be baked into design processes?

Establishing ethics in design requires balancing valid competing interests, from business success to positive user experiences. By carefully considering the potential impacts of design choices, designers can uphold their duty to society while still achieving business goals.

Fundamental Principles of Design Ethics

Though no universal code exists, several fundamental principles underpin ethical design:

User Autonomy & Freedom of Choice

Products should empower users and expand their options, not restrict their agency or control over technology. Default settings and dark patterns that push users towards confident choices are ethically questionable.


Designers should be transparent about how products function, the data they collect, and the ways user data may be used or monetised. Obfuscation violates users' right to informed consent.

Privacy & Security

Users' personal information should be protected and secured. Designers are ethically obligated to safeguard user data. Surveillance or overcollection of user data violates expectations of privacy.

Social Responsibility

Designers should consider the broader social impacts of their work, including effects like economic inequality, political polarisation, or environmental harm that can result from technology. Products should promote human dignity, justice, and ecological sustainability.

Accessibility & Inclusion

Design should empower diverse populations by meeting accessibility standards and promoting inclusion. Ignoring marginalised user groups demonstrates an unethical disregard for their needs.

Real-World Design Ethics Dilemmas

Ethics In Design

Applying design ethics principles leads to better products, but tensions can arise when balancing competing interests like user experience, business priorities, and social good. Here are some real-world examples of challenging design ethics dilemmas:

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Addictive Technology

Social media apps like Facebook and YouTube are designed to maximise engagement and time-on-site leverage addictive feedback loops that hijack users' attention. While good for business, enabling user addiction raises ethical concerns.

Unauthorised Data Collection

Many free apps and services covertly collect, use, and sell user data like locations, app usage, or contacts. Even if disclosed in privacy policies, the lack of informed user consent for extensive data harvesting is ethically questionable.

Algorithmic Bias

Artificial intelligence and algorithms can perpetuate real-world inequality and bias. Face recognition software often misidentifies non-white faces. Search algorithms amplify stereotypes. Recommendation engines can promote polarisation and misinformation. Designers must proactively address bias.

Immersive Design

Highly immersive experiences in virtual or augmented reality could negatively impact child development or have unintended mental health consequences if overused. More research is needed to design immersive technologies that are ethically responsible.


While designers may intend technologies like drones or AI for peaceful purposes, they are often co-opted as weapons. Designers grapple with their degree of ethical responsibility when technologies are weaponised by others later.

Building an Ethical Design Process

Design rarely happens in a vacuum. Organisational priorities and business goals impact design choices. Still, there are process-oriented steps designers can take to boost ethics:

Conduct a Pre-Mortem Analysis

Envision and assess what could go wrong with a given design to highlight ethical risks early when they are easier to address.

Employ Participatory Design

Actively involve a diverse set of real users throughout the design process via co-design workshops, crowdsourcing, and community panels.

Make Ethics a Design Requirement

Treat ethics as a core design requirement that is on par with functionality or performance requirements to bake it into the design from the start.

Expand Accessibility Testing

Conduct rigorous accessibility testing with disabled users during development to ensure inclusive, ethical design upfront, not as an afterthought.

Champion a Design Code of Ethics

Advocate for establishing a code of ethics or ethics review board within your company. Make ethics part of the organisational culture.

Promoting Ethics in Specific Design Disciplines

Ux Designer Tips

Design ethics span many fields, from software UX to architecture and urban planning. Here are tips tailored to key design disciplines:

UX & UI Design Ethics

  • Default to maximum user agency and only guide users towards specific choices when necessary. Never manipulate.
  • Allow user customisation and opt-out of any persuasive design patterns. Enable user freedom.
  • Treat attention as precious. Seek to inform, more than just capture user attention.
  • Advocate for ethical data practices like privacy by design, consent requirements, and data minimisation.

Architectural Design Ethics

  • Design public spaces that are inclusive, accessible, and welcoming to all, especially marginalised groups. Seek diverse community feedback.
  • Utilise green building practices that minimise environmental harm. Design for sustainability.
  • Consider local community context and complement existing architectural styles, scale, and aesthetics. Avoid cultural appropriation or elitism in design motifs.
  • Select healthy building materials without hazardous chemicals and optimise for occupant health via lighting, HVAC, acoustics, and more.

AI & Machine Learning Ethics

  • Proactively detect and remove bias from training data and ML algorithms to prevent perpetuating inequality.
  • Engineer AI systems that align with human values like fairness, transparency, accountability, and enforceability.
  • Limit AI proliferation in domains like lethal autonomous weapons where risks outweigh benefits.
  • Ensure AI transparency through explainability and auditability. Enable human oversight and control.
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Marketing & Advertising Ethics

  • Respect user privacy. Never leverage ill-gotten or unethically sourced user data.
  • Transparently communicate product capabilities, limitations, and potential downsides – not just positives.
  • Avoid manipulative emotional appeals, especially those targeting vulnerable groups like children or older people.
  • Prevent marketing content from enabling harm, whether through unrealistic body image promotion or amplification of misinformation.
  • Champion inclusive representation of diversity in campaigns and steer clear of reductive stereotypes.

Teaching Design Ethics

Cultivating ethical design practices starts early. More design education programs are incorporating ethics into their core curriculum and adding courses like Stanford's “Ethical Issues in User Experience” or MIT's “Ethics for Designers in Computing.”

Key topics covered include:

  • Data Ethics – Privacy, surveillance, algorithmic bias
  • Addictive Technology – Attention hijacking, dark patterns
  • Inclusive Design – Accessibility, cultural awareness, preventing harm
  • Agency & Control – User autonomy, transparency, consent
  • Social Impact – Environmental sustainability, economic justice, moral implications

Teaching ethics involves exposing students to moral quandaries through design fiction narratives and provocative thought experiments. By wrestling with ethical complexities, students develop honest reasoning skills to draw on when faced with real-world design challenges.

Creating a Culture of Ethics

Ethical Culture In Business

Establishing design ethics requires buy-in at all levels – from designers on the ground to company leadership setting the top-down vision and incentives. Here are tips for organisations seeking to build an ethical culture:

  • Make ethics a core company value on par with priorities like innovation or profitability.
  • Develop a code of ethics in collaboration with employees across disciplines and levels. Distill into memorable ethical design principles.
  • Lead ethics training workshops to teach employees ethical reasoning skills using case studies and group discussions.
  • Incorporate ethics into design reviews and product launch checklists to spur early conversations around potential issues.
  • Establish an ethics review board with diverse internal and external perspectives to assess product roadmaps and features.
  • Reward ethical design practices through promotions, awards, and financial incentives like bonuses.
  • Publish ethical design guidelines externally and report regularly on progress to hold your company publicly accountable.

The Bottom Line

The design has remarkable power to impact lives for better or worse. A thoughtful examination of the ethical dimensions of design is critical as technology increasingly mediates society and human interactions. While moral complexities abound, designers can be pivotal in ushering in a more just future by elevating user autonomy as a north star, promoting transparency, advocating for the vulnerable, and engineering inclusion from the start. The conversation continues, but committing to ethical design represents tremendous progress.

Frequently Asked Questions About Design Ethics

What are some examples of unethical design?

Some examples of unethical design include dark patterns that trick users, default settings that maximise data collection without consent, algorithms that reinforce social bias, social media that promotes addiction/isolation, and inadequately secured user data vulnerable to breaches.

Should designers be held responsible for how people use their products?

Designers share some ethical responsibility when harmful unintended consequences result from product use, significantly if foreseeable. However, individuals are also responsible for their actions. Designers should aim to mitigate harm but are not usually culpable.

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How can designers balance business priorities with ethics?

Ethics and profits need not be opposed. Ethical products inspire strong user loyalty and trust. Designers should advocate that ethics leads to sustainability and long-term business viability. Some short-term gains may be sacrificed, but wise leaders understand the strategic value of ethical design.

What ethical standards apply to open-source software?

Open-source design must honour user privacy, security, and freedom above all. Licensing should maximise permissions and encourage inspection and auditing to boost accountability. Contributors should model positive open-source community transparency, inclusion, and civility norms.

Should designers be licensed like architects, doctors, or lawyers?

Licensing for designers is controversial, but some type of increased professionalisation makes sense as technology's societal influence grows. Oversight should promote ethics education and accountability without stifling innovation or imposing one-size-fits-all governmental regulation of a dynamic field. Self-regulation may emerge as a balanced approach.

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Stuart Crawford

Stuart Crawford is an award-winning creative director and brand strategist with over 15 years of experience building memorable and influential brands. As Creative Director at Inkbot Design, a leading branding agency, Stuart oversees all creative projects and ensures each client receives a customised brand strategy and visual identity.

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