Objects, Users, and Systems: Intersections of Design and Ethicality

Final research paper for my Intro to Sociology class at Wesleyan, May 2019.

Designed goods essentially lie at the foundation of our modern world. They employ manufacturers and salespeople, guide markets and economies, and dictate our day-to-day actions and behaviors. The central intermediary between these spheres is the designer, whose key challenge lies not in functionality, durability, or attractiveness, but ethicality. If a designer has the power to affect so many systems, how should they approach their work? In this paper, I will discuss the role and responsibility of the designer beyond the isolated creation of products and towards human systems revolving about that product. Through real-world examples, I will highlight the need for this new type of design mindset, especially in the wake of global capitalism.

Design can be one-dimensional and often isolates the nature of an object. The criteria for “good design” concentrates solely on the properties of this object, such as form and function, or further broken down into functionality, intuitiveness, durability, originality, and attractiveness. In a singular world, these would be the only criteria for the creation of well-designed goods. However, products are inherently linked with consumerism, as they must be bought and sold within markets. Thus, a commodity must also revolve about its potential for profitability, which complicates the design process. A businessperson would argue that a well-designed product cannot only be useful, intuitive, durable, original, and attractive, but must also create large profit margins and keep a customer returning for more. Attaching capitalist intentions to design opens innumerable gateways for unethical practices.

In 1974, Victor Papaneck aggressively attacked the profession of product design. Likening designers to murderers, he described a world in which men mass-produce objects that kill millions and cause environmental catastrophe, such as unsafe automobiles. Although it is unfair to unload the weight of global capitalism entirely on the shoulders of the designer, Papaneck raises a valid point. When placing the goal of profit above all, we induce a trivial design approach that “obliterates the human,” condensing people into consumers and factory workers into robotic money-makers. Today, this practice can be seen in nearly any mass-producing corporate retailer.

Rob Horning’s essay The Accidental Bricoleurs criticizes the fast fashion industry for its exploitation of manufacturers and manipulation of customers. In an effort to push the “pace of fashion to a forced march,” designers create low-quality clothing that purposefully falls apart and out of style, upping profits as consumers buy more to keep up with trends. Fast fashion retailers gather personal data on its customers’ preferences to further influence them into purchasing clothing they believe they need. Recently, companies such as Forever 21 have fallen into lawsuits with luxury brands like Gucci for copying branded designs. Fashion conglomerates even target independent artists as subjects for knock-offs, killing small businesses and genuine creativity. These aspects of the profit-driven fast fashion industry effectively break many rules of “good design”: durability, originality, and often, attractiveness. However, if one looks past the product and into the systems surrounding its fabrication, much deeper ethical concerns arise.

Due to expectations of Western audiences, and the criteria that the customer must be constantly buying, it is crucial that fast fashion prices remain staggeringly low. Retailers employ cheap labor and exploit workers to achieve this. Horning describes a lawsuit which revealed the true conditions of sweatshops, in which laborers experieced “long hours without legally mandated breaks, rat and cockroach infestations, and a lack of bathrooms and access to drinking water.” One of the most gruesome stories surrounding textile labor is the 2013 Rana Plaza collapse in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Rana Plaza housed several clothing factories for major name brands and was “constructed illegally without permits” on “substandard foundation.” The tragic caving of the building killed over 1,100 people and left 2,500 injured. Survivors now struggle with permanent bodily and mental handicaps, leaving them unable to work or support their families. It is these types of disasters that exemplify the need for designers to further delve into the ethicality of their work.

When approaching a product design project, most designers place the priorities of the user and the object itself at the forefront. This mindset often fulfills the main prongs for good design. However, it is also clear that to attain moral responsibility, the methods of the designer must extend beyond the nature of an object. Design processes should not only involve competences in aesthetics, but also human-centered approaches and iterative idea generation. These are crucial mindsets that can be used to critically analyze the systems surrounding the commodity.

These systems can also be thought of as ‘articulation.’ Coined by cultural theorist Stuart Hall, articulation extends from Karl Marx’s theories on the relationship between production and consumption. Hall proclaims that the “dynamic of the circuits of production” connects and overlaps “with the moments of consumption, with the moments of realization, with the moments of reproduction.” It is absolutely imperative that designers realize production and consumption are inextricably tied together. One can then consider systems beyond the isolated product: What is the product made of, and how is that material fabricated? Is that material sustainable? What are the everyday lives of the manufacturers? What are their working conditions? How is the product transported to its user? What are the results of the product’s use, whether cultural, political, or environmental? What happens to the product when it is disposed? These are the types of questions that map the greater world adjacent to a consumer product, and that allow the designer to bring concerns of ethicality into the process.

Due to profit-driven goals and immoral production practices, many companies fight against this design mindset, striving to distance links between production and consumption. They’ve been extremely successful—the act of buying an iPhone or a $15 t-shirt does not cause the typical consumer to think beyond themselves or the product. In the book No Logo, Naomi Klein highlights companies’ production conventions, and their aim to hide them from the consumer. In 1993, Levi Strauss pulled out of manufacturing in Chinese factories due to human-rights violations. Several years later, when pushing more money into branding and advertising, Levi’s shut down twenty-two North American plants, resulting in the loss of 16,310 jobs. They moved their business to back to China, but now with a contractor, knowing well that these workers would never be truly employed by Levi’s—effectively displacing the ethical burden. Many multinational corporations are doing the same. In fact, these companies keep “the location of their production operations a ‘trade secret’,” stating that they “have no interest in our competition learning where we are located and taking advantage of what has taken us years to build.” This achieves much more than just misguiding the competition—it fights articulation and widens the gap between production and consumption. Companies don’t want their customers to know where their products come from, because if they understood their unethical practices, they likely wouldn’t purchase their goods. Thus forms a malicious feedback loop—corporations are allowed manufacture products unethically because uninformed consumers buy are willing to buy these products, demand calls for supply, and so on.

If designers can oppose the gap and achieve ethicality in the creation of a product, how do we convince consumers to buy these products? As Marx says, “without production, there is no consumption, but, on the other hand, without consumption, no production; since production would then be without a purpose.” Because morally responsible goods will inevitably cost more due to higher workers’ wages and better materials, it is imperative that we find a way to effectively sell and profit off these products. The answer lies in “changing the way users relate to what they consume.”

This is a tall demand with innumerable solutions. Researcher, designer, and educator Lucy Kimbell suggests an emphasis on “service design.”This burgeoning field involves “the process of design, manufacture, and marketing, with the shaping of physical objects being only part of this much larger scope of activity.” Service design takes the form of “what products are not,” or intangible human interactions in time and space. It can be applied across highly varied fields, such as consulting, accounting, or even hairdressing. Its basis in person-to-person customer involvement is what aims to blur production and consumption. This approach is also “appears to be an ideal way to dematerialize provision,” eliminating many severe issues involved in the creation of designed goods.

Clearly, the total elimination of all physical consumer goods is unreasonable. However, a valid argument exists to find a middle ground between service and product design. By integrating material artifacts with human services, we can alter the way the user relates to what they consume. Consider purchasing your favorite sandwich from a local deli. You go to the deli to purchase the sandwich relatively often, because it is your favorite, and you learn the name of the man who owns the deli. Each time you return to the deli, you discover a little more about this man’s life, and you come to empathize with him. He learns that you like your sandwich a certain way, and you no longer have to spell out your order. You find yourself tipping a little extra because of this friendship. In this example, a service has become enmeshed with a product, growing into an all-encompassing humanized experience. You become ethically aware of the commodities you consume, as well as where they come from. The man who owns the deli re-designs his service to your liking, bringing in additional profit. Now, rather than the unconscious buying of an isolated product, we’ve created a product-system that decreases distance between production and consumption.

Although moving in the right direction, the product-system also has colossal flaws, as it is impossible to apply to all goods. However, its core philosophy—humanizing consumption—can be implemented in any field. For example, in response to fast fashion, many clothing brands have taken to full transparency in their production. One of these companies is Everlane, a mid-priced men and women’s clothing retailer. Each of their products online directly links to an inside look at the factory where it was manufactured. The customer can scroll through and learn the name of the manager of the factory, see photos of working conditions, even learn what laborers like to do during their free time. Everlane exhibits consciousness for the entire system revolving about a product. Designers purposefully seek out quality and environmentally sustainable materials, hire ethical manufacturers, and provide full transparency to their audience. The brand’s immense success shows that consumers do care about the production of their goods and are inclined to buy ethically. Emphasis on well-designed product-systems not only benefits the lives of workers and the environment, but also the profit of the company itself.

Global capitalism has pushed design far over ethical boundaries. With the sole aim of increasing profit margins, corporations care little about the lifecycle of their products. They push their customers to exhibit the same apathetic behavior by forcing apart the relationship between production and consumption. However, the role of the designer occupies a unique middle ground which allows them to work moral responsibility into the genetics of a product. While product designers used to solely concern themselves with the form and function of commodities, it is clear their role must extend into the systems surrounding these objects. They must strive to de-isolate the product from its production and consumption, as well as alter the perspective of the consumer on what they buy. This can be achieved with the implementation of new fields such as service design or product-systems. By revolving processes around the humanization of goods, it is possible to distance ourselves from the evil repercussions of unethical design.


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