Further Investigation

If design is to continue growing in popularity, certain factors will need to be given more consideration—above all, ethics. Design does not have a strong ethical tradition; yet when you create something new, you always risk unintended consequences. If the new thing is part of a much larger system, every other part of the system will be affected. But not all outcomes can be predicted. To which kinds of standards should we hold designers accountable?

The user-centric model also carries ethical implications, starting with the word user. A user, the word implies, is not a human with a full life of their own, but simply the endpoint of a product cycle that serves the purpose of creating profit. The irony is that the rise of human-centered design was a radical breakthrough, intended to combat this dehumanizing tendency. Now, however, corporations, and the consultants who serve them, have so fully embraced human-centered design that the word human often seems to be just propaganda concealing the same mercenary mindset. We should take care that the user-centric model does not degenerate into the scraping of human insights and motivations for the sole purpose of creating ever more alluring products that serve no good but to enrich those who make them, and may also come with environmental costs. Some critics of our consumer culture would probably say this has already happened. Further hard-headed study of these questions is certainly necessary.

Tied to this are issues of addiction. Good design inspires delight in people and makes products irresistible. When you are intentionally designing something to be irresistible, at which point do ethical implications arise? At which point is it dangerous for people to have so many irresistible products in their lives? At which point do people’s consumption habits become addiction; and at which point are designers creating that addiction as a result of their great design? Interesting work on this topic has emerged from the field of video game studies—during the many years I covered video games I found it at the forefront of important issues in digital culture. I especially recommend the book Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas by Natasha Dow Schull and the work of Bennett Foddy at NYU Game Center. If journalism is to compete for attention using the same tools as other media makers, these issues will need to be closely scrutinized.

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