Ethical Design Explained

Issues of privacy related to social media and the web continue to arise making ethical design increasingly important in our modern society. Similarly, sustainable design is becoming more popular since environmental problems become more challenging.

If society didn’t have ethics no one would know what is right or wrong. They are what make us a civilization and one of the things that distinguish us from animals.

Therefore, designing in an ethical manner should not be an option. It must become a necessity.

What does ethical design mean?

It can mean a variety of different things, but I like to break it down into two main aspects. Sustainable and socially-conscious design. Both of these are needed to make a design ethical. It needs to take into account how it will affect the user or viewer but also consider the impact it will have on the environment.

Basic Principles

01. Sustainability

There’s no way around this. A design must have as low of an impact as possible on the environment. Unfortunately, this is something that large companies choose to ignore as they are too money-driven.

Coca-Cola and Nestlé are both considered very unsustainable. Coca-Cola is the biggest polluter of plastic in the world. They manufacture the most plastic bottles, many of which end up in the ocean. These plastic bottles are made to be used once and then discarded and it is affecting natural ecosystems. This is clearly not ethical design.

Companies like these must change the way they operate and adapt as the world moves forward.

Related: Edible Packaging. The New Revolution?

02. Protection of Privacy

When designing in the digital sector it’s important to consider how search engines and applications use your data. Many complain about how companies collect too much information about us. They do this to improve their services and maximize their profits, however, there should be a limit to how much personal data should be collected.

03. Inclusive

Design should be inclusive meaning it should not discriminate against any race, gender, disability, or so forth. It must be available for the majority of the population to use and enjoy.

04. Not Manipulative

Websites and apps should not be designed to be as addictive as they currently are. They are causing millions of people to waste precious time. Apps like Instagram are specifically designed to make a user spend as much time on the application as possible. Their aim to make you addicted.

Another good example is how Netflix automatically goes onto the next episode without the need to click on anything. It’s proven to be an effective way to keep people in front of their screens, binging through TV shows. While it might be good for Netflix, it certainly is not good for the user or their health.

Adverts also manipulate your brain to convince you their product is the best. They always try to play with your mind. This is intentional.

05. Human Rights

Businesses should not exploit people’s rights to build their products. Apple has taken over the world and everyone seems to be using their devices but what you may not know is that they have been accused of still using child labor. And they are not alone. Many companies have also been accused of doing the same thing including Tesla.

For a product to be ethical we must consider where it was made and who made it. Workers must be well paid and work in safe conditions.

How can you become an ethical designer?

Ideally, everyone, including designers should be guided by their ethics and morals instead of the money someone offers them.

Why support a company that is destroying the forests or abusing their workers? Support companies that are doing good for the world.

You can be an ethical designer in various ways. If you work in a company, then say your ideas on how to make a specific design more ethical and sustainable. Don’t be afraid to speak up and say what you think. They might not put all your ideas into action, but as time goes on, you could make the people you work with more aware of these current issues and the important role designers play in society.

When possible try to turn down clients that do not align with your ethos. This is not always possible and but when someone asks for something that you don’t consider good for the consumer or the environment, maybe it would be best not to do it. If you own a design agency, promoting the fact that you create sustainable designs will attract high-quality clients who have the same mission as you.

You will be more enthusiastic about taking these projects as it will promote a cause that you truly believe in. You will enjoy doing it more and will probably produce something better. It’s that passion that drives good design. We need more of that in the world.

Finally, the more ambitious way to become an ethical designer is by starting your own little business or agency. Nowadays, it’s becoming easier with the internet. So why not set up a website and create a design business that aims to bring a positive impact to the world?

Also read: The Power of Individual Action is Underestimated

Why is ethical design important?

Ethical design is on the rise as more people are becoming aware of the problems in our world. More and more designers are choosing to use their skills to do meaningful work instead of supporting money-driven companies. Design should aim to make people’s lives easier. It should not discriminate against anyone based on their background. Additionally, it should not be at the expense of the planet or an animal’s life.

Sadly, companies choose to go the other way as in most cases it allows them to make more money. That needs to change. Design should do any harm in any way. Whether that is environmentally or psychologically, it should not exploit anyone. It’s there to make people’s lives better. Not worse.

You have a responsibility

As a designer

Designers create to release something new into the world. You need to think of the ramifications of your design. Could it affect people’s lives in a negative way? There are things that you might not see coming but think carefully about the impact your design could have on the world. The good and the bad.

I don’t think anyone could have predicted that smartphones would become this huge market. People have even become dependent on them and can’t live without it. So think about all possibilities.

Another thing to add, if you are a designer, always be transparent. For example, what personal data do you collect? How will you use the data? State how you obtain the materials for your product. Are they sustainably sourced?

As a consumer

There are many companies out there that are causing harm to the world.

That is why consumers must also raise their standards and try their best to avoid these companies. It might be hard since it seems impossible to find a corporation that is not doing something unethical. But if consumers demand change or if they stop buying from them, they will be forced to raise their standards too and become more ethical.


Don’t let your greed for money make you support unethical companies.

As technology continues to advance and more people will have access to it, more people will be able to be reached by businesses and advertisers. While this can be a good thing, there are things to consider. Your design could spread around the world in a matter of days or weeks and change people’s lives. This is why design needs to ethical. You have a responsibility to ensure your design is not harmful in any way.

Use your talent, to create meaningful change. Don’t make something that will waste someone’s money and time or will make them feel bad about themselves.

Raise your standards.

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Sofia Hadjiosif
Sofia Hadjiosif

I've always cared about the planet but never knew how I could use my skills to create an impact. But that's when I decided to start Terra Movement. To get other creatives involved in the climate movement and inspire more people to help the planet and its people.

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