Design Ethics and Responsibility –

Rorie McIntosh, Designer at web design agency NetConstruct, discusses ethics in design.

The Attention Economy


We are living in an ‘Attention Economy’, where advertising-fuelled technology companies are fighting to grab your attention and maximise their engagement.

This is nothing new. Post-war advertising has boomed into a global industry, and over the years the medium may have largely shifted from print to digital channels. However, the approach has remained broadly similar -these campaigns have become much more effective as our understanding of users’ behaviours has increased.

Taking learnings from fields of social sciences (such as behavioural science, behavioural economics, cult psychology and habit formation), designers have been able to pinpoint the key drivers of human motivation and decision making. This helps products to exploit and even manipulate their users’ innate behaviour.

“The business model of advertising says, ‘I don’t just want some of your attention, I actually make more money the more attention I get from you. I have an unbounded appetite for more attention.’” – Tristan Harris

First Things First Manifesto

In 1964, Ken Garland penned his First Things First manifesto. At a time when the lucrative lure of advertising was increasingly attracting the sharpest minds within design, Garland called for graphic designers, photographers and students to focus their attention on more worthwhile causes such as education, culture and the arts, to help spread a greater awareness of the world.

The original manifesto was revisited in 2000 (and again in 2014) as the need grew ever-more important.

Advertising hasn’t slowed in pace. Rather than just dealing with TV ads and billboards, the recent boom in smart-phones, social media and apps has led to a much more sinister approach to aggregating eyeballs.

The race to the bottom of the brain stem


Tristan Harris, former design ethicist at Google, is now leading Time Well Spent, a non-profit movement to align technology with our humanity.

“The problem is that as each app in the attention economy—whether it’s a meditation app, Snapchat, Facebook or Netflix—they start ratcheting up more and more persuasive design choices, to stick us to the product for longer, to keep us coming back: to addict us, even.”

Tristan coined the term the race to the bottom of the brain stem. Each company must compete with the next to get you to click and stay. When YouTube added auto-play to start the next video, Netflix almost had to add the same, or they lose out on their market share.

He says that technology is hijacking our minds and it’s time to put the interests of humanity first.

The Millennial Problem

We check our phones over 150 times a day. We base our popularity on ‘likes’ and followers. Stress, depression and suicide is on the rise. We’ve never been better connected as a species, yet we can’t cope and feel more isolated than ever… Not to mention the ‘millennial’ problem: we have an entire generation growing up with lower levels of self-confidence. Instant gratification and ‘On Demand’ access has spilled over into our nervous system. Technology has advanced so fast that as a species we are struggling to keep up anthropologically.

If we are designing a product or service which communicates with people, then to do this successfully we must understand our users. This is the role of a designer, to understand and communicate.

In the words of Churchill, Roosevelt et al:

“With great knowledge comes great responsibility”.

Code of conduct: Call for comments

As our powers of persuasion have reached a critical point, we must pause and question our ethics and responsibilities in design.

As a designer, I believe we have a moral responsibility in our profession to look at the impact our work can have on people’s lives. We must look at the extremes to gauge whether this is a net-positive or net-negative effect.

In professions such as medicine, architecture and law, there are governing bodies to maintain an ethical code of conduct, yet no such thing exists for the design industry.

Given the social impact our profession can have, perhaps it’s time we explore an ethical framework in our technology and companies?