Clare Dowdy's report on the development of ethical consciousness among design practices (Virtuous circles, Design Week, 21 September [paid for sub required, but this link may work]) chimed with my experience of the state of the British design industry.
It was notable that few design practices in the more dynamic sectors -- online media, product and service design -- appear to have embraced this way of thinking. To an extent the rise in ethical consciousness in the traditional design sectors has mirrored its loss of innovation and empathy with ordinary people. Ethical consciousness has been embraced to make up for this lost sense of purpose.
What is particularly remarkable about these newly politicised designers is how uninterested they are in understanding what is really going on in the world, or taking part in public debate. With a few honourable exceptions these people are not present in the more grown-up discussion of contemporary issues that take place outside the design world. Moreover, if the design world were really concerned about making a difference around ethical issues one would expect it would have created lobby groups along the lines of Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility or the computer-human-interaction-focused CHI-Policy group.
If these ethical designers are serious about making a difference to the world they could start at home by treating their employees better, increasing wages and offering paid overtime, and introducing proper training and career development programmes -- features of many of the companies for which they are so unwilling to work.
Until recently, rejecting clients on ethical grounds has been a possibility only for the successful few. To the extent that, as Dowdy intimates, clients are seeking out more 'ethical' suppliers I have no objection to designers adapting accordingly. But we should remember that the fundamental contribution designers can make to improving the world is the one they have always made: creating practical and wonderful things that enhance people's lives.
Published, somewhat edited, in Design Week magazine (UK) letters as Where are the lobby groups if designers have gone Green?, 19 October 2006 [paid sub may be required]