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Web Directions Summit: The Ethics of Design

Web Directions covers a lot of ground when it comes to design and technology conferences within Australia. Right now they have seven conferences targeted towards designers, developers, leadership, product and culture. 

Web Directions Summit is the big one — it's their conference that brings the whole team together. This year it was held in Sydney at the fantastic new International Convention Centre (ICC) in Darling Harbour.

by richard.sison /


Like most conferences, Web Directions Summit had a good balance of thought-provoking topics and practical takeaways. There were a lot of presentations around the importance of transparency in your workflow, paying attention to the words and how designers and developers still have a lot to learn from each other.

The big theme of the conference, and the focus of this wrap-up, is a topic I feel very passionate about, Ethics in Design.

Ethics and making the right choices

Ethics has been a recurring theme around the design industry lately, and for good reason. Technology has shaped the world in a big way, and problems are constantly getting "solved" by companies all in the name of convenience … but at what cost?

What is becoming more apparent is that our focus on creating behaviour-building products has been a slightly short-sighted endeavour. Not only do businesses benefit a lot more than their customers, the behaviours they've introduced have brought on a whole new set of problems into the social space.

In Mark Pesce's opening Keynote talk, he walked us through humanity's behaviour over time, specifically around how humanity has always had a history of being slaves to our own weaknesses.

He showed an example of a figurine from centuries ago — a carving of a naked woman. Our obsession with sex and our desire to share it (to illicit a response) was the pattern he related back to today. To paraphrase, the process goes like this: "The mind informs the eye. The eye informs the hand. The hand creates a product. The product then informs the audience which influences the community." The process repeats itself and has a snowball effect.

This pattern is still ever present today in the products and apps we immerse ourselves in. If anything, technology has only further reinforced the fact that we are still slaves to our addictions — whether it's sex, gambling, drugs. And now, even Facebook.

In hindsight, what we're seeing in these products we've been building over the past decade have been so focused on carving out time in our day, building new behaviours and feeding our addictions. The impact this has had on society and the responsibility we should hold ourselves partly accountable for has become one the largest talking points in our industry lately.

Learning from the past and preparing for the future

In another keynote on "Philosophy, Ethics and Design", Oliver Reichentstein spoke about a similar message. Essentially, we need to be more responsible practitioners and more aware of the impact we have with what we're producing. The arguments for establishing stronger ethics in design are rarely about stopping what we're doing altogether, but more about just being mindful about the broader effects. We spend so much energy optimising for conversions, automating the mundane and building new behaviours, that we tend to not be investing enough energy in considering the negative impacts on the future.

Fortunately, some companies are already taking it very seriously and industry leaders are continuing to be strong advocates for being designing responsibly. Alan Cooper, for example is very passionate about being a good ancestor.

What we should take away from all of this, and what I advocate for, is that we as an industry should strive to be proactive and act responsibly not only for ourselves, but for future generations as well.