Dan Zollman

Information architecture, design, and strategy

Presentation: How Do I Know If I’m Doing Good? Practicing Ethical Design in a World of Systemic Complexity

I spoke about ethical design last week at the The Information Architecture Conference 2019. In this talk, I approached the topic of ethics in design using a systemic lens.

Download the presentation slides with complete speaker notes, references, and additional comments (PDF).

Want to talk more? I will be presenting again in Boston on May 10, 2019 at the UXPA Boston Conference. You can also join the Ethical Technology online community in Slack.

This is the original abstract—although the talk, as it stands, focuses more on concepts and principles that practices.

The urgency of ethics in design is now understood. In so many ways, design creates the world we depend on; (information) architecture creates the environments we live in. We’ve seen how technology is implicated in challenges to equality, human rights, dignity, justice, government, sustainability, and health. In IA, the concepts and language we choose are embedded in code, bringing our biases and assumptions with them.

But what do I do about ethics at work? Do these issues apply? Where would I begin? How can I talk about it? What if I don’t have the power to change anything? What if the organization is stacked against it?

And as a professional community, what should we be doing about ethics? How can we equip our members to address ethical issues in their work?

This session combines a personal perspective with lessons learned from an online community for Ethical Technology founded two years ago at the 2017 IA Summit.

We’ll look at design ethics through a systems thinking/theory lens. Design ethics means asking whether or not I’m doing the right thing as a designer. Systems thinking means recognizing that I’m working within a complex system where I don’t have full control over the consequences of my work—the ethical problems are too complex to analyze; my organization, as a whole, operates in ways that I can’t change. Ethical practice means uniting the personal with the global, knowing yourself while also recognizing your limitations.

We’ll discuss:

  • A systemic analysis of the ethical challenges designers face.
  • Guiding principles for ethical practice in complex environments.
  • Techniques for incorporating ethics into your work—whether by adding new methods, or by deepening the methods you already use.
  • Recommendations on how our professional community can move forward with ethics as a core part of our field.


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