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Moral Dilemmas and Design Choices

How do designers deal with ethical questions and moral dilemmas in their day-to-day professional activities?

Moral values and dilemmas are key to revealing who we are and what we value. They help us decide what to do in daily activities and guide many important choices. Design activities are no exception: Similar to daily life, these activities are also full of ethical questions and moral dilemmas. But we don’t really know how designers react when they encounter such dilemmas in their activities. What would you do, for instance, when asked to design something that you may find unethical – such as toy weapons, surveillance systems, or zoos? This project is about better understanding how designers deal with ethical questions and moral dilemmas, and consequently, how design methods can be (re)shaped to support these ethical encounters. 

“A large difference between digital data and physical garbage is that I know much better what data my waste contains; I know what I throw out.”

Dilemmas are the norm, rather than the exception, in daily life. Therefore, they also prevail in design projects where many dilemmas involve moral values and obligations. 

Several design workshops and conversations with designers (novice and experienced) helped collect stories about the ethical questions and moral dilemmas they encounter in their projects. Some of these stories are delicate personal musings, while others may apply to a large audience of designers. 

Most strikingly, the majority of moral design dilemmas are about interactions with other people (i.e. collaborative work, client relations) and are not directly or explicitly related to the ethical implications of what’s being designed. 

This led to the conclusion that ethical reflection – a ‘hot’ topic in design – is perhaps not a skill that can be trained or a tool to adopt, but an attitude that needs critical consciousness and social engagement.

This is an important realisation as bridging design and ethics is one of the main arenas that can illustrate, reflect on and criticise the role of design in society. Such findings help reflect on how design strives to balance between being a discipline of humble catalysts and outspoken activists, while enduring a heritage of ‘docile makers’.

Finding such a balance requires recognising and constructively dealing with ethical questions and moral dilemmas that design as a discipline and designers as professionals will increasingly face.


Ozkaramanli, D., & Nagenborg, M. H. (2020). Moral dilemmas and design methodologies. In 2nd Philosophy of Human Technology Relations Conference, PHTR 2020.


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    Deǧer Özkaramanlı

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