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Design

Mike Monteiro: Design is political

4 min read
Shayna Hodkin  •  Apr 29, 2019
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“There are professions more harmful than industrial design,” designer Victor Papanek once wrote, “but only a very few of them.”

And as seasoned designer, Mule Design Studio founder, and Papanek-follower Mike Monteiro adds, “Not only can a designer change the world, a designer should.”

Monteiro has a lot to say on the subject—enough to fill a book. Known as one of design’s most outspoken voices against big tech and in favor of protecting design ethics, his newest book Ruined by Design argues that design isn’t about aesthetics—it’s a political craft whose practitioners carry an ethical responsibility akin to that of a doctor or a lawyer. And in a world where there are questions about data use, dark patterns, and privacy concerns, the digital product designers tend to make a big difference.

We spoke to Monteiro about ethical design utopia, how you can challenge unethical projects (without losing your job), and how design leaders shape the future of design culture—one designer at a time.

Ethics might get you fired

At this point, you may be thinking, “Sure, I’d love to take a grand moral stand whenever I see something amiss, but I have bills to pay.”

But, as Monteiro says, if we’re going to get past the current mess, we need everyone to do their part.

“You have to decide who your community is,” he says. “Tight-knit communities take care of us, and companies have hijacked that. They’ll fire you if it means making more profit. But until then, they’ll tell you that this organization is your ‘home.’ Our new ‘neighborhoods’ are our desks and deskmates.”

“If a designer leaves a job because they were being asked to behave against their ethical code, and you take that job, you’re doing all of us a disservice.”
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Monteiro understands why one would be wary of taking on that fight on their own, and he’s quick to note that change doesn’t fall solely on you. He emphasizes the designers are all part of a community—one that isn’t organization-specific, but rather that binds together all designers.

“If we’re going to get past the current mess, we need everyone to do their part.”

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You and the design community are part of the same organism. Monteiro writes:

“You are part of a professional community, and the way you do your job and handle yourself professionally affects everyone in that community. Just as a rising tide affects all boats, taking a shit in the pool affects all swimmers…If a designer leaves a job because they were being asked to behave against their ethical code, and you take that job, you’re doing all of us a disservice.”

Embrace your collective power

“A designer seeks to build their professional community, not divide it,” says Monteiro.

We are all tasked with the responsibility of doing the right thing, but when facing the corporate beast, it can be challenging to go it alone. Your power here lies in numbers: on the gamble that your voice will be the one to inspire others.

“Once you raise your voice, you’ll be surprised by how loud it is.”

Mike Monteiro
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“Once you raise your voice, you’ll be surprised by how loud it is,” writes Monteiro. “Be the one who motivates those around you to behave their best. And if the person next to you should be the one who says, ‘Hey, this doesn’t seem quite right,’ be the one who backs them up. You’re not alone.”

“A designer uses their expertise in the service of others without being a servant.”

Mike Monteiro
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“The people doing the work have a tremendous amount of power in these situations. That’s you! Are there repercussions? Absolutely. You might lose your job, and in America, that’s likely to mean your health insurance as well…What you need to understand is that there are repercussions either way. As the employees of Microsoft found out, you can fight and win.”

The employees of Microsoft he mentioned are the ones who, in 2018, banded together to protest a $19.4 million contract with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement for processing data and artificial intelligence capabilities. Within 12 hours, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella released a memo in which he called the immigration policy “cruel and abusive” and said Microsoft wasn’t working on any projects that would separate families. This was followed by a blog post written by Microsoft’s president Brad Smith titled “This country needs to get immigration right.

Slide from How To Fight Fascism, a talk delivered by Monteiro. Photo by Esther Brunner

Losing a job for speaking up would have been a bummer—but much less of a bummer than contributing to technology that could be used to harm.

“Be the one who motivates those around you to behave their best. And if the person next to you should be the one who says, ‘Hey, this doesn’t seem quite right,’ be the one who backs them up. You’re not alone.”

Mike Monteiro
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Start making the right choice early on

Monteiro acknowledges that having an ethical backbone often comes with consequences, and when you’re trying to pay down debt and make sure your family has a roof over their head, the fear of the economic implications of ethical choices is real—and valid.

“If you go to college, you’re probably graduating with at least $100K in debt,” he says. “How can I blame you for taking a high-paying job?”

In a society where health insurance is a privilege and crushing debt is a burden many share, the added load of ethical responsibility can be too much to carry. It may be hard to align your job with your ethics this very second, but there’s room for individual designers to make change—or avoid conflict entirely.

Decide whether it’s worth the fight

Doing the right thing isn’t a guaranteed “win.”

Monteiro lays out the three questions to ask yourself before taking on this emotional, and economic, challenge:

  1. Do I think I can change things here?
  2. Do I have the energy to devote to this?
  3. Should I just cut my losses?

This cause might not be worth your emotional investment.

“There needs to be a willingness to do the right thing,” Monteiro says. You can present plans and stage walkouts all the livelong day but if none of that “ethical duty, moral responsibility” talk interests your employer, then you’re going nowhere. Except, probably, out the door.

There are organizations that are too big, too monolithic, and too uninterested in doing what’s right to entertain any kind of change.

For the future: Choose your employer wisely

If you’re not interested in up-ending your career to try and create change at an organization where change isn’t welcome, you’d be best served working joining an organization that aligns with your values.

Especially when you’re not in the position to leave your current job before finding new employment, Monteiro recommends three tactics for picking an employer:

  • Talking to people who have left
  • The surest way to get a view into a company is to talk to folks who have been there. Whether via personal connections or LinkedIn or carrier pigeon, reaching out to folks who know the org from the inside is the most solid way to understand company leadership and their openness/willingness to ethical design culture.

  • Looking at past projects
  • The larger the company is, the less likely you’re going to be able to flip the system on your own. If you’d be uncomfortable working on projects in the company’s portfolio, don’t bank on being able to switch the corporate midset—run for the hills.

  • Making sure you’ll have a mentor
  • “Don’t go work somewhere there’s nobody to work from! If everyone else is 22, 23, 24, what will you learn? Work for somebody who can mentor you,” says Monteiro. Skilled designers can teach you how to ask hard questions from the beginning—before they’re hard.

Decide who you’re working for

Monteiro’s argument is that we’re not working for our employers—we’re working for the people using our products. Our best interest isn’t the success of the IPO, it’s keeping people safe from harm. Included in Mule Design’s contract is the non-negotiable statement:

“You may be hiring us, and that may be your name on the check, but we do not work for you. We’re coming in to solve a problem, because we believe it needs to be solved, and it’s worth solving. But we work for the people being affected by that problem. Our job is to look out for them because they’re not in the room. And we will under no circumstances design anything that puts those people at risk.”


The man, the myth, the headshot.

The designer’s job isn’t to do what they’re told, a designer’s job is to solve problems.

As Monteiro writes,

“A designer uses their expertise in the service of others without being a servant. Saying no is a design skill. Asking why is a design skill. Rolling your eyes and staying quiet is not. Asking ourselves why we are making something is an infinitely better question than asking ourselves whether we can make it.”

Want to read more about design ethics?