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Understanding Ethics and Identity in Design

Greater Good Studio Co-Founder George Aye shares the motivation behind this new course.

When George Aye co-founded Greater Good Studio, he wanted to establish a strategic design firm focused on advancing equity - a point that’s made abundantly clear in its mission statement:

Greater Good Studio believes in the capacity of all people to create solutions that improve society. We envision a world where there is opportunity to do so regardless of race, gender, income, age, or zip code.

Aye believes there is a need for more designers who understand the role their work can play in benefitting society, and Amy O'Keefe, co-director of Northwestern's Engineering Design Innovation (EDI) program, agrees. O'Keefe saw the advantages of including this insightful thinking into the master’s program curriculum, and based on Aye's reputation at Greater Good, as well as his previous work as a designer with IDEO, and as the first human-centered designer for the Chicago Transit Authority, sought him out to teach this new offering. 

Together O'Keefe and Aye created space for students to explore "Ethics and Identity in Design." The goal, according to Aye, was “to nurture the quiet little voice inside each student that has been hushed into submission on their journey." That "quiet little voice" is the internal sense that something might be wrong. Aye wanted students to recognize compromising situations they may face in their career, and understand the problem and the role they play in addressing them. 

To guide this process, Aye identified 10 evaluative and critical questions to illuminate flaws in a project. The course was structured around this list, with each week focused on one of the following questions:

Aye taught that the interpretation of the questions and responses would be grounded in who the student is and awareness of their own position to power.  

Becoming more familiar with your own power and privilege is an awakening that can have a substantial impact on how you as a designer approach contentious situations, as well as the role you play in trying to solve problems. 

Take the idea of human-centered design, for example. Aye said a common misconception of the practice is that doing human-centered design is doing good for all humans, when in fact, it can often ignore specific communities. 

"You can fool yourself into thinking you're helping when you actually might be making things much worse," said Aye, who used Juul e-cigarettes as a perfect example. The company that sought to provide a safer alternative to cigarettes wound up introducing a new generation of non-smokers to nicotine, as this New York Times article documents. 

Aye wanted this type of awakening and realization to take place in a class environment because it is a safe setting with little risk. He also wanted to give students the opportunity to practice this type of thinking because it's a skill that he thinks can serve as a differentiator.

"There's a growing need across the field for people trained in design to better judge when and how to use their skills or deliberately say, 'this isn't a good time to do this right now, and divert the energy," Aye said. 

The class was open to students in EDI — where students are taught to lead the design of future innovative products, services, and technologies — as well as MMM, a dual-degree program from the McCormick School of Engineering and Kellogg School of Management that is focused on the intersection of human-centered design and business. Both programs are a part of the Segal Design Institute. 

"To be truly human-centered in our approach to solving problems, it’s important that we steer clear of a perceived bias of design," said Greg Holderfield, director of the Segal Design Institute and co-Director of the MMM program. "We can't believe that designers know better. We need to lean into challenges with a 'design with' mindset rather than a 'design for' attitude." 

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