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Design as a moral act

18 March 2024

Secrid Talent Podium - DDW23 - Strijp-S - Klokgebouw Hal1 - © Cleo Goossens
Should designers drive and advance meaningful change and transformation in society?

Lieke van Stekelenburg is one of the five Creative Voices selected this year to write both a preview and a review of Dutch Design Week 2023 (DDW23) from her own, unique perspective. International creatives have been invited in an Open Call to reflect on current issues and the role designers play in them. The program lines examined by Lieke for her review of Dutch Design Week are the Service & Innovation Design perspective and the Boosting our Health & Wellbeing mission *. In Design as a moral act, Lieke shares her findings in a conversation with Miriam van der Lubbe, designer and Creative Head of Dutch Design Week. 


Lieke: “I am a theologian and am completing my doctorate based on the concept of the ethical compass I have developed. During my PhD studies I quickly realised that there are many different interpretations of a compass like this and of what professionals understand by ‘normative north’. There are many different values, formats and contexts that play a role in how someone applies ethics in their professional practice. An ethical compass is also seen in literature as someone’s moral character or as the environment that influences character development. I start with the question: ‘What is expected of moral professionals?’. And then you see that people must be intrinsically motivated to do ‘the right thing’, but that they must also be able to relate to the moral values of the field itself. This becomes most apparent when they are confronted with critical situations, so I have defined the ethical compass as: the intrinsic motivation of professionals to think critically and act morally according to personal and professional values when they are confronted with ethical dilemmas.”

Miriam: “Critical thinking is part of a designer’s nature, just like thinking about a different perspective or a different future. Did you see evidence of this in your visit to Dutch Design Week and in your conversations with designers?”

Lieke: “Absolutely. Especially when I asked what could be done differently, or about what is needed to initiate transformation. Although they do not get their moral values so much from the profession, partly because they design sector does not have a substantive professional code, at least not based on ethical values. But designers do derive these from the principles they formulate as teams or organisations, which are indeed guiding principles. It struck me that many designers I spoke to during Dutch Design Week and soon afterwards did not immediately recognise themselves in the term ‘ethical dilemmas’. They experienced these more like choices and there are quite a few of them to make. So, ethics themselves are not a dilemma for them, I would even say that they are almost self-evident for most, but the tension lies in the choices they make as designers in applying these ethics.”


Miriam: “Designers actually always approach their work with a positive mindset, they want to be meaningful and contribute to the world. So that dilemma may already have been tackled subconsciously; they may not even experience ‘money’ versus ‘sustainability’ as a dilemma, because they already always design based on the value of sustainability. Money only comes into play in the choices you make from there onwards. What makes it complex is that there is often insufficient insight into all the underlying factors, facts and figures. Which material is really sustainable? Of course, opinions differ on that alone. And our knowledge about this is developing at a rapid pace. What science can I use in my work as a designer? Many assumptions are made. Is a smaller footprint the most important factor, or is it the material, the process, or the logistics or energy costs? Or are all these things equally important? In order to be able to consider things from the perspective of the entire chain, we can allow much more knowledge from other fields and collaborations with other parties who already have the required knowledge. Only then can you say: I choose this or that. The dilemma is then, what is the right choice? Developing such a choice based on science is not necessarily the designer’s strong suit.”  

Lieke: “So, you’re saying that these dilemmas actually play a role at a much earlier stage?”

Miriam: “Designers basically want to do everything well, but the question is, how do you define ‘good’. There is no one right answer for all designers, I think we have to make that clear.” 


Lieke: “Several designers I spoke to during and after DDW for this piece* also indicated that there are always designers who want to focus on creating a beautiful design.”

Miriam: “It goes without saying that aesthetics is an important criterium. And in my view, that does not stand in the way if ethics. I am convinced that aesthetics is a prerequisite for expressiveness and opens the door to meaning. Beauty for beauty’s sake is tricky, because who decides what is beautiful? But if something is not attractive, you also miss the invitation to look further and to explore what a design is all about. This substantive meaning is very important to us at DDW; it really contributes to shaping the future. Younger generations in particular are very aware that we design our world together. That creating something beautiful is never separate from the world and therefore from the choices you make: which raw materials you use, who you work with, what your design causes. But to move people is absolutely a value of design.”

Lieke: “Intrinsic motivation says something about a person’s character. This is an important aspect of moral psychology: only if you connect yourself to it can you connect moral judgements to action. In my research, designers talked a lot about the necessity of being able to look at themselves in the mirror.”

Miriam: “That is a deep-rooted, personal insight. Who am I in relation to the world? What is my place, how can I be meaningful and what difference do I want to make?”

Good - better - best

Lieke: “Designers explain that they do not want to hold all designers to the same standard. They keep their own ethical considerations close and find it difficult to express an opinion about ‘whether designers are doing things right’. For example, Margreet van Uffelen of Omlab said: ‘There is no fixed ‘north’ to navigate by. As a designer you cannot do everything right at the same time in the choices you make in the design process. But you can become good - better - best, if you continue to strive to do so, and remain open and honest about what has and hasn’t already worked.’ The difficulty of ethical dilemmas is that designers must continuously navigate a playing field in which nothing is fixed. In this chaos they cannot escape a certain degree of opportunism. They must continue exploring what ‘doing the right thing’ is in as many different networks as possible.”

“There is a strong culture of dialogue, especially among young designers who use it to create the values that are essential to the design process. You must want to hear the critical voices and do something with what you hear. And this is only possible if you can jointly develop an understanding of what ‘good design’ is. So, perhaps there is a kind of code, but implicitly.”

Miriam: “That’s a nice observation. Design is also characterised by the iterative quality of the profession. But on the other hand, it should not become navel-gazing. As designers we all understand each other quite well, but there is still so much to learn in the world outside our field. So we should work together and develop critical capabilities by allowing the outside world in. And that outside world is a multi-layered and complex matrix that encompasses all kinds of diversity: culture, age, gender and background for example, but also disciplines, working methods, collaboration, location and (inter)nationality. Polyphony is essential in the calibration and recalibration of our compass.”

Omlab - Dutch Design Awards - DDW23 - Strijp-S - Microlab
© Nick Bookelaar

Insight in process

Lieke: “To me, the Secrid Talent Podium is a textbook example of making this visible: they designed their stand based on their ethical dilemmas and depicted this beautifully. They made their choices very transparent in the various stages of the design process, for example in their continued search for sustainable alternatives in materials, logistics etc. They then discussed these things with designers and other visitors. This provides insight into how complicated that process is and how many choices have to be made before you as a consumer have a product in your hands. That in turn helps you to be critical of the things you buy.”

“Another good example I found was Philips, who have developed sounds for reducing stress in the Intensive Care Unit. The designer I spoke to, Olga Surawska, explained that the organisation focuses on care, quality and patient first. When I asked why these values were not explicitly mentioned in their presentation, she told me that it was self-evident for them because their organisations are based on these core values. But for a visitor it is not so clear, so you have to do your best to filter that out.”

Miriam: “And at the same time, they also work in a reality where everything has to go through ethical committees when it comes to how much you can intervene in terms of health. Just think about data use and privacy.”

‘Authenticity of designers seems like an overestimation to me.’

Lieke: “What also struck me was that, for many designers it is about creating an awareness of the transformations they want to bring about, such as the influence of technology on people. But also the value of silence, as in the work of Rutger Muller. The innovation of something we have forgotten.”

Miriam: “Originality is in the DNA of many designers, who want to add something new and think autonomously. While science builds on something that is already there. This is not something that is done in design, often because of copyrights. Science is much more of an open invitation to develop something further. Design can also become fixated on protecting who owns something and whether it is authentic.”

Lieke: “The authenticity of designers seems like an overestimation to me; no one is a lone atom in this world. You have always grown up in a certain context and developed through countless images, so you will always have been influenced by the people from who you learned the trade and by the spirit of the times. Is there no other way? Science and literature have very transparent rules for this. But these are mainly based on language – quoting or paraphrasing other work – while design is also about images. Of course, designers also often encounter plagiarism, there is a lot of shameless copying. But how much energy do you want to put into it? Do you confront your competitor or not? This can be tricky for the individual, who is quickly overwhelmed. Things are better for a team, but you simply cannot solve global issues on your own. You need large networks and a clear path for that.”

Miriam: “It is mainly about ideas that are translated into an image. It is quite simply ‘not done’ to further develop something, copyright is a hot topic among a wide group of designers. The fact that it is unspoken makes it elusive. Releasing it would generate a lot more breathing space. Perhaps we will go much further together if we clarify certain professional values and embrace them collectively. If you specify it is a code or set of rules, everyone will be able to relate to it.”

Lieke: “That would increase accountability and also provide guidance upon which values – currently implicit – are leading in design. In psychology, for example, these are responsibility, expertise, respect and integrity.”

Miriam: “I always come back to the values on which we work as the Dutch Design Foundation: ‘how do we treat each other and how do we treat the planet?’ We try to capture this in our five missions, which we also use within DDW. These are still not explicit, but they are frameworks within which we can discuss living together in equality, for example, what we consider to be healthy and what our (digital) future looks like.”

The Exploded View Beyond Building - The Embassy of Circular & Biobased Building - DDW21 - Strijp-S - Ketelhuisplein
© Max Kneefel

Strong vision

Lieke: “It would be interesting to build up a moral vocabulary that would make it explicitly clear which values and moral considerations are paramount in the choices that designers make during the design process. Now, this mostly depends on the organisation in question. Rik Maarsen of Compost Board gave the example that a lot depends on which companies you work with. Sometimes such a company says: we’ll have to be a little less sustainable and use a little more concrete. Rik said: ‘Necessity is very important. I want to sleep well at night, even if I have to make concessions about what I believe in.’ That demands a strong vision. 

Miriam: “This is a common theme: you want to do the right thing, but you encounter things during the process that go against those values. This also touches on a new challenge I see in the sector. The mountain of dilemmas only seems to be growing. We increasingly hear new generation designers saying: I don’t know where to start anymore, so I just won’t start at all. It is difficult to say: I’ll take a step, even if it’s not ideal. ‘Should I pour a drop in the ocean or just leave it alone?’ And that keeps them awake at night.”

‘Being a designer also means saying: I don’t know, let’s see what’s possible.’

Lieke: “Should designers drive and advance meaningful change and transformation in society?”

Miriam: “I have no choice but to answer a resounding ‘yes’ to that. They should do that, and they do.”

Lieke: “But isn’t transformative way too big? Meaningful I understand, but does it also really need to bring about a change or transformation?”

Miriam: “We always say: we are never going to solve major global issues and certainly not alone. It is a nice ideal to live by and that alone delivers many new insights. It does not have to be a new reality, but it does open a new perspective in thinking.”

Lieke: “I have another one for you: the stronger the principles (embodied values) the fewer ethical dilemmas. I think back to the values of Philips. Olga Surawska said: ‘These are very much guiding principles for us. And because we are all heading in the same direction many dilemmas are eliminated: if an application is not safe, it is cancelled.’ But first these values have to be internalised.”

Miriam: “That depends very much on your interpretation of those values. A good example is the rapid development of AI. I was at a meeting in which the topic was its beneficial value to society, and we were all actually quite positive about that. Until a colonel who was also there said: ‘And now everything you have been discussing ends up in the hands of a weapons manufacturer. How much is then still positive?’. The context of the environment is crucial for whether something constitutes a dilemma. Guiding principles are great, but you must always have the courage to recalibrate and be aware of the world in which you are operating. As far as I am concerned, guiding principles cannot be all-encompassing. In the example of Philips, at the end of the day designers still have to ask themselves how far you can go to provide care.”

Making courageous choices

Lieke: “The more fundamental, the more principled, the more straightforward. The art is to have principles without losing sight of the nuances and dynamics. Can I put it this way: a well-developed ethical compass is a prerequisite for being able to recognise principles and for having the courage to be led by them?”

Miriam: “I don’t know if that is true. And that brings me back to the limitations you face as a designer and a professional, namely that you will always encounter incompetence, powerlessness or ignorance. We once thought plastic was fantastic, now it is one of our biggest problems. Design is not about looking for solutions, but for possibilities. Even though – especially for traditionally trained designers – it is often expected that it will deliver a degree of certainty. Being a designer also means saying, ‘I don’t know, let’s see what’s possible.’ This sense of wonder can actually lead to great insights.”

Lieke: “There is a very conscious component to acting ethically: knowing why you do something. I saw that designers often condense dilemmas down into problems. Making choices also demands new leadership, grounded in a deep connection with yourself. Meditate and reflect on it, and then discuss it again. That is unpredictable and feels vulnerable. Suppose you really don’t want something, what does that choice then mean? Do you have an income? Making a very autonomous, morally responsible choice takes a great deal of courage because it may also make you dependant on others.”

Furniture Factory - DDW23 - Strijp-S - Klokgebouw
© Almicheal Fraay

The power of vulnerability

“In trying to summarise everything, I have identified four important values for designers so far: steadfastness, credibility, increasing impact and strengthening professional identity. Do you recognise these?”

Miriam: “Definitely, I can imagine that designers could follow these values. Once you have found your compass, you have actually found your reason for existence. But there is still an important phase before that: that of not knowing, searching for the right knowledge, formulating objectives and domains of choice. So we still have a lot of work to do. As the Dutch Design Foundation, we endorse the statement: design is a moral act. In many participants of Dutch Design Week, we see an increasing degree of vulnerability. They dare to open up the things that you encounter as a person or organisation, and to use each other’s strengths. DDW2023 was the launch of a collaboration between six renowned furniture manufacturers who take joint responsibility for making our living environment more sustainable. In Future > Factory > Furniture they provided very open insights into what they are facing as competing colleagues and what they are learning from these issues by identifying 21 dilemmas. It is a wonderful example of how vulnerability can take us further.”


Lieke van Stekelenburg studied Theology and Ethics (cum laude) at the University of Tilburg and is working towards a PhD at the Vrije University Amsterdam; she investigates what it means and entails to equip (young) professionals with an ethical compass. As founder of Consense, Lieke coaches experienced professionals on life and career issues. She also trains young professionals (applied psychologists) at Fontys Hogescholen.

* Lieke spoke to the following designers for this article:
Olga van Lingen, Afdeling/ Buitengewone Zaken – Buikpraat
Rutger Muller, Myubio Collective – Silence is the presence of everything
Alissa van Asseldonk / Nienke Bongers, A + N – Objects for wellbeing
Alvin Arthur – Body Scratch
René van Geer – Secrid
Marleen van Bergeijk – Embassy of Health & Wellbeing
Olga Surawska, Philips XD – Senses of Care
Bo Wong / Bastiaan Bervoets, Garage2020 – Mes Less, Embassy of Safety
Mitchell Jacobs, Studio Tast – Learning Innovation
Margreet van Uffelen, Omlab – Nature friendly starter home for swallows (nominee Dutch Design Awards)
Marianne van Sasse van Ysselt – Secrid
Rik Maarsen, Rik Makes – Compost Board, Embassy of Circular & Biobased Building’s Exploded View (2021)