Ethics and Patience in Design

In an inspiring interview for Madame Architect, Design Observer co-founder Jessica Helfand opines on the drive for more ethical design in large organizations:

The problem is that ethics is not an institutional concern: it’s a individual concern. And individual issues begin with one person, at one time, doing one thing. That requires faith, understanding, compassion, and the one thing that challenges everyone: patience. Ethics isn’t derived by market research, or determined by an algorithm-and that’s tricky, particularly if you’re one of these large, behemoth companies that puts profit ahead of people.

Spot on. Organizations can only be ethical to the degree that the people who compose them are clear on their own value hierarchies.

I also appreciated the call for patience, which seems in short supply these days. Lasting, meaningful change requires long-term thinking. Many calls for “instant” fixes to intractably complex issues strike me as naïve, short-sighted, and often at odds with the long-term viability of the institutions they aim to “correct.”

The theme of patience (and humility) about our contributions as designers — especially when working in teams — comes up again, in a different guise, towards the end of the interview:

It’s hard in architecture, because how can you feel that you are engaging in the world of the spatially meaningful, when you’re working for a team doing window details for sixteen months and the building will take twenty years, and it’s a bank? I think it’s hard for designers, particularly with how much we do this on teams – how do you reconcile your role, when you’re part of a bigger team, when the collective effort overshadows your own, arguably sporadic contributions? I think that’s true of all designers, but it may be especially true for young architects.

The entire article is worth your time. (I was also inspired by the discussion about the creative studio as a sanctuary, something I’ve neglected in my life. This interview set me thinking about how I can correct that deficit.)

Visual Thinking: Jessica Helfand on Invention, the Studio as Sanctuary, and Being a Collector