The following is a very interesting topic, but one that may be too deep and complex to present in a blog post, at least for a amateur blogger like myself.
I can recommend you also check out the Wikipedia entry for the theory of “6 Stages of Moral Development” HERE
During their lifetime a designer should continuously keep learning and developing their design skills. Progressing not just externally to meet the needs of an ever changing world and professional environment, but also internally improving their critical ability and to think beyond immediate consumer and industrial expectations.
The fundamental precursor to progress is awareness, because without awareness how can you notice opportunities, problems to be solved and needs to be met? For example once we professionally meet all the market needs, what about environmental needs, or social needs? What remains imperfect about our products, or our design process and how can we improve on it?
I think this is especially true later on in a design career when despite our greater knowledge and available resources, we can become increasingly driven by design as a means to earn money and less open minded and idealistic as we were as students. Interestingly the reasons for this are also covered in the “6 Stages of Moral Development” theory.
Sure we all have awareness and many designers are acutely aware of the market and emerging trends, but in my mind what makes awareness truly meaningful is our ability for moral reasoning. But how do we decide which opportunities are worth pursuing, which problems are worth solving and what solutions are more meaningful?
Because every product we design not only is a short term opportunity to earn money, but it also has a long term social effect on society and an impact on the environment.
I was surprised to discover that Psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg created a plan of the different stages of moral reasoning and that’s when I realized that moral reasoning is critical to long-term problem solving and design.
In this post I would like to introduce and begin elaborating Kohlberg’s moral development theory with regards to design. Because I feel that despite the success of design and designers in the modern world, as visionaries guided by our critical ability, morality doesn’t play a big part of design thinking. In a nutshell designers (including myself) can be very critical of the world they would like to improve and the the problems they would like to solve (shopping for organic product using a re-usable bag), but not about the long term consequences of their personal work.
In part because the designer’s hands are tied by traditional business parameters, although I think its possible (and our job) to introduce unlimited progressive creative solutions, which can also benefit company growth and profits as well as solving long term problems.
It was while pondering on this paradox that I came across this interesting theory of Moral Development by American psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg. Although the theory is limited to 6 stages and might not be a perfect fit for all people and designers, I feel it lays down a framework and logic from which to wonder “what if my professional (design) contribution to the world could be more moral?”
Morals and Ethics are not subjects typically covered in design school, yet the choices we make as designers always have moral and ethical implications and consequences. Because despite our focus on aesthetics and performance, our designs also encourage specific consumer behaviors and social change (both intentionally and unintentionally). For example a good/new running shoe design can encourage consumers to run, like it can encourage them to make another unnecessary impulse purchase. And a good car design can also promote excessive driving and contamination, like a good chainsaw design can promote cutting too many trees.
I sometimes wonder what part do morals play in my critical thinking as a designer?
I think the theory of “6 Stages of Moral Development” by Lawrence Kohlberg is an interesting and useful way to evaluate how developed our moral reasoning is as an individual and as a professional designer.
The theory can help us consider what moral stage we have reached and what others can we can aspire to reach during our temporary existence on this small rock of a planet.
With my layman’s summary of the “6 Stages of Moral Development” I hope to introduce the concept of moral development and how it applies to our unique journey not only through life, but also professionally as designers.
If you find mistakes and unclear comparisons in my elaboration please let me know in the comments box below. Keep in mind that this essay is purely for personal interest and I have no academic guidance.
Stage 1: The punishment and obedience orientation.
The very first stage of moral development is the most basic and takes place during our first childhood years. Operating according to our most basic mode of survival, our morals are determined by the physical consequences of our actions. We learn that if we do something and its bad we get punished.
This primordial stage of moral development might not be applicable to design thinking, except maybe to the process of getting a design qualification from an institutionalized design education system. To get a degree you must unquestionably follow the guidance and the higher design authority of academia. Academia sets guidelines of rights and wrongs in design that you have to follow, for if you disagree you will be punished by receiving low grades and won’t likely receive a design qualification.
Stage 2: The instrumental relativist orientation.
As young child once you know what is bad and punishable, the next step is to promote personal growth. In moral logic this involves satisfying one’s own needs and occasionally the needs of others. Although reciprocity is used as an instrument to personal growth and isn’t unconditional.
Once you have learned the academic basics of design you can begin using your newly developed skill as a tool to satisfy personal needs, by enjoying your creative experience and talents. This is the early idealist stage of design, when you design mostly to satisfy your creative curiosity, while providing an industrial service and making money is secondary.
Stage 3: The interpersonal concordance or “good boy-nice girl” orientation.
In our late childhood years our reciprocity is fine tuned. As our level of social interaction broadens and becomes more complex, we begin being nicer to others while conforming to social standards, or groups.
As you establish your professional place as a designer, you begin leveraging your Design ability to be considered a valuable member of society, or your work environment; designing to achieve some form of status, or even fame.
Stage 4: The “law and order” orientation.
During our late teenage years we start becoming more orientated towards authority and fixed rules. Get a job, choose a retirement fund, set professional long term goals, get married, start a family and maintaining the given social order for its own sake.
Once we establish ourselves within the design community, we can focus on designing as an important tool for advancement by meeting practical needs and the idealism lessens into pragmatism. Designing to offer product of the most advanced and competitive quality but within a fixed/conventional parameters of design deliverables and conventional market segments.
Stage 5: The social-contract legalistic orientation (generally with utilitarian overtones).
In your late 20’s, or 30’s once you’ve achieved stability in your life and established the foundations of your personal moral framework, you can begin to look outside and become aware of of individual rights that are not your own. Wondering what greater opportunities are achievable.
After say a decade of design work, you may reach the realization that despite the promise of human advancement, design is an often misused tool, or not used to its full potential. Feeling that your design input is limited and should have broader, further reaching benefits, you begin wondering what greater design opportunities are achievable.
Stage 6: The universal ethical-principle orientation.
In this final stage of moral development you begin making decisions based on impartial reason. Understanding and doing what is right according to the universal principles. The ability to see the broader picture or look further. To fully appreciate the consequences of your actions and to see through another’s eyes and through the eyes of a multitude of different people.
Working to resolve the most meaningful problems, putting your developed talents to the best use and giving deeper meaning to your life.
Finally after a life’s worth of design experience, you can use design as a tool to make a authentic, positive difference in the world. You can design to provide the most meaningful and beneficial design solutions in a global context. Working to resolve the most meaningful problems, putting your design talents to the best use and giving deeper meaning to your working life.
Notice how each stage essentially becomes a platform/springboard on which to develop and reach the next. Stage one is essentially comparable to the moral reasoning of an infant, while stage six is probably more similar to say Buddhist philosophy..and the four stages in between; well they’re part of our personal journey of growth and learning.
Based on the 6 stages how do you view your design experience and how developed do you feel your moral thinking is within the context of design?
Thinking out aloud, can Buddhist philosophy be applied to design and how? After all isn’t design also metaphysical?