Adapting Design as a Methodology for Translational Ethics

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At first glance, it appears that ethics and creativity have nothing in common; one is constrained and the other unbridled. And yet, ethics is the insider handshake to a world of unexpected delights and creative starting points.—Coe Leta Stafford, Design Director, IDEO Palo Alto.

(IDEO, 2015, 53)

The above hopefully begins to explain why a connection between translational ethics and design is not as surprising as it might seem. First of all, design is a field, as we’ve said, that is built to help move ideas to action. It has an innate facility for collaboration and problem solving, for probing and refining goals, for supporting imagination tempered by realism. Furthermore, design has always been saturated with issues of values—navigating value conflicts, finding creative pathways for reducing trade-offs, or fiercely protecting what is most valued. The values of ethics (as opposed, say, to profit maximization) can find a natural home in design—indeed, “designing for values” is a movement gaining strong traction in the design world.1

We have found the lens and techniques of design helpful in a variety of ways for the work of translational ethics, including what we call surfacing and pathway finding.

Let’s start with ethical surfacing. Sometimes the ethical issues at stake in a project will be obvious—indeed, recognition of an ethical issue is what usually brings people to Ethics Lab in the first place. But many times they are not, both because ethics and values (we believe) are rich in dimensionality, and because, in real-world cases, some of the most important ethical issues can be hidden in technical or institutional details that require probing. Surfacing ethical saliences thus becomes a critical activity.

We have also found this process benefits from being a shared activity. While our knowledge of ethical theories, concepts, and frameworks is critical, it is dangerous to move too quickly to a favored concept or theory. Instead, we have found it useful to design group exercises to surface substantive ethical stakes and tensions by those who know the context best. Ethical issues often need to reach a level of granularity to be useful, but if s a granularity that needs to be natively identified in the context (as opposed to a presentation about possible specifications). We use our expertise in ethics to probe technical experts and steer the conversation, all the while being open to the potential for novel discovery. It helps the technical collaborators understand where values, not just scientific details, are the core drivers of the intervention; and it helps the ethi-cists to not go down philosophical rabbit holes that are fascinating but not relevant to the task at hand.

Moving next to pathway finding: one of the most notable things about translational work in complex moral problems is that, without care, interventions proposed even with the best of intentions can raise ethical issues of their own (as we saw with the example around trauma and birth). Ethics work in a translational context is not a one-time exercise, since new moral saliences—new tripwires to avoid, new possibilities of moral value to reach for—can be revealed as the project continues. (This is a phenomenon we sometimes jokingly call “fractal ethics.”) An approach that views the development of a good ethical intervention as a “design problem” will have comfort and ease with this fact, because design helps the group remain agile enough to anticipate problems down the line and note areas where more research is needed to ensure the intervention has its intended effects. More broadly, design is at home with the idea of robust iteration: development from prototype to final product is not simply a process of moving from lower to higher fidelity and finish (from a sketch to a fully realized product, for instance), but a process that can involve strong pivots. It is an epistemic process of discovery, with new challenges revealed as the project progresses.

More generally, we’ve found that exercises and approaches borrowed from design are helpful for scaffolding collaboration and creativity across disciplines and perspectives. As Kristine Baeroe (2014, 3) puts it, cross-disciplinary work involves “bridging epistemologically distinct areas involving different kinds of training and competence.” This is challenging, to say the least. The sheer amount of background each disciplinary expert draws on, and the fact that different disciplines can use the same words in wildly different ways, renders problematic the usual tactic of asking for background briefings from each member (what we call “sharing propositionally”—also known as “death by PowerPoint”).

Because design practices are built to surface tacit knowledge and get it working in a shared space, we’ve found its approaches, especially visual exercises, a useful tool. Visually representing thoughts—for instance, sketching out ideas on Post-it notes and then finding different ways of grouping them to discover affinities—can quickly draw out points of confusion, ambiguity, and disagreement. Tabletop exercises get conversations flowing and a joint mind developing far more quickly, in our experience, than the usual interdisciplinary conversations. Such tools can help keep people from monologuing or staying in their own individual node of expertise. They help build a shared understanding of underlying assumptions, and help jump-start a group’s ability to collaborate epistemically and deliberatively.

As a final note, the philosophers at Ethics Lab want to share how inspiring it can be to work with designers (especially ours!). Collaborating on translational projects can be challenging for philosophers. It’s not natively a field about innovation or action. The idea of working within, shall we say, non-conceptual constraints (time, dollars, institutional feasibility!) is not home base for philosophers. For designers, though, it is the bread and butter of what they do. The attitude and mindset of design can be a corrective to tendencies to overemphasize theory, or to get stuck on analytic distinctions that may be more fascinating than relevant to moving a particular intervention forward. Abductive reasoning and analogical habits of mind join with the philosophers’ important toolkit of probing inferential relations, counterexamples, and conceptual refinement. Working with designers can help ethicists, in particular, from getting stuck in the role of social critic. Instead, they get to be part of building something. Working with designers is also just plain fun. It encourages a mindset of play. Ideas are experiments rather than objects of defense. Ambiguity is an opportunity for creativity rather than anxiety. You get to use different parts of your brain. Periods of isolated reflection are balanced by fast and social mind-melds—and lots of Post-it notes!

Philosophy is a discipline with much to contribute to the world. Our whole team believes deeply in the importance of theoretical philosophy. We also believe that philosophy will be most robust as a discipline if it is not exhausted by that effort. Applied work in philosophy is critical; public philosophy is critical; philosophy that collaborates with other disciplines is critical. What we have argued here is that translational philosophy—philosophy that harnesses its intellectual and creative labor in the service of building tools and interventions to impact the world—is another deeply valuable way for philosophy to contribute, and that methods from the world of design can be a helpful mode of doing so.


1 See, for example, Delft University of Technology’s Design for Values project, http://, and the University of Washington’s Value Sensitive Design Research Lab,


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