Uniting Ethics and Design

Tom Johnson’s ethics class and Natania Hume’s Design II class collaborates on a project called “Ethics and Objects”

Editor’s note: The following piece was written by fine and performing arts faculty member Natania Hume, who teaches Design II “Ethics and Objects.”

Photo by Dennis Crommett
Photo by Dennis Crommett

As consumers, we make moral and ethical decisions almost every day; sometimes without knowing what the full impact our decisions are on other people and on our environment. This was the underlying concept behind the Trimester II collaboration between Tom Johnson’s Ethics class and my Design II class called “Ethics and Objects”.

Throughout the trimester, the classes engaged in collective activities ranging from a debate about the ethics of owning and using iPhones, to researching the ethical impact of common products we use like various brands of clothing, shoes (like Uggs), chocolate, bottled water, etc. Students also researched design companies who currently design products and engage in projects that are meant to address social and environmental ills.

Students studied both these kinds of recent developments in the design world, and three of the major approaches to ethics (utilitarianism, Kantian ethics, virtue ethics) for assessing the ethical value of situations and decisions. For their final project, teams from both classes conceived of unique objects and products that would have beneficial social or environmental impacts. The ethics students wrote a paper in defense of their teams’ designs, and the design students built prototypes of the objects.

Photo by Dennis Crommett

The objects the teams designed were both varied and imaginative. One team designed a user-friendly, fashionable soft-pouch car ignition lock for a smart phone. They felt that the existing smart phone locks have a punitive look. Their version is stylish, and communicates voluntary self-control and a responsible approach to the issue of driving and smart phones.

Another team designed a prototype of re-useable elastic that replaces sock tape for soccer and hockey players. Literally tons of tape ends up in landfills every year from tape use and disposal from athletic teams everywhere, so this invention would be made from re-usable and renewable rubber and resin components.

Several teams worked on products to track and save on energy usage in the homes through remote appliances, smart phone apps, and even power strips, with graphs of usage and cost on the sides of them. Through this collaboration students explored the ways in which the objects we use and own interact with the world and its inhabitants, as well as the responsibilities that come with being a member of a consuming culture.

“What I liked about our collaboration was that it made the students engage in a more real world way with how ethics matters, even in business,” my fellow teacher Mr. Johnson noted later. “We tried to call attention as well to all the ways in which businesses now promote and market the ‘ethicality’ of their product, in addition to emphasizing the ways in which every purchase is an ethical decision.”

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