Technology companies like Facebook, Google, Apple, Amazon and Snap employ some of the most sought-after designers in the world to help them build their products. These designers, using all the tools at their disposal, can wield enormous power, influencing what we click on, see, hear and buy. Their choices decide how we interact with the internet.
With this power, there needs to be accountability, says Mike Monteiro, a Silicon Valley designer who co-founded the design agency Mule. Monteiro says design should be a licensed profession, complete with training, testing and accreditation.
This interview with Monteiro has been edited for clarity:
Q: We know that design is powerful and it can herd people toward certain actions. So how do we encourage designers to make sure they’re wielding that power ethically and responsibly?
A: We shouldn’t have to. We as designers should see this as part of the job. We encourage children to behave better. We shouldn’t have to encourage professionals to behave professionally.
Q: Given how high the stakes are for projects that designers work on, why isn’t there a practice of licensing and accreditation?
A: When you look at the sorts of things designers used to do, it was stuff like make a rock show poster, or a website for a movie, or a dust jacket for a book. Those things don’t kill people. All of a sudden, we’re dealing with the user interface for driverless automobiles with absolutely zero training in that stuff. I could probably go out and get a job doing that, which should scare the hell out of anyone who finds that out because I have no training in it whatsoever. But the counterargument is that these companies have been able to grow as fast as they have because they aren’t regulated and designers don’t need to be licensed. [But] that can’t be our No. 1 concern. Our No. 1 concern needs to be society, the people in it, which, by the way, includes us. As a society, we need to care more about than whether Twitter is profitable for a quarter. Who cares? Some rich people got richer. Fantastic. But at what cost?
Q: You’re saying that change is going to have to come from the outside in the form of regulation, and not from the inside?
A: There’s a book called “The Jungle” by Upton Sinclair. It tells the story of the Chicago (meat processing) industry at the turn of the century, and how the diseased beef and pork being processed there was poisoning people. People freaked out when they read the book. And because of that book, the government passed regulation on the meat industry. We cannot expect tech to regulate itself, and we can’t expect designers to regulate themselves, because they just don’t do it. And it turns out when they don’t regulate themselves, they behave abysmally because their job is to turn a profit, and in the end they will do whatever it takes.
Q: Are regulation and licensing realistic expectations for an industry with little of either today?
A: The most likely thing is that nothing changes … because people are making money off the way things are. There’s a middle ground, and we might hit it. But why aim for it? I don’t think licensing designers is extreme. I think it’s necessary.