Ethical design: promoting respect for people and nature

Environmental issues are widely debated in the public sphere and have become major political and economic challenges. Citizens, in particular younger generations, are also more concerned about production conditions and the fairness of transactions. Brands that operate in the digital world must adapt. Ethical design therefore appears to be a natural choice.

Using green logos is no longer enough to convince consumers. The green or sustainable transition, which includes environmental and social issues, has made its way into many areas of the economy (such as energy, transport, fashion and clothing, and food processing).

How can digital professionals help brands design websites and applications that are more ethical and thereby enable them to meet this growing demand from consumers?

While ethical project aims and inclusive design are part of ethical design, an ethical approach can above all be adopted through the practice of ethical design itself, which is more respectful of both people and their environment. The following three guidelines can help with this practice: transparency, attentional design, and sustainable design.


In ethical design, messages communicated to users must have no ambiguity in terms of the underlying motivations or veracity of information. Objects in the interface (such as action buttons and progress bars) and their names are there to help users make choices and anticipate the result of their actions.

Among the abuses, greenwashing is very common. Certain companies give themselves an ethical veneer with dashes of Pantone green and flattering descriptions of their latest sustainable development or ethical trade actions, which are sometimes factually dubious. If major actions have been carried out, communications surrounding them are more striking and convincing when they include sources that enable users to verify the guarantees given themselves. In the clothing sector (one of the industries that generates the most pollution and shows least concern about working conditions), even major “fast fashion” companies are developing environmentally responsible collections and drawing attention to codes of conduct governing the selection and auditing of subcontractors on their websites. A reflection of progress made, the application ‘Good on You ‘ rates fashion brands based on their respect for three criteria: working conditions, environmental responsibility and animal well-being (People, Planet and Animals).

While the issue of tick boxes that are selected by default, and to the detriment of users’ wallets, has been addressed by legislation, we are still not safe from “dark patterns”. Certain designers skilfully use the laws of perception to achieve their decidedly unethical aims. If you have ever battled to close an advertising pop-up, desperately searched for a customer service number, or been put off by a barely legible font, then you have been the victim of a dark pattern! This is the total opposite of ethical and transparent design.

Attentional Design

Natural resources are limited and so are our “attentional resources”.

All UX designers look to minimise end users’ cognitive load in order to make things easier for them. With attentional design, the aim is to go even further, as users operate in a space that is saturated with information and where they are bombarded with notifications.  We can save their attention by offering the following:

  • The appropriate service;
  • The right information at the right place and at the right time, or information that is provided gradually and at the user’s initiative;
  • Help with disconnecting;
  • The statuses “occupied” or “incognito” on social networks.

Some designers have, for example, come up with seven functions that would make Facebook more ethical. The ideas proposed include: “time spent” indicators; grouping, filtering and temporary muting of notifications; inclusion of availability statuses in instant messaging.

Lastly, graphics design obviously has a role to play in creating clear and uncluttered interfaces, by adopting a flat or minimalist approach.

The minimalist approach also has the virtue of being in phase with sustainable design.

Sustainable Design

A sustainable design, in the environmental sense, seeks to optimise resource use, in particular energy. A well-referenced website (avoiding the need to scour the Internet and use up server resources to find it), with an intelligent architecture (making it easy and quick to access information), is a first step towards sustainable design. UX and UI professionals should also make pages lighter by providing only the necessary content and optimising images and photos.

The mobile first approach can, therefore, serve sustainable design.

Just as designers can provide websites with content that adapts to the various devices used, beginning with mobiles, they can design pages with light and dark backgrounds (dark mode) and make it easy for users to choose between them. Dark mode (which is making a comeback in current design trends) should be used in order to alleviate eye fatigue when ambient lighting is low and to reduce battery usage.

When these good design practices are applied by UX and UI professionals, it is then up to the development teams to continue the sustainable design effort by producing “clean” code and fast-loading websites. Lastly, choosing a website hosting provider that runs its servers on green energy is another positive action for the planet.

First published by SQLI.