Absolute Agency and the Influence of Designers on Individual Freedom

When it comes to ethics, theres a lot of grey area. What may be just and fair for some people may be incredibly unethical for others. None the less, I do believe designers themselves have a huge responsibility to at least have the intent to act ethically and owe their consumers the consideration of the impact their design decisions may have on them. 

One of the largest grey area in ethical design is the impact design decisions have on peoples individual freedom. Take for example a fast food chain, if a vulnerable person has the best intentions to eat healthy that day – but is subjected to a constant bombardment of advertisement from a company like McDonalds and ends up eating fast food that day, who exactly had agency over that decision. While this person may of made the final call, should McDonalds be accountable for the influence on that persons individual freedom? 

Advertising is a powerful thing.

Much of this can be applied to the various tobacco campaigns around Indonesia. “Organisations, like individuals, operate  as stages of moral development” (Baucus, 2005). By measure of Kohlberg’s six stages of moral development it would appear that tobacco companies are acting around stage two focused only on self interest (Goodpaster, 1982). It doesn’t take long walking around Indonesia to see some of the absurdly forward and ‘loud’ advertising that companies use no doubt influencing the lives of many Indonesian citizens, particularly the youth who tend to be more impressionable. 

Surya – a common cigarette brand in Indonesia’s current marketing campaign.

So like the fast food chains and many other large companies with strong marketing campaigns – the Indonesian tobacco industry has a responsibility to its Indonesian citizens to relinquish control over individual agency. As stated in the beginning, we as designers all inform the change that needs to come about in order to start to tackle such a large issue like ethics within the tobacco industry of Indonesia. 

So what do we need to do?

I think that in order to restore true agency and individual the first thing designers need to do is make ‘openness’ the accepted social norm. In all design, there needs to be more discussion and openness about the type of strategies being used and why the work. I believe the public has an absolute right to know what kind of subliminal design decisions are influencing their behaviours and interaction with the products around them. If all designers and companies take on this attitude when developing and releasing products then perhaps we can start to shift the big giants to. Eventually perhaps we can get to a place where we find some honesty within advertising and begin to see a much more aware public truely making daily decisions for themselves.




Baucus, Melissa S., and Caryn L. Beck-Dudley. “Designing Ethical Organizations: Avoiding the Long-Term Negative Effects of Rewards and Punishments.” Journal of Business Ethics, vol. 56, no. 4, 2005, pp. 355–370. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/25123441.

Goodpaster, Kenneth E. “Kohlbergian Theory: A Philosophical Counterinvitation.” Ethics 92, no. 3 (1982): 491-98. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2380734.

Latham, H. (2018). ‘Ethical design’ is a dangerous term – UX Collective. [online] UX Collective. Available at: https://uxdesign.cc/ethical-design-is-a-dangerous-term-b314a5e385f4 [Accessed 19 Dec. 2018].

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