A good friend asked me the other day, “When designing, where is the line between informing the people and taking advantage of your audience.”

The way I see it, humans are centered around communcation. A deer in the woods makes all of its decisions based on instinct, from the moment it is born. Farmers see this all the time. A baby calf doesn’t need the milk bottled, warmed, and stuck between it’s lips; nature takes care of that from day one. If you think about most animals, this is how they live their lives, from innate knowledge and instinct. People have the added ability to reason, to process information, imagine, dream, and conjure up a slew of powerful ideas called “emotions.” Are we smarter than a deer for that? I don’t think so, but it does make things more complicated. With the power of choice, a person can actually say yes or no to their inner feelings. My gut might tell me a beefy Hummer would be more safe while my head might say I can’t afford the gas and am going to buy a plastic hybrid that fits in my back pocket.

I think where design comes in is that humans aren’t centered around survival of the fittest; it’s more like survival of the smartest. Nature eliminates the weak deer when they can’t outrun a coyote or aren’t tough enough to last a harsh winter. When it’s mating season, bucks duel other bucks to win the females, ensuring strong bloodlines since only the larger, healthier deer can impregnate. It’s a different story when it comes to humans. The wealthiest person might be the most feeble and live the longest because he or she has the funds for the best food, housing, medical support, etc.

We strive to use media to better ourselves. Think about the average American’s dose of news. People watch current events to be well informed and better decide how they want to live their lives and prepare for the future. Rarely do people wake up and turn on the t.v. in search of tragedy just for the heck of it, but they do keep up-to-date and seek information that may help their daily routine. If you’re watching a tsunami engulf Florida, you’re probably not going to order plane tickets to Disney World the next day.

Tying these two together, designers can use media (simply communication) to better their own “survival of the smartest” status. Although I might not enjoy every college assignment, I’ll probably try my best so that I can earn the grade and better myself. This isn’t necessarily feeding false work to the professors, but I wouldn’t say it is me being entirely honest either. There are times when I could have cared less about one of my class projects, but I did it anyway because of my future goals. That grade will hopefully lead to my graduation, to a job that requires college diploma, to a salary that will support a family…

So is “selling design” wrong? As with most things in life, it depends on the situation. There was a man who got in trouble for hauling a trailer of generators down to Katrina victims and selling them at a premium. Was he wrong? I don’t think so. He did not force anyone to buy his product and without his efforts, their wouldn’t have been any generators at all for the people who did buy them. I think the key is to find your own set of values and stick by them. If you’re creating a website to promote cancer research and an appreciative onlooker donates $5k, then congratulations. If you’re advertising a false miracle cure and taking money for it, you’re probably a bad person and deserve to be treated as such.

Two tests, the first I came up with in recent weeks and the second we’ve all been asked before:

  1. If you had to choose losing your sight or hearing, which would it be?
    If you opt to lose hearing, you’re most likely an independent thinker who is less concerned for interaction with the rest of the world than you are for maintaining your own view. If you give up sight, you can still maintain a social connection, despite your loss of vision. While it is true deaf people have effective means of communicating, the person who chose to give up hearing would need many months or even years of learning these methods (sign language) before they could fluently communicate again.
  2. If you made a million dollars tomorrow, what you do with the money?
    The answer is directly related to the above design concerns regarding ethical practice. The majority of people who would buy expensive toys, more houses than needed, and material goods for the themselves, are often the same people who would cut throats in business. If you’re spending spree includes gifts for loved ones and friends, you probably have decent values and would not use design other than to communicate a benign message.