Elizabeth Tunstall | Essays

What If Uncle Sam Wanted You?

James Montgomery Flagg, lithograph, 1917. (Prints & Photographs Division, U.S. National Archives)

What if Uncle Sam wanted you to design not posters, but services in the war zones of Afghanistan or Iraq? As a design anthropologist, I am always interested in how the processes and artifacts of design help define what it means to be a citizen. Over the past seven years, my focus has been on design and human governance. I've applied anthropologically informed design thinking to support U.S. elections and voting experiences (through Design for Democracy), emergency and evacuation strategies, the IRS's design management of taxation, and, most recently, public health for the Chicago's Bureau of Health Services. But what if I decided to apply design thinking to the U.S. military? What roles could design thinking play in war? A recent The New York Times article, "Army Enlists Anthropologists in War Zone," makes these questions especially relevant.

War is one of the constants of human activity as far back as the pre-historical record. Designed artifacts have certainly played a significant role in war from propaganda posters to the design of weapons. But what about design thinking as it applies to designing social solutions? What if the U.S. Army asked designers to join teams to do "service design" projects in Afghanistan?

The context for my questions is the current debate within the professional anthropology community about the embedding of anthropologists with soldiers in Afghanistan. The Pentagon has started a relatively new program called Human Terrain Teams, in which social scientists are paired with combat soldiers to help translate the cultural environment to inform non-combat decision-making. The participation of anthropologists in this program has generated controversy because anthropology has always branded itself as a "neutral observer" — or if partisan, as an advocate for the powerless. Historically, anthropology's role in the "Colonial Imperial" project makes the discipline wary of aligning itself with powerful military institutions. Pragmatically, the field's code of ethics requires that research participants give informed consent to projects and that knowledge be non-proprietary. Only 25 years ago you could get barred from the American Anthropological Association for working in a for-profit corporation, indicating the seriousness with which anthropologists have protected their "neutral observer" brand.

As a field less complicatedly aligned with powerful institutions, design's history and pragmatics differ from that of anthropology. The emerging emphasis on design thinking for business, government and social institutions makes this anthropological debate relevant to design — at least hypothetically. Following the recent The New York Times article, I posted my thoughts about the controversy and solicited other anthrodesigners' response on the Anthrodesign Yahoo Group listserve. Some anthropologists and social scientists eagerly entered the fray with the pros and cons of participation in this military project. They asked if future anthropologists would be put in danger or if the field would compromise its credibility. With some coaxing, a few designers contributed to the discussion. They mentioned design's role in creating wartime propaganda and weapons. Designers framed the issue of one of personal ethical choice, which contrasted with the anthropologists' interest in larger issues of professional ethics and standards.

Are we, as designers, so individualistic? I say "we" to emphasize that I consider this an insider perspective, not just that of an outside anthropologist. Are there collective ideas for which the profession stands? AIGA did adopt the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 2006. As design seeks to expand its progressive impact on business, government and society, I wonder if we, designers as thinkers, can continue to afford to see ourselves in such individualistic ways. At the recent AIGA Conference in Denver, Richard Grefé presented how designing now includes form + content + context + time. As the affect of one's designing scales beyond form and content to context and time, the ethical issues scale as well.

I genuinely wonder how the design community would respond if called upon by the U.S. Army to create service designs in Afghanistan. At the University of Illinois at Chicago, I educate "anthro-design" students in research methods and critical theory. For the past two years, over half of the students have selected topics related to ethics and designing. Both undergraduate and graduate students want to understand the role of design in, for example, promoting cultures of fear, commercialism, ecological and social sustainability, and altruistic projects in Africa. They express dissatisfaction when they interview designers who talk about ethics as personal choice. They want designing itself to be ethical. So how prepared is the design field to engage with their ethical expectations? I provide them with the perspective of ethical codes from anthropology. But, what are the ethical codes for design thinking?

So I open up the question, "How should the design community respond if the U.S. Army asked us to join teams to do "service design" projects in Afghanistan?" What if Uncle Sam wants our design thinking?

Posted in: Business, Politics

Comments [26]

For a little under 3 years I designed websites posters and other collateral for the U.S. Army as a member of their Army.mil Web team. My experience facilitated growth and insight into the worlds of design, military culture, the government and ethics that I would have never encountered designing in another environment. As a designer wrapping my head around the topics and challenges you mentioned in your article became more persistent and apparent over my time on the team. I appreciate your post and particularly am interested in your question: "So how prepared is the design field to engage with their ethical expectations?"
This is something I struggled with for a long time.

Ah... the eternal question of ethics and morality. What are we willing to do? Is our goal to better the world or to sell more product (which may actually better the world anyway)? Would helping the US military design and conduct an anti-poppy growing campaign be useful to more then just "national interests"? Or even personal interests? Or are you inflicting your cultural ideas on a "subjugated" country and cultures? At the end of the day it always turns on personal choice of what you will or will not do. From a distance it can be almost simplified to black and white. But in the details, it often turns out gray. So what's your price? What are you willing to do? And at what cost?

Isn't the answer to this question very straight-forward? If you believe that the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan was good and just, then you should have no problem designing in service of that mission. If you think it was an opportunistic military move driven by a quest for U.S. dominance in the region and control of oil resources, then you will likely decline involvement in the debacle.

I see no difference between "personal choice" and ethics. Presumably one is driven by the other, no? It should go without saying that if you are ethically-opposed to an enterprise/product/service, you should do your damnedest to not involve yourself in it (if not actively oppose it).

So I open up the question, "How should the design community respond if the U.S. Army asked us to join teams to do "service design" projects in Afghanistan?" What if Uncle Sam wants our design thinking?

The questions imply that the design community as a whole should come to an agreed-upon answer, a particular ethical stance. But, as Derek suggests, isn't it up to individual designers to decide on their own terms? Does our profession dictate our ethics, tell us what kind of work we can/cannot do, or determine which clients we can/cannot work for? Should it? We might have to answer those questions before we can answer how the design community should respond to this hypothetical Army in Afghanistan work.
Rob Henning

Let's say that the design community agreed that it is OK to join teams to do "service design" projects for the U.S. Army in Afghanistan. Would the community also agree that it's OK for an individual to dissent? I imagine most readers of this site would say they have the right to dissent.

So now let's reverse it. Let's say that the design community agreed that it is NOT OK to join teams to do "service design" projects for the U.S. Army in Afghanistan. Would there still be that same right to dissent?

Also, couldn't your question also apply to other professions? Plumbers, pastry chefs, accountants... Don't they have the right to make moral, ethical and political statements? Or is it just designers who are that special?

"Speak your mind, even if your voice shakes" - Applies to everyone.
Dean Collins

I have had the pleasure of participating in Professor Tunstall's course at UIC last fall, and in this course I focused my research on Ethics in Design. Over the course of 15 weeks I was able to cast interviews with designers, observe the relationship between advertising and consumers, and learn a great deal about ethics within the design community. Almost every designer I spoke with expressed that they act "ethically" when making a design decision at their job, but to my surprise, those same designers regarded "good" ethics as the ability to satisfy the job. So, a job well done was a job done ethically.

This was the crucial point in my research, the problem was that the designer wasn't seeing ethics as ethics, which is quite a problem. So, under this precedence, if I work for the military, and the military is happy with my work, than I have, ethically, done a "good" job. So before I can get into a discussion about ethics and design, I need to understand what ethics is, and what it means to consider ethics in design.
Jeremiah Chiu

I work for a non-profit military support organization and frankly - it doesn't pull at my personal heart strings. To put it mildly, I have struggled with connecting to our rich and powerful sponsorship audience (those who receive our materials) and also to the direct recipient (servicemen and women in the field) of the dollars raised from our work to solicit funds. HOWEVER, it's not hard to rationalize to myself that we need a military, that we have a military, and that I have a job because of the military.

Would it help if I were some sort of Rambo-minded designer? Maybe. But I prefer a measured detachment.

I think the real trick is to engage in a struggle within, to question (heavily) what we're making and entertain that "outsider" perspective on these materials. I hope I never lose that.

Jessica Gladstone

This was a really nice post Dori, in part because it doesn't provide an easy answer. The question as phrased precludes the response that ethics is always up to the individual's predilections - it is not how 'a designer' should respond but rather how 'the design community' should respond.

I also think an important distinction is between the intent of the design (to support the troops/to kill people/to establish order in a country/to appeal to nationalist sentiments) and the mechanism by which the design operates, that is to say, why the design works (through obfuscation/clarity/manipulation/elegance/collaboration/destruction). One needs only think of the aesthetics of fascism: those designs appealed to people, not because people were stupid, but because the aesthetics actually resonated with people. People's sentiments were exploited by powerful aesthetics and turned against them. This is how Theodor Adorno could tell us that 'poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.'

Of course, the Human Terrain Teams are not such an example but I hope one can see where these distinctions might matter in other military situations.

A final elaboration: A lie can be 'well-designed' if it solves a desired problem, and a designer could get paid from this, but surely a -design community-, if one is in fact desirable, cannot be founded on such an ethic.

As per the norm, Dori's thoughtful words will certainly give our community reason to ponder. Allow me to offer a few comments.

I would suggest that the big question to ask ourselves is not, "How should the design community respond if the U.S. Army asked us to join teams to do "service design" projects in Afghanistan?" but, "What are the potential results of us not taking part in these projects if we are asked?"

When I think about how I interact in my own work with corporate sponsors primarily focused on profit and the needs of their constituent customers or "users", I am forced to recognize both positions. I understand that the only way solutions I help to recommend will be successful for anyone is if they: 1. really meet the needs of some group of people, 2. that they can be delivered with my client's capabilities, and 3. that this complementary exchange can be done sustainably from a resource perspective. This requires me (and us) to be practical and purpose driven. It's all about making the best of constraints—it is the nature of design! This is where the Anthrodesign group has made me frustrated. There are just too many people with a purist, strictly academic perspective.

Those who use anthropological methods to do user research as part of a design process are not anthropologists regardless of what their degree is—they are design researchers. While ethics come into play with both roles, the whole notion of "neutral observer" is the crux of where the ethics differ. Design researchers should be anything but neutral. We must have a point of view on how to change the world and it should be fundamentally rooted in the needs of those being studied. To do this, we have to be practical and recognize compromise and constraint.

While an individual's morality may not allow them to work with the military, this is outside of the ethics of the design research profession. Being passionately empathetic for people, their problems, and advocating their needs is really the one central ethical tenet of the design researcher. From this point of view, it is more ethical to do the work and be the advocate then have an entirely uninformed outcome.
Zachary Jean Paradis

You sure lost me. The first few paragraphs read like your resume. Are you really interested in this topic?

It seems to me that the assumption being made here is that any designer in the design community offered such an opportunity, and if the media is any indicator, a lucrative opportunity at that, would base the decision "to do or not to do" on ethical, moral or value considerations, be they personal or collective

imho, there are those for whom the decision would purely be based on the profit motive, ethics be damned, regardless of whether they personally supported the activities in question politically or otherwise. that I believe would be more damaging to the industry/profession as a whole than any lack or availability of ethical guidelines. the rationalization that monetary incentive or 'need' subsumes any requirement to consider the ethics of the decision. this sends the message that regardless of what the design profession may claim, they can be bought.
niti bhan

This is a question that every one of us will have to answer and not just Design Thinkers on Military Duty. Most of us will find it difficult to claim to be ethical in everything we do, even though we may try to "save anthropolgy/design from unethical practices". There are no easy answers to these questions. All of us will have to handle our own demons, ourselves and in the process find answers.
Himanshu Gupta

In trying to grasp this issue in its entirety, one thought strikes me, which in some ways is connected to Zachary Jean's post and also a little deviant from the original question of how the design community should respond.

Does the issue of ethics become important more because of not what it is you are called for but because of you being associated with a particular body/institution in rendering that service?

What if it was not Uncle Sam who wanted designers to do "service design" projects in Afghanistan but some other body? Would both call for a similar response from the designer or the design communty as a whole?

One does understand that whom so ever employs the designer will, as a stakeholder, have its own influence in the process . Then it amounts to which stakeholder one finds ethical and thus agreeable to align yourself with in rendering that service hoping for the best to happen for the society for whom this is meant for.

Speaking as one on the border between engineering and design, in my experience if a designer is difficult to get hold of then the design work is done by someone else - someone not properly trained, who will most likely do a bad job. In an environment like Iraq or Afghanistan, the consequences of a badly-designed interaction between the military and the locals could be catastrophic for both. Even if you couldn't care less about the military, I would argue you have a moral obligation to step up for the sake of their victims...er, I mean the local community.

In this we have a more difficult positiion than many professions, because everyone knows if they can do plumbing or not, but everyone assumes they can design something, in much the same way they assume they're good drivers.

It seems to me that the "design community" does not have any universally-accepted ethical code which could be used as a measuring stick against which to evaluate participation in the hypothetical work. Absent that accepted baseline ethical code, I don't see how the design community could ever come to an answer. We can already see that there are widely diverging opinions on the subject. There are, of course, the AIGA's published ethics. Do they provide a clear answer to the question?
Rob Henning

one of the absolute best posts i've ever read here at DO. i have no clue what the answer is. makes me think real hard and get a bit upset.

thanks for existing in this world, ms. tunstall. i am looking forward to finding out more about your good works.

one thing i will say, however, is that if someone in the design community does answer to the call, that they not come up with a branding package that says "Team America...Fuck Yeah!"
Gong Szeto

I'm not a designer, but from a pragmatic stance, if designers actually want to impede the war effort, then they have to promote a universal code of ethics that says "designers shouldn't participate in illegitimate wars." If it's left up to individual choice, then the army could always find ten replacements for every dissenting designer. So maybe the important question is, could an industry wide design boycott of the army ever be successful? And it sounds like from what most of the posters are saying, the answer is no.
Manuel Rosaldo

Thank you for the great article Dori. I think a lot of these questions and a lot of these ideas typically hide behind glossy screens and bold letters, when in actuality it should be right up front with designers and citizens.

It's good to know somebody is pushing the envelope.
Tanner Christensen

Thanks for raising these issues.

I personally don't think there will ever be a unified response/stance from the "design community." It's too diverse and individualistic. Certainly an organization within the community may commit to a stance, but designers will still face their own personal judgments about the rightness of their actions (which for the time being will likely hinge on their feelings about the war we are in).

I think one aspect that was not explored in the article but was raised by the first commenter is that designers have always designed for the military. You may not value the quality of design but certainly someone has designed the posters and web sites and uniforms and UI of software and guns, etc.

I'm not exactly sure what "services" are meant in the article, but I imagine the moral/ethical implications may be similar to other forms of design participation.
Thomas C. Sullivan

For me it is not a question of collaborating with the army in a war one doesn't agree with. It is question of, besides participating in this war, one can still do what one believes is right. What should we think a doctor does when working for the military in a war zone. Helping his comrades and making sure they will get out of there safe and back to their families, is a way of putting it. But making sure the army can cure these flesh mechanisms to put them back in the front, is another. The true question is in what the doctor believes when he saves lives. Either, this doctor is playing his humble part in the worst play society has or he is collaborating in the machine of war. Which one is the right one? I think anyone can answer that.
Anthropologists and designers should be equipped with the right amount of skill, situated information, and a strong critical thinking ability so they can evaluate all their actions and decisions. To establish a strong belief reference which lays together with the human condition and beyond politics and individual interest, is everything the design community should do. Specific wars, specific business contexts, specific expertise applications are to be dealt by each one individually.
This is just another way of putting the classical ethics problem of designing a weapon; are you serving the incomprehensible need of attacking or the understandable need of defending?
Luis Quental Pereira

Designers should take a hypocritic oath, of a sorts. It's that important!
Vincent Bergbahn

American Anthropological Association Executive Board decides that participation in the Human Terrain Systems project is in violation of its ethics. Link to the official AAA resolution.


The idea of ethics, or a code of ethics, in today's world is rather difficult to handle. The accepted belief is that truth is relative, what is right for you is not necessarily right for me. Under such an assumption, how can we expect people to conform to an ethical code? And even if we write a code, and get people to agree to conform to it, there is the matter of personal interpretation. If you say "Designers must only work on projects that are of social or cultural importance", some designers might go work for non-profit charitable groups whose goal is to provide food and shelter for those in need, while others might go and work for a company whose main goal is to promote prostitution as a profession. Each of them is working for organizations that have impact on society and culture, but it is the designer's personal ethics that allows them to make a decision one way or another.

I completely agree with Dori, how design ethics is a topic diffucult to handle. The main reason is we are mostly talking about etihcs on a theoretical level and about responsibility on a practical one. We should all act responsibly no matter which part of the design process we are involved in. The issues regarding human rights and preserving the environmen shuld never be put under a question. The most unethical behavior to me is accepting a job, just because jour ego is eager for glory.
ksenija berk

wwaaaaa.... no way... i am more at peace gardening in my backyard than getting into war..

my site
business cards Printing
Joel Owens

I believe that we as designers, hold special power over information. Information nowadays might be the most powerful weapon a society has. I live in South America, in a country where manipulation of information reigns. I believe it is our duty - as well as it has been for journalists for decades - to transmit correct, truthful, educational, relevant and ethical information to the public, no matter what our "product" is. I completely agree with the article, and think that designers should star seeing themselves in the same position of holders of a precious good as journalists and historians do.

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