Wicked Problems in Design and Ethics

  • Ben SweetingEmail author
Part of the Translational Systems Sciences book series (TSS, volume 8)


While the relationship between ethics and design is usually thought of in terms of the application of the former to the latter, it is not as if ethics is a settled body of theory that can authoritatively guide design practice. Depending on which theories or ideas we refer to, we receive different guidance as to what to do. Indeed, design may have as much to contribute to ethical theory as vice versa. This essay builds connections between design and ethics, looking to the similarities of structure between wicked problems in design and those dilemmas that are of central concern in normative ethical theory. Understanding design and ethics in mutual terms, ethical questions in design need not be understood in terms of external limitations or trade-offs between competing priorities. Moreover, the way designers cope with the ethical challenges presented by wicked problems may inform how we approach complex ethical challenges in other contexts, including some of those that arise within ethical discourse itself.



This essay has been developed from my doctoral research at The Bartlett, UCL, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and supervised by Neil Spiller and Ranulph Glanville (Sweeting, 2014). It has been refined through working papers presented during the Relating Systems Thinking and Design conferences in Banff and Toronto (Sweeting, 2015c, 2016b), and I am grateful for all comments received in those sessions and for the sketchnotes made by Pupul Bisht and Linda Blaasvær. I would especially like to thank Wolfgang Jonas and Peter Jones for their helpful comments.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Architecture and DesignUniversity of BrightonBrightonUK

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