Creative Voice #4 (ENGLISH VERSION) – The infinite quest for the designer’s ethical compass

This week, DesignDigger presents a daily critical reflection from a designer, critic, or researcher on Dutch Design Week, which starts on Friday. Theologian coach Lieke van Stekelenburg invites us on a quest for an ethical compass for designers. “They bear a moral responsibility and to do good work.” With this call Van Stekelenburg reflects on the design perspective Service & Innovative Design and the DDW-mission Boosting Our Health & Wellbeing.

Design can enable meaningful change across industry and society. Therefore, designers are expected to be intrinsically motivated to create a positive impact on society: to serve the end-users of their designs and not just to represent the interests of the industries that commission them. In addition, it is expected that designers avoid designs that harm the community and the environment. As designers purposefully shape and provoke transformation in society, they bear a moral responsibility and to do ‘good work’.

To be publicly accountable for their work – that is what we expect not only from designers but professionals in every sector (e.g., economics, accountancy, industry, teaching, health care, scientific research), we expect them to take responsibility for maintaining and enhancing the quality of life of those they serve by keeping high standards of work, improving and protecting professional practices. Lastly they should apply a special body of knowledge to problems, which they acquire through an advanced academic degree course [1,7, 8, 9].

Ethical dilemmas

Therefore, one increasingly used phrase is: professionals, designers as well as managers, business leaders, administrators, and entrepreneurs should be guided by an ethical compass. Using the metaphor – in this the compass – is pervasive and helpful in everyday life: metaphors stimulate the poetic imagination, are couched in extraordinary language, and structure how we perceive, think, and make choices [6]. The metaphorical ethical compass provides guidance by orienting an individual to the ethical north in professional work contexts, particularly in unknown situations or situations in which one is confronted with an ethical dilemma and does not know which way to turn.

Professionals characteristically should not pursue financial gain or fame (or at least not solely) but aim to do good with their work. That is what we expect of them. They are characterized by a personal mission related to their work [4, 5] and are expected to be aware of their (shared) responsibilities, and how their work affects others [7]. Moreover, because of these responsibilities, they should not choose the path of least resistance when confronted with conflicts [4]. Even though we may assume that professionals have good intentions, their good work may be hindered by institutional conditions, by the economic market situation of the organizations they work for, and the expectations of society [1,3].

However, consensus regarding the meaning and function of this ethical compass is lacking even in scientific literature [9]. Therefore, based on ideas in literature about moral professionalism, the professionals’ ethical compass can described as “the intrinsic motivation to act morally, according to moral (professional) standards, particularly in situations where professionals are confronted with ethical dilemmas” [9]. An ethical dilemma could be described as “conflict-filled situations that require choices” between competing (moral) values that cannot both be satisfied [2,10]. Ethical dilemmas that professionals face often involve moral values, such as fairness, respect or truthfulness, which compete with each other, or which compete with non-moral values such as the individual’s career prospects or dependency on money or status. In such cases, an ethical compass is necessary to follow an ethical path [10].

Quality of life

So, the designer is expected to be guided by moral standards just as any other professional. However, little is known about how design professionals perceive and use this ethical compass. Therefore, designers of the design perspective Service & Innovative Design and the DDW-mission Boosting Our Health & Wellbeing are invited to reflect on this quest for a designer’s ethical compass, in a focus group discussion of 8-10 people. These two narratives serve as a self-evident research area for the ethical compass. Service and Innovative design is a program narrative in which designers present their designs of useful, groundbreaking concepts and applications. In Boosting Our Health & Wellbeing designers present designs that, in their view, structurally improve the quality of life.

The following questions will function as a guideline:

(a) How do you describe your ethical compass?

(b) What kind of ethical dilemmas do you encounter in your work and design process?

(c) How do you cope with these ethical dilemmas?

(d) And what and how do you think you contribute to society?

Addressing these questions during the DDW and reflecting on them afterwards, will reveal an important (and immaterial and invisible) dimension of the design profession. But it will be only the start of an ongoing discussion. A ethical compass is not a fixed route but is merely a routeplanner through new dilemma’s and challenges. Welcome on board to all designers!


  • 1 Brint, S. In an Age of Experts. Princeton University Press, Princeton; 1994.
  • 2 Cuban L. Managing Dilemmas While. Building Professional Communities. Educational
  • 3 Freidson, E. Professionalism: The Third Logic. On the Practice of Knowledge.Chicago: The        University of Chicago Press; 2001.
  • 4 Gardner H, Csikszentmihalyi M, Damon, W. Good Work: When excellence and ethics meet. Basic Books, New York; 2001.
  • researcher 1992; 21(1): 4-11.
  • 5 Kultgen J. Ethics and professionalism. University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia; 1988.
  • 6 Lakoff, G. & Johnson M. Metaphors We Live by. Chicago: University of Chicago Press; 2008.
  • 7 May L. The socially responsive self: Social theory and professional ethics. University of Chicago Press, Chicago; 1996.
  • 8 Pritchard, M. Professional Integrity: Thinking Ethically. University Press of Kansas; 2006.
  • 9 Stekelenburg L van, De Ruyter D, Sanderse W. ‘Equipping students with an ethical compass. ’What does it mean, and what does it imply? Ethics and Education 2020; 16(1),1-17.
  • 10 Stekelenburg L van, Smerecnik C, Sanderse W, De Ruyter D. How do students use their ethical compasses during internship? An empirical study among students of universities of applied sciences. International Journal of Ethics Education 2023; 1-31.
Lieke van Stekelenburg


Lieke van Stekelenburg is founder of coaching company Consense. She coaches professionals, managers and directors in life and career questions. In addition, she educates young professionals (applied psychologists) at Fontys University of Applied Sciences. Lieke studied Theology and Ethics (cum laude) at Tilburg University and is completing a PhD at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. She investigated what it means and implies to equip (young) professionals with an ethical compass.

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