Design saved my life

Paul Epp

Paul Epp

Doing some good with our craft

The first thought that came to me, after the impact, came as a question: I wonder if that’s fixable? What I didn’t realize then was that my left rear wheel had been pushed two feet forward and was now right behind my seat. The force of the bus striking me, off centre, was enough to slam me into the concrete road barrier to my right, shearing off the other rear wheel as well.

The accident occurred this past summer. With that blow I knew my car was finished and the fact that my road trip was also finished dawned on me. The momentum was still enough to ricochet me into and bounce me off of the truck beside me and, as my car spun and crashed, over and over again, it also came to me that I was done too.

Another chance

But I wasn’t. Eventually, after what seemed like a very long time, the spinning and crashing stopped. I managed to kick my door open, a miracle of shock-induced strength and panic, and staggered out. As I was waiting to be put in the ambulance, Constable Keane mentioned to me that I was lucky that I had been in an Audi. Otherwise I wouldn’t have made it out alive. Good crumple zones.

That has stuck with me as I recall the details of what is a life-altering experience. I had been thinking about the ethics of design and now I have more to think about. My thoughts had been that we, as designers, should take a page from the doctors: Primum, non nocere (First, do no harm). I have held that our first rule of ethical conduct was that we should ensure that whatever we do, it is not harmful.

Design affects others

We love to indulge our creativity and to make things that are inventive and interesting and sometimes even beautiful. Because I design furniture, I keep an eye on what is done in that field, and although I marvel and applaud all of the interesting things I see, I sometimes wonder if that adage has been attended to. All of those sharp edges, all of that fragile material, those pinch points, the instability. They photograph well, and the media loves good pictures, but do they serve well, by protecting us from harm? Not always.

Ethics is about the impact of our actions on others. What we do affects those we interact with, directly or indirectly. If we design products, then the principal interacted-with are the consumers. We have an overarching responsibility to protect those that we have chosen to provide for. We might assume that our governments keep an eye on this sort of thing, through those agencies assigned to watch out on our behalf.

But if we are paying attention, we will also know that these organizations often fail us, through lack of staff, of information, of unclear mandate and sometimes even elements of greed and corruption. No, designers cannot let others take on this responsibility for them or from them. We have to assume that role ourselves. We might think that it is the role of our clients or our employers, and it is too, but that doesn’t excuse us. We must be vigilant and proactive.

Beyond Rule One

The more I think about this I realize that there are two possibilities here. One is to avoid doing harm, which we should take as a given, even though we sometimes don’t. The other is to actively put our skills and opportunities to use to be a force of good (Secundo, aliquid boni: Second, do some good). We can prevent harm, and thereby not increase the sum total of misery and we can also choose to increase the sum total of well-being by actively contributing to the safety and even the joy of those in our world: our communities, our markets, our audience.

Those engineers and designers (and their bosses) at Audi saved my life. They didn’t have to. I probably would have bought their car anyway. Safety wasn’t a big part of my deliberations, nor is it of most of their customers. But they did what they did because they must have felt it was important to do so. Design saved me. I don’t think I’m going to forget that.    

Paul Epp is a professor at  OCAD University and chair of its Industrial Design Department.

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