Q&A: Tech designers should be licensed, says Silicon Valley designer Mike Monteiro


Technology companies such as Facebook, Google, Apple, Amazon and Snap Inc. employ some of the most sought-after designers in the world to help them build their products. These designers, using all the tools at their disposal, can wield enormous power, influencing what we click on, see, hear and buy. Their choices decide how we interact with the internet.

With this power, there needs to be accountability, according to Mike Monteiro, an outspoken Silicon Valley designer who co-founded design agency Mule. In fact, Monteiro says design should be a licensed profession, complete with training, testing and accreditation.

The following interview with Monteiro has been edited and condensed for clarity.

We know that design is powerful and it can herd people toward certain actions. So how do we encourage designers to make sure they’re wielding that power ethically and responsibly?

We shouldn’t have to. We as designers should see this as part of the job.

We encourage children to behave better. We shouldn’t have to encourage professionals to behave professionally.

How do you encourage a doctor to do their job right? That sounds weird, right?

The problem with designers and ethics is they see it as something to possibly strive for and maybe incorporate into their work, but they don’t see it as core to what they do.

How can we get designers to see that ethics are core to their work?

The problem is the profession isn’t licensed. In the U.S. and in most places, I can call myself a designer, I can build myself a design portfolio, and I can find myself working at Facebook on a project that has severe implications, as we’ve seen in the last couple of weeks, and have absolutely no training on how to deal with the stuff I’ve been given.

At no point is somebody going to see whether I’m accredited. This is like a random person on the street putting up a shingle on their door and calling them an OB/GYN. That’s terrifying, right?

But you can be a designer and do that. You can put up a shingle and say, “I’m a UX designer and I deal in privacy,” and all of a sudden you find yourself working at Facebook working on exactly that stuff.

Given how high the stakes are for projects that designers work on, why isn’t there a practice of licensing and accreditation?

When you look at the sorts of things designers used to do, it was stuff like make a rock show poster, or a website for a movie, or a dust jacket for a book. Those things don’t kill people.

All of a sudden, we’re dealing with the user interface for driverless automobiles with absolutely zero training in that stuff. I could probably go out and get a job doing that, which should scare the hell out of anyone who finds that out because I have no training in it whatsoever.

But the counterargument is that regulation like this would stifle innovation, that the only reason these companies have been able to grow as fast as they have is because they aren’t regulated and designers don’t need to be licensed.

You just described cancer.

OK ...

That’s my serious answer. Unregulated growth kills people.

I don’t care how big you’ve been able to grow. I don’t care about you, or your company, or your stakeholders. That can’t be our number one concern. Our number one concern needs to be society, the people in it, which, by the way, includes us.

As a society, we need to care more about that than whether Twitter is profitable for a quarter. Who cares? Some rich people got richer. Fantastic. But at what cost?

So you’re saying that change is going to have to come from the outside in the form of regulation, and not from the inside.

There’s a book called “The Jungle” by Upton Sinclair. It tells the story of the Chicago [meat processing] industry at the turn of the century, and how the diseased beef and pork being processed there was poisoning people.

People freaked out when they read the book. And because of that book, the government passed regulation on the meat industry.

We cannot expect tech to regulate itself, and we can’t expect designers to regulate themselves, because they just don’t do it. And it turns out when they don’t regulate themselves, they behave abysmally because their job is to turn a profit, and in the end they will do whatever it takes.

OK, regulation is one part. What else?

It also starts with design education. You can get through four years of design school and two years of graduate school in UX design without ever taking an ethics class. It’s not a requirement to get that degree.

The problem is design education is stretched threadbare right now. Despite the fact that it’ll cost you $80,000 to $100,000 to go to a good university, the first thing you find out is that the university has no actual money with which to teach you. It can’t pay a professor decent wages. So if you want to get the best design professor in there to talk design ethics, good luck.

So what’s the most effective solution to all of this?

Speaking as a designer and only about designers, I think this field needs to be licensed. I think it needs to be treated with the same sort of seriousness in which we treat the legal profession and the medical profession — professions that have a serious impact on people’s lives.

Look, I’m a designer, this is what I do for a living, and I’m advocating for rules that make it harder for me to make a living. That should let you know how afraid I am of this stuff.

The design profession is evolving. It’s changing drastically. It’s gone from something that’s essentially people making creative things that look pretty into a field where these are the people who build the rules of our digital products. It’s serious and powerful stuff. And it’s being done by people who went to school to learn how to do book jackets.

Are regulation and licensing realistic expectations for an industry with little of either today?

The most likely thing is that nothing changes. Absolutely nothing changes because people are making money off the way things are.

There’s a middle ground, and we might hit it. But why aim for it? I don’t think licensing designers is extreme. I think it’s necessary.