Design Ethics Across Cultures – Academic & Practical Collaboration


On March 20, we published an updated conversation on ethics of and obstacles to creation of experience across cultures and geography. This was picked up, examined and further explored by Margaret King Ph.D and Jamie O’Boyle Ph.D. of The Center for Cultural Studies & Analysis in Pennsylvania. The two of them delved far deeper into the dynamics observed and questions asked and have carried the conversation well onward.

Shared, here, in it’s entirety; an evolved conversation possibly opening enlightening doors on pathways toward a more powerful diversity and compelling solutions for our industries…

Some areas of concern for designers working in other cultures are proposed as “Consciousness Conversations.”  These topics come from Kile Ozier’s IMHO online posting of March 20, 2017, at http://imho.kileozier.com/?p=777  (“Sharing what I’ve learned…of creating experiences with deep emotional connections”), on his blogsite. Coming off his most recent pre-Expo 2020 experience in Dubai, Kile declaimed on several aspects of concern for professional ethics for Experience designers working overseas.

Exploring topics of expectations, mentoring, problem-framing, attitude, open communication, and installation maintenance should become standard for discussions about best practices and the ethics of cross-cultural project management, with designers as “Ambassadors of Best Practices.”  We responded from our cultural analyst perspective below.

Kile asks:

Might we find ways to communicate these things, cross-culturally, to the benefit of future projects?

Is it too late to impress these lessons on EXPO 2020

Do we not have an obligation to support the ultimate success of all projects in order to continue to build and evolve the industry? Is it possible; would such advice be or have been heeded were it to have been given, supportively and early on, without coming across as paternal?

What are the realistic possibilities?

….It has to do with self-awareness, responsibility for the business, the future of the business, the sharing and spreading by example of best practices…and the obligations inherent in leadership.

Cultural Studies & Analysis offered responses to clarify cultural differences.  Often this is a matter of pointing to the contrasts between American values and developing world cultures, roughly dividing culture into East and West.

  1. Maintenance and upkeep post-design:  “It’s natural to evaluate the likelihood of good or poor maintenance at the pre-design stage, under ‘How will this installation be used and abused?’  Our job is to do the absolute best work possible to prepare the receiving client to manage and maintain…in the best way.”

CS&A:  The maintenance concept can often be an outcome of culture, which is the outcome of environment. Many tropical and subtropical countries have evolved a fatalistic – and quite environmentally sensible – culture that says “You can’t fight nature or God’s will.  Things will fall apart.  The cost of keeping up outward appearances is steep in labor and materials.  So it would be futile – if not outright blasphemous – to try to maintain when the environment always wins out eventually.”

Maintenance is a cultural issue, based on the environment, not a personal character quality (which also works for health care, for the same reason). It actually makes sense from a cost/benefit analysis, so deterioration is viewed as natural and just another aesthetic stage. That’s mostly confined to Africa and Asia.  However, Louisiana began as a French colonial possession, and culture evolves very, very, slowly. You can see evidence of this in the tourist zones of New Orleans. If you were trying to theme New Orleans, you would have to build in a sort of genteel deterioration to make it look right. That’s what they do with new construction in New Orleans. If you are building a Cajun restaurant, it can’t be sharp and polished.  No foul here.  It’s the way groups think based on long experience within their own environments of extreme heat, humidity, and the sheer cost of upkeep.

  1. Condescension:  Across race, age, gender, ethnicity, education, and language:

CS&A:  Concepts of respect and honor vary widely across the globe. In the US, we promote the concept of “constructive criticism.” That value doesn’t exist in many countries, where any criticism, even “constructive,” equates to a personal affront. Americans are not culturally conditioned to the extensive social negotiation of the Middle East and Asia–particularly whenever they have one eye fixed on the deadline.

Condescension in working teams between client and consultant: this is a tough one. As professionals, we are always selling our ideas, but people accept or reject them on the basis of their own reasons—of which a newcomer may be totally unaware.  So as a professional, you have to recognize that their local colleagues are not unintelligent or willful. They have reasons – and these may be reasons they are unwilling to share with an outsider out of mutual consideration.   Some of the dominance and hierarchical behaviors that go on in projects are outcomes of stress; others are culturally driven.  We are engaged on a project for a major music school to identify some of the cultural awareness points that need attention — and finding that intense competition and professional stress at a young age are the core issues, not cultural insensitivity or ignorance of other ways of life.

The short form: when working outside the US: never criticize, condemn, or complain. Not even “constructive criticism.”

  1. Speaking Up with negative communications: “Is there an approach where projects known to be at risk can be rescued before it’s too late?”

CS&A:  This one has strong cultural underpinnings. In many strict hierarchies, including China and the Middle East, you don’t ever, ever, give a superior bad news. Army Special Forces are specifically taught the “no criticism, overt or implied” rule when dealing with foreign nationals.  One polite fiction was to ask their advice, then say “Very good…and may I also suggest we … (do what actually needed to be done).” This would generally be OK’d, not because they were unaware of our ruse, but because they themselves probably invented that particular tactic of face-saving dialogue.

Now nobody seeks criticism, but in many cultures “critical thinking” can/will be interpreted as setting up an adversarial relationship. Arab business relationships, for example, are built on a history of personal exchange – they are trust relationships, but they are also fragile. The only true trust relationships in these settings are family (extended). No matter how good your relationship, as a colleague, you are not family. And criticism or trying to set realistic deadlines when someone higher up the ladder has already made their wishes known places you in the role of adversary – and trust-breaker.

  1. Raised expectations at openings:  “Today’s opening-day expectations are far more sophisticated, aware, and critical of failure than in the past.”

The world is now full of lifelong theme park experts: they are the sophisticated guest list.  They’ve seen the best and rest, led by top-shelf design.  This is one reason museums hold “soft openings,” to learn from their own mistakes as part of the process of fixing what doesn’t work in real time.  Perhaps that’s a way to frame the opening as experimental – making the audience part of it as evaluators. Raised expectations are part of the equation for competing in the experience economy.  Beginning with Disneyland, the designers made it better than it had to be – setting the A-plus standard for the industry ever since.  Unless you can exceed expectations in novel ways (as innovation across park-design parameters), there’s almost no sense in trying to be creative.

  1. Role of mentors / rescuers:  “Can we effectively offer advice, mentorship, responsibly sharing cautionary tales to contemporaries in other parts of the world or industry?”

CS&A:  This would be far more routine if the profession were more self-aware and didn’t view one another as rivals bound by trade-secret silence.  We’d love to see this happen as what we should all be pursuing.

If you are working in another culture and you have a good working relationship with your local counterpart, think of that person as a guide, interpreter. Don’t offer your opinion, ask him what he thinks of this or that idea. Placing yourself in the eager student position is flattering and you may start hearing things that would never occur to you otherwise.

  1. Problem solving for best design answers:  “And how do we create these answers? By applying our bodies of knowledge and experience to what we learn before we act in a new context; using our judgement with that experience to craft original approaches to the cross-cultural work.”

CS&A:  Problem-solving – and problem FRAMING, especially – rather than just coming in with off-the-shelf answers, is the heart of the creative enterprise.  This is what expert opinion is all about: the “lay of the land,” understanding the context of any project and its opportunities and limits — as we do for the cultural and human factors side in cultural analysis. The Japanese might spend years preparing, thinking, and learning before they initiate action. Then they go straight for their goal.  Americans tend to jump right in and correct as they go rather than spend their time making certain that the problem they are solving is, in fact, the problem they should be solving. We think we have a planning stage–but compared to other cultures, our background research and percolation is ridiculously brief.

  1. And finally, Social Media:  “…will cut the [subpar] project down before the day is out,” if it’s found wanting.

CS&A:  Think about Black Sunday, July 17, 1955, at Disneyland in California–as a social media event.  Half a century later, such a disastrous opening would have set the proto-park off course for the next two years or killed it.  Social media leaves almost no margin for parks and events to develop and grow within the audience experience feedback loop.  Instant feedback presents yet another aspect of design to be considered and weighed in the pre-opening equation.

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“IMHO : Creating Compelling Experience” remains a free download from the Apple bookstore and iTunes. Yep; Free. Read it. Here’s the Link.

3 thoughts on “Design Ethics Across Cultures – Academic & Practical Collaboration

  1. Fascinating as always. And I think we’re seeing an important first step here: analysis from outside the tribe applied to our self-reckoning. Methodical breakdown of the challenges and solutions to experiential entertainment is the key to its future. We can’t wing it any more.

  2. Very enlightening. The concept of “constructive criticism” seems so natural here, but I did not consider the possibility of affront in another culture. Much of this sounds like a perfectly choreographed dance, the moves dictated by the region of the world in which one is dancing… who leads…who follows.

  3. Thank you Kile for this very good analysis. Having been working in the UAE for the last 9 years, I can only fully agree with your comments on expressing constructive criticism and I will apply some of your great advice on cultural differences…

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