Would you design for the military?

I saw a post on LinkedIn about a defence related project, and it got me wondering about product design for the military.

Soldiers obviously use and need a huge amount of tech (watches, tracking systems, defence gear, weapons etc), all of which has to be designed by somebody. The post I’m referencing was curious about feelings on the subject, as the person had said no to the project, and I thought I’d ask here and see what opinions are for designing in this sector.

Has anybody done any design work for defence forces? If so, and not confidential, what was it?
Would you take on work in this sector, if so, why?, If not, why not?
Are military products contracted out to design firms, or are there in-house teams that would work on this sort of thing?

Personally I would say no to such a project. I once thought that non-offensive protection style products would be ok, i.e. nothing directly offensive like a weapon, but changed my mind when I thought more deeply about the scenarios in which protection would be needed (an offensive situation).

I’ve interviewed with a company that makes sun glasses and helmets for the military. Purely from a moral standpoint, I think I would work on any equipment though. I just think that the design of military equipment doesn’t effect the usage.

On the flip side, I could never sign up for five years as soldier because I need to know who is in charge and have confidence in their decision making.

For me it would depend. I did a project back in the early 2000’s for a company making military grade eye protection, goggles, and RX eyewear. I was comfortable with that and the extreme use cases made for a challenging project. A more difficult decision was when I was working for a firm and Smith & Wesson approached us. We ended up taking the project as it was for a weapon with an integrated biometric lock so only the owner or police officer it was issued to could unlock it. The fact that it was an innovation project around gun safety appealed to us.

I think that these are pretty personal decisions. It was interesting to get to know the people on the client side in those relationships as well. It was different than I expected.

I interviewed at a company that was a leader in bullet proof vest, gloves and gun holsters. I would have happily done the work. If I can make a better bullet proof vest and protect someones family member then I will. To me this is not a moral conundrum. There will always be soldiers and they are an important part of our countries defense. If I can help save a life I feel inclined to do so. They also had some pretty cool facilities on site including a testing chamber for the protection items. Would be awesome to see that in action. I do draw the line at actual weapons. I have no interest in guns and even less in missiles. But I would consider working on cock pits for planes or driving consoles for different craft. I just don’t do point end of the spear stuff.

Ethics in design is an interesting one, and there’s so many variables that can come into play.

I heard of a team that was working on a project for DARPA where their job was to build an image tracking algorithm that could shine a turret mounted flashlight on a moving troop. That design brief seems fairly innocuous “oh, this would be good for helping to support people working at night in the field”.

The flip side of course is when it suddenly clicks that you replace the flashlight with a gun and you just built a highly accurate sentry turret.

That’s obviously more of an engineering challenge than a design challenge, but it brings up the question of where does that line come in to play. Designing for firearms isn’t an absolute - like Yo said there can be things that get designed for sporting purposes, things that get designed for safety purposes, or things that get designed just to make guns better at being guns. One way of looking at it is you are probably designing something that has the potential to save somebody’s life, and that’s fairly noble. The other way is you are enabling that’s going to go into a battlefield, and whether or not that makes you feel like you’re the guy pulling the trigger is another story.

I suspect the people who design nuclear missiles find a way to sleep at night though…

It’s an interesting and very subjective decision, and can be influenced in either way depending on the specific project I suppose. Last night when I wrote the post I was thinking that I wouldn’t do anything military, but then on my drive to work earlier today got thinking about some of the really cool/innovative stuff that could be worked on and right away started to flip-flop on my initial opinion.

A friend of a friend is a chemical engineer at the DSTO (Defence Science & Technology), and spends all day testing new formulas for ‘maximum kill ratio’ and the like. He’s only a researcher, and didn’t have any problems at all with chatting about it (no specifics of course) but I guess they develop a disconnect from the engineering aspect to the real-world purpose of their work.

I think I would have a much harder time working on nuclear, chemical or biological weapons. I don’t have a problem with soldiers killing soldiers, but vaste civilian killing is way beyond my moral envelope. Thankfully such WMD are not industrial design intensive projects.

I got to work on a compact 45 cal sub-machine gun a few years ago. We did some conceptual work for different models and redesigned the folding butt stock.
This specific weapon improved muzzle climb and re-directed the recoil forces so the embodiment was different than your typical AK47, M16, etc. From the innovation aspect it was awesome to work on it. Solving ergonomic and usability challenges was also challenging.
It’s hard to draw the line as to what you will and will not design. We live in a society where our police and military use weapons. Our TV shows, cartoons, video games and movies glorify weapons and killing. In my opinion the amount of violence our society watches as entertainment probably causes more harm than the actual gun.

I think deciding what you will support as a consumer and a voter are equally important.

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I have done more than a handful projects for defense and aerospace companies.
It’s a market with heavy regulatory restrictions and one which tends to be very conservative , perhaps a bit like the medical- device market.
However- Many times I found it gave me a great degree of freedom, as it essentially focus on turning specific technologies assigned to deal with operational objectives and turn them to functional, user friendly products.

Besides HMI guidelines pre-defined by Mil. Standard, many projects didn’t had any vision to how the products would be used and focus mainly on WHAT IT DOES.
By the clandestine nature of this filed, you can’t get any information from focus groups or market research/bench marking, so a lot of the design research is done through observations, interviews and mock-up tests.

Another interesting challenge is what I call the “Hidden client” agenda: Most products have , in fact , two users- The obvious one is the soldier/pilot/Marine which will actually use the product- He is usually a relatively young person -Grown up in the high tech environment we all know , while the other client (And the one who has the money and makes the final decisions…) is a much older, senior general- who grow up in a different era and accustom to a different attitude. As a designer I need to balance this issue and this, I find , Is very different from consumer products , which uses marketing and feedback from beta user testing.

I’ve been doing interaction design work for the military my entire career. The very first project I worked on in my very first full-time job was with Lockheed Martin. I designed an application for USAF aircraft inspectors. Since then, I’ve designed software used by Explosive Ordnance Disposal units, NCIS, the Coast Guard, and the Navy.

All of the software I’ve designed has been for maintenance, mission planning, data logging, and analysis. I haven’t worked on the design of any weapon systems, but certainly the software I’ve designed is used to maintain vehicles that bear weapons.

I was once told by a college student at a job fair, after mentioning that our company worked on military contracts, that I should leave. While I realize that many may have trouble making an ethical decision about the type of work I have done, my conscience is clear. While I can’t cite specific instances, it is likely that my work has contributed to the safety of our soldiers—that lives have been saved. I’m proud of that.

While doing research and training with members of our armed forces, I have developed much respect and empathy for the sacrifices, big and small, that they make for our security on a daily basis. I’ve been onboard aircraft carriers and submarines. I’ve observed training scenarios on a bomb range. I’ve listened to young men tell stories that make me profoundly grateful that I have not had to go through the experiences they have, and honored to be able to provide a service that will make their job safer, more efficient, more effective, or at least a little less onerous.

The work I’ve done for our military has been challenging and extremely rewarding.

Ethics in design is an interesting one, and there’s so many variables that can come into play.

This is a very hard question and I agree a very interesting one.

Not sure if anyone have the right answer, certainly I don’t… However I am pretty sure one have to think about it!


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No. I would not.


Our board of directors is in consent not to deliver our goods and services into projects which are about or get close to offensive weapons.
Defense is a different matter, though.
And sometimes it is hard to decide what is what.

Within 10 years I can only remember one occasion that we pulled out of discussions because of our ethics code.
That was neccessary but did not have an effect in the market place.
Did protect our karma, though.


For me it’s definitely a question of offensive vs defensive purposes and often its hard to make the distinction between the two. There is no question that defense contractors have access to the coolest tools, materials, process and budgets to realize real innovation. I have often daydreamed of working on projects that have a much larger positive impact on the world than what i currently do and defense projects can definitely fit that bill.

I’d also like to point out that some of my, and i suspect “our” biggest idols worked with the military.
There’s an argument to made that the positive impact they had on design and the world in general came directly from their relationship with the military.

I believe in that a coin always have two sides (or three, or infinite…). For example that everything good can be used for evil.
If you make the best [random killing device] then you are also very knowledgeable about the weaknesses and the best ways to counter it.
Similar to doctors who save lives could be the best at taking lives.

Living in Sweden I know that most of our weapons will probably never kill anyone. Even the countries we sell weapons to will hopefully never use them and that ethical responsibility I thrust the government with. Sweden would not be the highly developed country it is today if it were not for the domestically developed weapons in which we have gained knowledge to apply in other fields and new businesses.

I have worked on some law enforcement/security products for Safariland, and headgear for US special forces (sorry don’t know exactly more about the customer). For design firms these can be very lucrative projects to land, as they measure time in “man-years” so a small firm can have a “bread and butter” client for a long time, easing the worries of overhead and payroll.

Crye Precision in Brooklyn NY does nice work; the founder Caleb Crye is a very good designer/product developer and a Cooper Union grad. I’ve worked in the periphery of some of his headgear projects. After Cooper: Crye Precision | The Cooper Union

On the flip side the bureaucracy is unbelievable.

I think the over-riding sentiment among people who design for the military sounds something like the values shared by the warfighters themselves, that its more about the guy (or girl) next to them in the fight, than it is about the State Dept or politicized overseas conflicts. When designing with a strict rubric of “save this person’s life when being fired upon” the motivation tends to become very clear.

The Eames leg splint was designed expressly for the military.

Don’t forget America’s favorite Naval Chair.

Eames splint and the aluminum chair don’t really fit the discussion – both were done during WWII. Everyone was doing everything they could for the war effort – there was no moral dilemma.

I have worked on some projects with the end customer being a military organization. None of the projects were strictly “offensive” devices, so I could somewhat justify that they could be used for protection of our armed forces as others have said.

Unfortunately, I don’t really get to choose what types of projects I work on. I’m pretty sure I’m not alone here. Working for a small firm, you pretty much have to take whatever work you can, because staying flexible is the only way to stay afloat.

The type of project that I would find really uncomfortable to work on would be if I had to design a “military-grade” product for a consumer products manufacturer in the firearm industry. Some of these companies are making serious weapons and accessories that really have no viable use outside of combat situations, but they are only available to regular consumers. And they don’t even attempt to hide it by marketing them toward hunting, target shooting, or personal defense. That’s the stuff that scares me the most.