Do Designers Need a Hippocratic Oath?

Ben Moss By Ben Moss  |  Aug. 14, 2015

Designers are increasingly in demand, as the sheer amount of stuff that needs designing grows. But too often, we’re so delighted with how we can solve a client’s problem, that we forget to ask whether we should. As an industry, we ignore Uncle Ben’s warning: with great power comes great responsibility.

Two UX designers, Samantha Dempsey and Ciara Taylor, are seeking to redress the situation with their new Designer’s Oath project; a hippocratic oath for the design professions.

Dempsey and Taylor argue that as design expands, and designers take on more and more influence, it’s necessary to have a flexible set of rules to ensure that design only does good:

Designers are responsible for creating experiences, environments, products and systems for millions of people…With this increased influence, we must take a step back and recognize the responsibility we have to those we design for. —

Creative professionals throughout history have attempted to create a set of rules to govern morals in their fields, most notably in the early twentieth century when ordered rationality was seen as an antidote to the chaos of the First World War. Where those attempts failed is in imposing one designer’s morals on another.

Recognizing that the right moral choice is not universal, Dempsey and Taylor’s oath is a personal one to each designer that takes it. They’ve published a number of different oaths on their website:

I swear to fulfill, to the best of my ability and judgment, this covenant: I will respect the hard-won knowledge of the human condition of those designers in whose steps I walk, and gladly share such empathetic decisions as are mine with those who are to follow.

I will apply, for the benefit of the people, all measures that are ecocentric and holistic avoiding those twin traps of behavioral manipulation and pure profitability. — Jake Wells, Donovan Preddy, and Brian Peppler (Empathy Lab)

Most especially must I tread with care in matters of my body of work and choosing which problems to solve. If it is given to me to delight, all thanks.

But it may also be within my power to relieve systemic suffering; this awesome responsibility must be faced with great humbleness and awareness of my own limitations.

Above all, I must not play at God. — Alorah Harman

I swear to make the user’s task my own responsibility. I swear to make their successes theirs and their failures mine. My role is to build on the sound knowledge of people and art and combine that with new knowledge of latest trends and technology so that it can bring the user to success. My role is NOT to feed my own ego. The easy way out I am looking for is for the user, not for me. — Magga Dora Ragnarsdottir (Mad*Pow)

I will remember that I remain a member of society, with special obligations to all my fellow human beings, those who commission my work as well as those whose experiences, decisions, and lives may be affected by it.

If I do not violate this oath, may I enjoy life and art by respecting what has preceded me and the potential for what may follow. May I always design with empathy and care and may I long experience the joy of creating for others. — Rose Anderson (The Mayo Clinic)

Last year Kalashnikov, maker of Osama bin Laden’s favourite weapon, the AK-47, rebranded their flagship gun as a “weapon of peace”. Would you be proud to have worked on that rebrand? 

In a couple of minutes your phone is going to ring, it will be the head of marketing for a global sportswear brand, she’s seen your work on Behance and wants you to redesign their website. Is the generous budget enough for you to turn a blind eye to the child labour used in their production process?

Would you work for BP, knowing the environmental damage they have caused? How about a rebrand for Coke, knowing rates of obesity are soaring?

Whilst many designers clearly feel that they have a duty of care to the community, many others consider design to effectively be litigation: clients being entitled to the best representation possible, regardless of personal feelings.

The question that the Designer’s Oath project asks is: where, if at all, do you draw the line?


 Featured image, ethics image via Shutterstock.