An ethical “oath” for designers? (pt 1 of 3)

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In this series of 3 posts, I explore the notion of a “Hippocratic oath” for designers. Recall that the Hippocratic oath requires medical doctors to practice ethically. I recently heard someone recite the Hippocratic oath and I wondered about adapting this sort of oath for designers. As I discussed previously in a series on ethics, activism turns on the notion of pursuing something morally better than what we have now.

It turns out many designers have rewritten the oath for designers, and for many disciplines of design. In this post I look at user experience design, landscape architecture, lighting design and graphic design. In the second post I look at product design, and in the third post, architecture.


Doctors, Lawyers, even MBA’s have versions of a professional oath of practice

First it may be useful to have a look at the contemporary version of the hippocratic oath. This one is from Nova’s (PBS) website:

I will remember that there is art to medicine as well as science, and that warmth, sympathy, and understanding may outweigh the surgeon’s knife or the chemist’s drug.

I will not be ashamed to say “I know not,” nor will I fail to call in my colleagues when the skills of another are needed for a patient’s recovery.

I will respect the privacy of my patients, for their problems are not disclosed to me that the world may know. Most especially must I tread with care in matters of life and death. If it is given me to save a life, all thanks. But it may also be within my power to take a life; this awesome responsibility must be faced with great humbleness and awareness of my own frailty. Above all, I must not play at God.

I will remember that I do not treat a fever chart, a cancerous growth, but a sick human being, whose illness may affect the person’s family and economic stability. My responsibility includes these related problems, if I am to care adequately for the sick.

I will prevent disease whenever I can, for prevention is preferable to cure.

I will remember that I remain a member of society, with special obligations to all my fellow human beings, those sound of mind and body as well as the infirm.

If I do not violate this oath, may I enjoy life and art, respected while I live and remembered with affection thereafter. May I always act so as to preserve the finest traditions of my calling and may I long experience the joy of healing those who seek my help.

(you can find more versions on wikipedia)

Let’s look at some of the adaptations for designers…

User Experience Design

Whitney Hess adapted it for User experience designers, and here’s an excerpt:

“I will remember that there is art to experience design as well as science, and that warmth, sympathy, and understanding may outweigh the information architect’s taxonomies or the interaction designer’s wireframes…

I will remember that I do not treat a web form, a social networking site, but a vulnerable human being, whose one wrong click may affect the person’s friends and economic stability. My responsibility includes these related problems, if I am to care adequately for the user.”

Landscape Architecture

The Garden Visit website offers up a version for landscape architects, although this adaptation is based on a more historic version of the oath. Because of that older version, the oath actually doesn’t change that much when updated for Landscape (the website holds both the original oath and the adaptation). Here’s an excerpt:

“I will follow that system of regimen which, according to my ability and judgment, I consider for the benefit of my clients and the landscape, and abstain from whatever is deleterious and mischievous. With purity and with holiness I will pass my life and practice my Art. Into whatever places I enter, I will go into them for the benefit of the landscape, and will abstain from every voluntary act of mischief and corruption.”

Lighting Design

The International Association of Lighting Designers just had a panel at their conference annual conference (Enlighten ’10) called “THE HIPPOCRATIC OATH FOR LIGHTING DESIGNERS” which is described on their website like this:

“First: do no harm. Should all lighting designers take the oath? Is that even possible in an industry whose practitioners struggle to keep up with emerging technologies, client wishes, deadlines and project budgets? What are the responsibilities of the lighting designer? Given environmental impacts and petro-politics, is there an intrinsic responsibility to society, the environment and future generations? These questions will be explored and will lead to a broader discussion on the larger roles of our industry.”


Visual Communication/Graphic Design

For visual communication designers, a blog called “The Hole in Graphic Design” offers an adapted version of the oath that mentions the “First things first manifesto” (I wrote about this manifesto and linked to it here) but urges a guide for governing the relationship between designer, client and user. The first three points in this oath read as follows:

– I swear by Schoeffer, the first art director, by Games, Tschichold, and Bass, and I take to witness all the great designers, to keep according to my ability and my judgment, the following Oath and agreement:

– To hold the values of the society of designers and communicators to my heart, and to treat my fellow designers as my brothers and sisters.

– I will design for the users of my designs according to my best ability and my truest judgment and never create designs that knowingly brings harm to the world.

Next time…

The Hippocratic oath focuses on the interaction between individuals (doctor and patient), and most of these adaptations confront the fact that designers typically deal in one-to-many situations, rather than one-on-one settings. Yet for the most part these oaths stick to the general outlines of the Hippocratice oath, which, as we shall see in the next post, is perhaps not so well suited to the practice of design. Stay tuned, I’ll post the next in the series in a week’s time. Remember to respond to the design activism survey before the end of October.

And finally, please comment with any other adaptations of ethical oaths for designers that you’re aware of, and whether you think they’re useful.

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