A “Hippocratic Oath” for Designers?

Sometimes, not much needs to be said.

Mainly, I just want to pass along another person’s genius.  Emily Pilloton launched Project H Design–an organization that works on industrial design solutions to address social and humanitarian concerns–last year, at the age of 26.  “The Designer’s Handshake” is a sort of “Hippocratic Oath” for designers that is part of her new book, Design Revolution.

I couldn’t have said it better myself, so here it is, in her words:

The Designer’s Handshake

(excerpt from Design Revolution by Emily Pilloton)

I, as an individual engaged within a greater design community, promise to try, to the best of my ability, to commit and adhere to the following principles within my work and life as a designer:

To go beyond doing no harm:

I will engage only in design activities that improve life, both environmental and human. I will recognize that design that does not improve life is a form of apathy and that “doing no harm” is not enough. I will engage only in design processes that are respectful, generative, catalytic, and productive.

To listen, learn, and understand:

I recognize that every client, partner, or stranger is someone to learn from. I will listen before assuming. I will seek to understand the historical, geographical, social, cultural, and economic context and precedents before beginning the design process.

To measure, share, and teach:

I will measure results quantitatively and qualitatively. I will, as appropriate, make my best practices, successes, tools, and failures available to colleagues for community-based learning.

To empower, heal, and catalyze:

I will use design as a tool to empower people, to make life better, to bring health and improve life, and to enable users to help themselves. I will seek out systemic solutions over quick fixes.

To be optimistic but critical:

I will employ perpetual optimism as a design and business strategy but will apply the same critical evaluation toward social and humanitarian design work that I would any other product. Just because it’s “for the greater good” doesn’t make it good design.

To think big and have no fear:

I will take calculated risks and not be afraid to use design as a tool for change. I will explore new models for how design can have the greatest impact for the greatest number.

To serve the under-served:

I will look first to demographics underserved by design and propose viable solutions for such groups as the homeless, the sick, the ailing, the young and old, the handicapped, poor, and incapacitated.

To not reinvent the wheel:

When something works well, I will not assume I can or should start from scratch. I will use what it is available to me and look to local resources, skill sets, and materials.

To not do what I don’t know:

I will acknowledge the limits of my expertise and will not hesitate to say “no” or to pass projects to another designer who may do a better job.

To always put the user first:

I will always place need over consumption and the human being over the market. I will consider human value, experience, and consequence above all else.

To do good business with good people:

I will be honorable in business and partnerships. I will build distribution into my design, and employ businesses that maximize social impact. I will align myself and work with individuals and groups who have the same values as I do.

To own up and repair:

I will take responsibility for any failures or mistakes I may make and take measures to repair and understand my errors.

To be part of a greater whole:

I will remember that I am a part of a system and a community of designers, users, clients, and global citizens. I will recognize that my individual decisions affect this greater group, and that I have a responsibility to contribute productively.


4 responses to “A “Hippocratic Oath” for Designers?

  1. Ah-ha! This is something I can strive for, personally and professionally. Thank you for posting!

  2. Well, I now officially share your concern about the state of the industry, if such a manifesto seems necessary.

    I have two reactions, in opposite directions. The first is “well, DUH” — as in, are there really designers out there who don’t more or less “get” all this?? But the second is, well, wait a minute. Is this really the right advice for everyone? Different people have different challenges in their professional lives. Who says that “be a good listener” is good advice for everyone? Some people are excellent listeners, to the point where they have trouble asserting their own expertly-informed ideas. Is it always a good idea for the designer to seek to serve the under-served? Isn’t that ultimately the client’s responsibility, and isn’t the client often better-informed and better-equipped to take on that kind of responsibility?

    It’s an interesting and compelling list, but it leaves me with more questions than answers.

    Maybe I should just read the book. (Yeah, right — after all the other books that are piling up…)

  3. OK, Pete, I understand your questions and I can’t say I have all the answers, but I’ll (duh!) tell you my stance. I think (and I mean this in no condescending way) that people from outside the design profession don’t often recognize a key thing about design: it is power. I will address this a little more thoroughly in an upcoming post, but essentially designers create the world we live in, by making the things we live with, and the places we inhabit. So yeah, I think it’s absolutely necessary for all designers to seek to serve the under-served. And in these cases–often–the under-served are the clients, not a third party. And as far as listening goes, I think it’s directed to the issue that a designer should keep in mind that design is for people, so listen to the people–whether they be clients or strangers.

  4. I used some pretty strong language for a comment that was meant to basically say, “I don’t really know what to make of all this just now.” You make a good point about power.

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