The Oath of Design

A hypothetical code of ethics for design at scale

Albert Shum
Nov 13, 2018 · 3 min read
Same as ecological impact, design has a responsibility to our digital environments. Photo by Henry & Co. on Unsplash

As technology proliferates throughout our cultures and living environments, it’s clear that the decisions we make as designers have a significant impact on people’s lives. This has always been true — responsible design matters from architecture to journalism, from technology to agriculture to politics. Everything is designed.

But where physical and societal constructs arguably live in the realm of explicit design, designing for technology — for user experience — has more implicit impact. Digital experiences feel ambient, lightweight, detached from the reality of the physical world. Literally a million apps are created each year without a thought to the ramifications, because cognitive sustainability is still an emerging issue. Design wields impact that’s never before been this large and immediate, yet we don’t have the same guardrails as, say, an architect or a journalist who carries a known impact on human ecology.

Recently I participated in the Fast Company Innovation Festival speaking to ethics in design with moderator Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan of FastCo and fellow panelists Jenny Friedler of Planned Parenthood Digital Product Lab and Molly Heintz of School of Visual Arts. A question to the panel about whether design needs a code of ethics was met with a resounding “yes.” Given that we build experiences that reach millions, sometimes billions of people, we need a shared commitment to be responsible for dramatic consequences.

As we continue to design at scale, it becomes imperative to come together in a shared understanding of who is being served — and excluded — by our designs. Unintended consequences have the potential to affect billions. A design oath doesn’t solve these issues, but it does make us more accountable to be part of the solution. Below, a candid take on that oath:

First, do no harm

I will respect the hard-won innovative gains of those creatives in whose steps I walk, and gladly share such knowledge as is mine with those who are to follow.

I will apply, for the benefit of the underrepresented customer, all problem-solving and empathy required, avoiding those twin traps of ego and bias.

I will remember that there is art to design as well as science, and that warmth, sympathy, and understanding may outweigh technical know-how or the next trend.

I will not be ashamed to say “I don’t know” nor will I fail to call on my comrades in other disciplines when the skills of another exceed my own.

I will respect the privacy of our customers, for their data is not disclosed to corporations that the world may know.

I will remember that I do not design a product or a feature, but an experience that affects people’s lives the way they live them. My responsibility includes considering the entire journey and the unintended consequences that may reverberate from design decisions.

I will prevent broken experiences whenever I can, for prevention is preferable to patches and fixes.

I will remember that I remain a member of society, with special obligations to all my fellow human beings.

If I do not violate this oath, may I enjoy life and art, and design for the billions with creativity and empathy that’s sustained in real-world experiences.

Microsoft Design

Stories from the thinkers and tinkerers at Microsoft

Microsoft Design

Stories from the thinkers and tinkerers at Microsoft. Sharing sketches, designs, and everything in between.

Albert Shum

Written by

CVP of Design at Microsoft. Leads a collaborative team creating the future of cross-platform experiences across work, life, and school. Views are my own.

Microsoft Design

Stories from the thinkers and tinkerers at Microsoft. Sharing sketches, designs, and everything in between.

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