On Malevolent Design

Every change from unstyled HTML stems from a designer's desire to do something malevolent to the reader. This makes sense, because the designer is paid by those who wish to sell to or otherwise manipulate the reader.

I have recently found myself hanging out with self-described "designers" again. It happens. I'm not proud of it. But every once in a while my life slumps and I find myself in the company of those who talk about fonts, who talk about the "awful design" of spare unstyled sites.

I suspect these people are largely self-delusional. I mean, they're great at what they do, but they've been doing it so long that they've forgotten that in their minds "delude the user into becoming a stronger consumer" is synonymous with "beauty".

I was recently pointed to The Vignelli Canon, and I haven't managed to get to the actual content because the design sucks so badly. So I think this is actually a perfect example: It's designed for print, to be delivered to a user in a form defined by the designer. The line spacing is weird. The unjustified text would be fine if there were paragraph spacing, but instead the text layout serves to obscure the content. This makes sense when we acknowledge that the purpose of the document is not to impart knowledge to the reader. The purpose of the document is to sell consulting services to the reader.

The purpose of design is not to create usable devices. The purpose of design is to sell product. Often this involves building devices with deliberately limited lifespans, or disabling features that would be easier to leave in. I can point to any number of consumer devices which would be more useful if features were disabled, but those features underly the business model that make the device profitable.

We consumers also often forget that this is a multi-pronged attack. I mean, sure, the New York Times has advertising, but it also has the sort of single-sourcing lax editorial standards that led to us dragging into the Iraq war.

So when someone says "i use adblock, so i kind of forget that a lot of the time.", it's important to remind them that fear, unease, war, fashion, these are all things that help keep us malleable consumers.

Further reading: The Fantasy and Abuse of the Manipulable User.

squiggle.city is a unix server where people can host web pages. This is ~danlyke.