Subverted design

Artwork: Laurent Hrybyk
Artwork: Laurent Hrybyk

Subverted design is not the practice of employing Dark Patterns to achieve your business goals.

If you are not familiar with the term, Dark Patterns are the use of cheap user interface tricks and psychological manipulation to get users to act against their own best interests. User Experience consultant Chris Nodder wrote Evil By Design, a fantastic book that unpacks how to detect and think about them if you’re interested in this kind of thing.

Subverted design also isn’t beholden design, or simple lack of attention. This phenomenon isn’t even necessarily premeditated.

It arises from naïve (or willfully ignorant) design decisions being executed at a historically unprecedented pace and scale. These decisions are then preyed on by the shrewd and opportunistic, used to control and inflict harm on the undeserving. Have a system, will game.


And right now there are glaring gaps in our methods, our experience, and our team dynamics that let through unethical products. Dan Brown writes in “UX in the Age of Abusability”:

With every one step taken to improve the design of products, the expectations of users and stakeholders take three.

Where do products and processes go wrong? And who is responsible? Joel Califa explains in his article “Subverted Design” how designers are part of this problem:

As a Designer becomes more Senior, they also become more realistic and business-minded, or so the idea goes. These “Senior Designers” understand that a company is a company, and that the money paying your salary has to come from somewhere. Their thinking alignes more closely with PMs and leaders, and that garnered respect. Respect feels good and is generally an indicator that they are on the right track. Project goals became increasingly centered around company needs rather than user needs. Their language changed to better communicate with stakeholders. Words like "polish” and “value” gave way to “adoption” or “engagement” or “platform cohesion.” It’s laughably easy to rationalize that these things are good for users too.

Don Norman says the way we design today is wrong!

☠️ Here's some food for thought for your day: what if the very way in which we design is bad for the world? 😱 Don Norman says that the way we design today is wrong—a sentiment also voiced by designer Victor Papanek in 1971. So, what are we doing wrong as designers and—more importantly—why are we doing it wrong? 💥 In this video, Don shares his perspective on why designers (often unwittingly) contribute to the problems they could instead fix.

So what happens now?

Imagine a future where technology is built on our values, not our screen time.

In the Attention Economy, technology and media are designed to maximize our screen-time. But what if they were designed to help us live by our values? What if news & media companies were creating content that enriched our lives, vs. catering to our most base instincts for clicks? What if social platforms were designed to help us create our ideal social lives, instead of maximizing time-on site and “likes”? What if dating apps measured their success in how well they helped us find what we’re looking for instead of in # of swipes?

Products shouldn’t be harmful, by intent or by accident. We must develop capabilities within design that prevent harmful products. What the persona debate tells us is that design is churning on the same old issues.

What we need is the field of design to advance, to mature, such that it can adequately address its increasingly serious shortcomings.

What can we do to mature the practice of design?

As technology gets more and more engaging, and as AI and VR become more and more prevalent in our day-to-day lives we need to take a look at how we’re structuring our future.

We need to recalibrate our ethical boundaries and leverage our new positions and skills. The new skills are our ability to understand data and articulate decisions within the context of the business. These are extremely useful skills. We need to use them now, and make a business case for putting people before numbers.

We need to ask ourselves some important questions. Are we using these new tools that we’ve been given — this new clout — to create a positive impact? Or, now that we’re enjoying the accolades and wealth, have we become complicit with a system that cares more about money than it does human beings?

Subverted Design, Joel Califa

If you’re currently at a company whose values do not align with your own, and you haven’t been able to effect meaningful change, know that you don’t have to stay there. You can find somewhere better. A better company in which business needs and people’s needs aren’t in opposition, a company where these needs align.

Further reading

✤ Subverted design

Joel Califa | Blog

✤ UX in the age of abusability

Dan Brown | Greenonions

✤ Be the villain

Eric Bailey | 24ways

✤ Which skills does a 21st-century designer need to possess?

Don Norman | IxDF

Tools & Resources


🧠 Humane by Design is a resource that provides guidance for designing ethically humane digital products through patterns focused on user well-being.

🔎 FontShare provides high-quality, professionally crafted free fonts for your personal and commercial projects.

📕 Stark Public Library, becoming the largest, centralized accessibility resource on the internet. Discover the world's best a11y info, guides, events, courses, and more—curated & created for you.

🎞 Flow is a professional animation software, for iOS, Web, and Lottie. Import from Sketch or Figma, animate with our powerful timeline editor, generate production-ready media, or code, that your devs will love to work with.

🗣 Useberry gets user testing feedback & rich insights in minutes, not months!

📣 Olvy lets you announce new features with beautiful and effective release note standalone pages and in-app widgets.

— That’s it for this edition. See you with the next one.