Why is Design So Invisible?

At dinner, Alice suggests a game. Bob says, “Can’t we just talk, like normal humans?” Bob says he doesn’t like the artificiality of the game.

But doesn’t Bob know that the default conversation—how “normal humans” talk—is also a set of learned and practiced games? Why is this hard to see, and hard to talk about?

Here’s an idea: the more a thing structures our behavior, the less we care to know about it.

We live in a world that has been designed. But not all of that design is equally recognizable.

Everyone knows that a vase is designed. People realize that vases — and clothing and dishware — are subject to fashions regarding materials and form and so on.

The design of the city is somehow more invisible. A person can walk a path every day without asking who designed the path they’re walking — who imagined the walk they’re taking before they took it — and which considerations went into that design.

The design of software — and especially of operating systems — is the same. People use the buttons and menus without thinking about who placed them, who labeled them, and what considerations went into those choices.

But the most invisible kind of design is the design of our social environment. And of the social games we play with friends, with sexual prospects, and with our family. We try hard not to admit these have any structure. Why should this be?

One explanation is that it can hurt to admit a thing was designed by someone else. It hurts when it destroys the illusion that we run our lives.

That our vase was designed by someone else; that doesn’t really hurt. It has little to do with who we are.

That our city was designed by somebody else — with different aims than ours — does hurt a little bit. It tells us we’re in the Matrix, our life is not our own to some degree. We’d rather pretend the way we use our favorite park was our own invention, we don’t want to admit it was planned for us. If someone changes our park, we don’t like it — even if it’s an improvement. The earlier path was our path, right? We don’t want to recognize that our lives were so shaped by the old park’s design.

It’s much worse, then, when Alice suggests a conversation game at dinner.

When Bob says the game feels artificial to him, maybe he means it highlights the artificiality of his entire social life. That it robs him of the illusion of agency, but doesn’t give him any real agency.

To realize that we don’t even choose what we say to our friends from scratch; to realize we interact through games that were handed to us and that don’t reflect what we really want from companionship—This is more than we can take. It would hurt too much to admit that our entire social lives, and by extension our emotional lives and our cognitive lives, are not our own. That they are written by diverse authors, just as our cities are written by diverse authors.

In this context, is it cruel for Alice to offer Bob one new game? I think so. Alice is removing the illusion of agency that Bob depends on, without offering any replacement.

Perhaps there is some inevitable bewilderment and horror in realizing how little of one’s life was actually chosen. But before we push anyone down that path, we should show them the bright place it leads to. We should hint at the real agency of choosing and of selecting your own games, your own paths through the park, your own operating system. The real agency that faces the world as a catalogue of participatory structures, to opt-in or to replace with your own inventions.

So Alice should hand Bob a menu of games. It should include the conversation games he’s used to (E.g., “Wait Your Turn, Then Say Something Relevant and Interesting”, “Indignant Pile-On”, “Clarifying That Point”).

And it should include a way to add a new game.


Thanks to Albert Kong and Albert Alexander for getting me thinking about the question, and to Bianca Cheng Costanzo for the long, winding conversation that found the answer.