How Design Can Create or Unravel Feelings of Trust

When apathetic design hurts and excludes

For me, it’s more than just users that matter in design. It’s their intention and how their vulnerabilities can be impacted in positive and negative ways by our tech. I know what it’s like to be hurt by design.

As a kid, I oscillated amongst worlds. I had a poor, black father and a white, Jewish mother who were both from Miami. I spent half of my childhood in Japan and the rest in the American south. I moved a lot.

I didn’t fully belong to any of these places but I was naturally perceptive and curious to understand people as a way to cope with not quite being accepted into anybody’s culture. For me, curiosity is subversive and an act of resistance.

For me, curiosity is subversive and an act of resistance.

The moment I realized how apathetic design could deeply affect a human being is very clear in my mind.

I was a middle school student and my teacher made all the kids in the class stand up and announce their race in front of everyone for a school census.

When I warily said both, she laughed and told me my answer was wrong and that I would have to make a different choice. I told her I wouldn’t choose. I had given my answer and I that was that. She wrote something down in response and to this day I have no idea what she picked.

Reflecting back on this moment, I wonder why did this situation happen? Was it because of the design of things? Was it the failed design of the census?

The census was intended to sort out how money should be given to the school based on race but it hadn’t given much thought in the way of nuance.

I’ve come to see how design can play an important role in shaping how we understand and even misunderstand the ways others are trying to relate to and understand each of us. It can strengthen or diminish trust.

I’ve come to see how design can play an important role in shaping how we understand and even misunderstand the ways others are trying to relate to and understand each of us. It can strengthen or diminish trust.

Curiosity is a simple notion and is what motivates me when I think about design.

Energy and acceptance of flow is important to me, especially where my energy is directed, and I like to flow towards things that energize me which explains why I was an archaeologist, worked as a teacher in Japan, made a lot of videos for the internet at BuzzFeed and took a 13-week intensive medical neuroscience class on a whim and started urban farming.

I was fascinated to learn from studying the brain, cultures and from teaching that most of our energy goes into connecting with others and that we feel safe only when we trust that those connections are being reciprocated by other people around us.

How are our brains, bodies and minds being affected by our designs? Is the design of our tech creating or unraveling feelings of trust? Are we simply reinforcing or genuinely revising our human pain points?

Knowing this, I try to design experiences, products and stories that hold space for nuance and that when at their best elevate rather than diminish the human experience.


Plant seeds everywhere! Pick up a copy and enjoy my zine emer.jent. Printed on plantable wildflower paper, this issue muses on the question: Can artificial intelligence (AI) be altruistic?

Jamie Renee Williams

Written by

This is my digital self. These are my digital musings.

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