Evil by Design

Kit Oliynyk
Dec 7, 2017 · 5 min read

Hey, designer. You’ve learned a lot already. You can make apps and websites, you can prototype beautiful stuff out of thin air within minutes, you can code UI animation, and maybe even ride your bike without handlebars. You are creating things that are changing the future. And you love making things — simply because you can. But are you responsible for your creations? Are you sure you’re not bringing evil into the world?

Let’s talk design ethics.

For centuries, craft was a function of skills and tools — the “know-how”. Craftspeople were the only ones who had the right tools, and they knew how to use those tools to make things people believed they needed. People believed the best way to travel around was on horseback, and artisans started making horseshoes. People thought killing each other was their fundamental right as citizens, and artisans started making guns.

It is quite convenient to be a craftsperson. You can create, they can’t, and they love you for it because you’re always creating what they want. No need to worry about ethics, because the customer is always right. Hey, but maybe you could teach them how to make things themselves? Nah. Your tools are precious, and hard to master. Your know-how is sacred; you’ve spent decades learning how to do it right. And if everyone’s going to be a Creator, you won’t be special anymore!

Or maybe you could be an artist. Artists create for the sake of self-expression — it’s a manifestation of their existence. Some artists say their goal is to invoke powerful emotions — good or bad — in people. They too create simply because they can.

We have conveniently detached ourselves from ethical problems because it was much easier to call ourselves “creative”! When you are defined as “creative,” your sole purpose is to create.

When computers and computer-aided design became a thing, designers followed the familiar old dichotomy: either you’re an operator of the tool or an evocator of emotions. Sometimes both. Either you’re expressing yourself, or you’re a craftsperson making products.

We have conveniently detached ourselves from ethical problems because it was much easier to call ourselves “creative”! When you are defined as “creative,” your sole purpose is to create. Art. Solutions. Logotypes. Websites. Apps. You don’t need to ask hard questions — like, whether the website you’ve built would be used to bully people. You’re not responsible for the suffering your work might cause others. It’s how the artist sees the world. It’s what the client wanted. It’s what I’m equipped to do. It’s my art. It’s my craft.

I have bad news for you, designer. You are not the creative class anymore. You are now the responsible class.

Now let me tell you a story.

In Greek Gnosticism the Demiurge is a godlike entity who created and maintains the physical Universe. The Creator. The Ultimate Craftsman. The Artisan. But Gnostics didn’t think the Demiurge was cool. See, she is not the kind of god that cares about your soul, holds your hand, and absolves you of your sins — there’s another god for that. Demiurge only cares about making. She creates merely because she can, because in her mind making is beautiful and noble all by itself. But she’s not The God, she’s just a maker. She makes mistakes. Everything the Demiurge created is fundamentally flawed, because it can bring suffering to people. It is burdened with evil.

You, designer, are a Demiurge.

You are the creator, artisan, craftsperson. You create apps and websites, products and platforms. You make something from nothingness. This is the golden age of design. You’re basically a god.

But you have responsibility for the future you’re building; your designs are your legacy. If you helped create an atomic bomb, you’re complicit in killing millions of people. If you helped build a platform that gives voice to Nazis, you’re complicit. If you made any decisions impacting a product that inadvertently made people’s lives worse, you’re complicit. You just built something burdened with evil.

“Hey, hey, wait! I’m not at fault here! I can’t predict every single potential consequence.” Well, you can start somewhere. For starters, if you’d spend less time thinking about perfect execution, about the colors of your buttons, your beautiful fonts and delightful animations, you’d have more time to think about ethics. You don’t get to just be an artist anymore; it’s not about your self-expression.

And it’s not about your craft, either. Your design tools are now automated and abundant. Your stakeholders and clients are learning about design every day. Your know-how doesn’t matter anymore; you don’t get to protect your craft secrets. You don’t have an excuse. You need to start being responsible. You need to start thinking about the consequences of your design, right from the start.

Okay, but how?

Design projects often start with setting design principles — how to help people with your product. What if we started with ethical principles — how to do no harm? If you’re a part of the design team, talk to people around you. Talking to people and asking them hard questions is your biggest responsibility. Here’s a great quote from Mike Monteiro’s Designer’s Code of Ethics:

Saying no is a design skill. Asking why is a design skill. Rolling your eyes is not.

If you’re in charge of a design team, work on the system of shared beliefs. Don’t just assume things about your teammates or partners. No one is a saint, or a monster. You’re all beautifully different, but you can always try to find something everyone can agree upon. Listen to each other, share your perspectives, and build a common foundation of ethics. Here’s a great talk by Alla Zollers on how to make that happen.

Once you’ve (hopefully) built a system of shared beliefs with your team, it’s time to talk with your stakeholders. Build a moral value map. How does your product inhibit, support, limit or enable people in different contexts? Sure, it’s hard to think of every possible use case, but it’s better to think of something, than not think at all.

Is your design project already underway? It’s never too late to conduct a dark patterns audit. Are you baiting your users to do something they might not want to do? Are you reaffirming someone’s confirmation bias by your oh-so-smart personalization filters? Evil by Design is another great place to start: it breaks down typical dark patterns into The Seven Sins of interaction design.

But it’s not just about dark patterns. It’s about you.

What do you believe in?

We’re neither gods, nor monsters. Just like the Demiurge, we make mistakes. And every mistake we don’t want to admit and fix, every little compromise we make to push something potentially unethical out the door brings us down the slippery slope. Do you feel like you’ve tried everything, but they still want to you make unethical decisions about your product? Quit. It’s not too late.

Design ethics cannot be added at the end, like sprinkles on top. Design ethics don’t sizzle. It has to be a core system of beliefs. Yours, and everyone else around you. Everyone is a designer these days. If you know a product manager or an engineer who makes decisions about the product — talk about your beliefs with them. Talk about what’s right. Because if you don’t, you’re possibly making something burdened with evil.

And if you do end up quitting your job and love designing responsibly, ONE Design’s open positions are listed here.

One Design Community

Stories from Capital One's designers on how using humanity, simplicity, and ingenuity can empower people to have better control over their money.

Kit Oliynyk

Written by

Product design, design culture, and design ethics at large enterprise scale.

One Design Community

Stories from Capital One's designers on how using humanity, simplicity, and ingenuity can empower people to have better control over their money.

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