Design Has Consequences / by Scott Magee

Designers have long welcomed anonymity when their artifacts are released into the wild. A typical designer may flippantly make design decisions under the assumption that the reach and authority of the artifact is fleeting. This is not true. Jon Kolko and Weick et al. argue that a designer is in the position of authority to dictate action and influence far further than superficially thought. As designers acknowledge that they control the raw materials for persuasion, they must realize that design is deliberate and has consequences.

 

Every Decision Matters

In Jon Kolko’s “Thoughts on Interaction Design (2011),” he states that to design is to communicate. However, designers must be aware that communication is not a monologue, but a dialogue of persuasion, argument and learning. Design is not benevolent nor anonymous. The mere act of designing is to communicate a point of view directly and definitively.

Kolko warns designers of their unknown (and unclaimed) power of authority. While designed artifacts were originally left to disseminate into the cultural landscape, their impact was largely ignored. Designers wrongly assumed that the original diffused impact of their artifact was the ultimate result, when in fact, the aggregate effect is much stronger.

If every designed artifact has a substantially longer lasting impact than previously thought, then Kolko posits that every decision matters. This thought superficially manifests itself into physical accumulation like landfills and visual clutter. Upon deeper examination, designers must realize the deeper impression their decisions have made on the world.

Every decision matters. Every word matters. Every artifact matters. Design is rhetoric. Designers have the ability and ultimately the responsibility to cause massive societal change. Anonymity is no longer an excuse to hide behind one episode of an artifact’s functional life. While “out of sight, out of mind” allows many to cope out of convenience, design has very real consequences.

 

The Power of Spoken Word

Weick, Sutcliffe and Obstfeld articulated the act of sensemaking in “Organizing and the Process of Sensemaking (2005),” which was defined as turning circumstances into a situation that is comprehended explicitly in words and serves as an impetus for action. The group focused on the act of receiving and making sense of incoming messages through categorization and labeling. They noted that organization is embodied in written and spoken texts where the mode of communication underlies inherent order of the message.

Weick et al. stated that reading, writing, conversing and editing are thought to be crucial actions as the media through which institutions invisibly shape conduct. When combined with the position of Kolko, it is further reinforces that the designer controls the raw materials of the argument and the resulting action.

The power of spoken word can be extrapolated further as Weick et al. note that situations, organizations and environments are talked into existence. The notion that people, on a basic level, want to believe that what they’re told is true can develop concepts or destroy identities without being grounded in truth or justice. What is more worrisome and revealing is that the evaluation of mistakes and diagnoses can only be known in the aftermath of an action. The supposed idle thoughts expunged from seemingly insignificant design decisions carry increasing levity when they can seed devious ideals.

 

Consequences and Responsibility

When juxtaposing the views of Kolko and Weick et al., I can not help but think of modern politics. No where else can the art and abuse of rhetoric exist in such a reckless manner where the levers of persuasive design control the output.

As Kolko stated, designers control the components of persuasion. I am reminded of the recent trend using acronyms and superfluous naming conventions to sell an aggregate concept when its disparate parts directly conflict with the smooth sounding name. While naming these bills is not new, it’s overuse is evident in the soundbite worthy landscape of modern news.

Even though the message can be explicitly crafted prior, the delivery is where the audience gathers the information. In 2002, John Ashcroft famously spoke in the Justice Department with the bare breasts of a statue directly behind him. Upon his subsequent outrage, he ordered the statue covered prior additional speeches and a step-and-repeat background complete with catchy slogan on the podium became the new norm for many Bush Administration events.

Weick et al. argued that who we are lies in the hands of others. Controlling the message becomes even more important as it can direct and shape the interpretation. By embracing the constraints of the medium, politicians (and their designers) can exploit the one-sided consumptive nature. Traditional media like radio, television and billboards broadcast bold statements unidirectionally, which leaves no room for contrarian opinion or fact checking to test authenticity of message. Talk show host Bill O’Reilly famously turns off the microphones of guests who offer differing opinions without regard to the network’s “Fair and Balanced” faux mantra. Such publicly reckless behavior has given rise to organizations like politifact.org and factcheck.org that verify the accuracy of spoken statements in near realtime. However, these “truth” organizations are only relevant if given a voice early in the rhetoric absorption cycle before judgement solidifies.

The term bracketing was also introduced by Weick et al. as a way to create limits for and beyond “normal,” which greatly simplifies the world. The resulting labels enable people to pre-dispose to common ground. Boundaries for what’s fashionable, normal or patriotic allows lazy media consumers to subsist in cursory labels and stereotypes. The medium becomes the trusted source of truth and curation, where misrepresented facts override accuracy.

A huge issue with cursory examination is that it yields ill-advised action. Weick et al. noted that people don’t need to perceive the current situation or problems accurately to solve them. Malcolm Gladwell would support this “Blink” structure, but its essence lies in the hopeful base knowledge and snap judgement of the receiver. Weick further explains that these people can act effectively by making sense of the circumstances in ways that appear to move towards general long-term goals. Shortcuts to rational thought are replaced by allusions to stereotypes.

It is the designer that shapes the output and resulting action by presenting relevant information. A designer’s intent can be persuasive depending on the message intent. Kolko is adamant that benevolence in design is impossible. Every action matters as it can spur action. Action begets reflection, which is the point where mistakes are diagnosed only to be understood in retrospect. No one reads the omissions/corrections portions of newspapers. No one cares who had the gold medal taken away years later. People know what they see, what they want to believe and what they’re told.

A designer is responsible for the end user to engage content, not unquestionably consume. The engaged user must transcend “fair and balanced” information and be willing to objectively check beyond stated brackets.

 

Agile Sensemaking

The current trajectory for message design is precarious. Media will further shape consensus until demand for transparency is heeded by those in power crafting the message. Will these information moguls relinquish power for the sake of transparency? Already people are finding alternative channels via social media from the Facebook uprising in Egypt to Twitter in Libya. When current channels are questioned, new channels are found.

Sensemaking is and must remain an agile process - a continuous series of iterations and reflections. The designer can control the components of an active constituency to demand what’s right, not just what is easily agreed upon. Raw news isn’t the answer either. Without a way to sort the good from bad, the reader can’t make sense of the fireman’s hose flooding all conscious thought with relentless content- whether meaningful or not. It is up to the designer to understand the consequences that exist in passive living and misrepresented facts while engaging others through the power of rhetoric to not only question the proverbial authority, but to think (and act) decisively for common good.