Subverted design

Edition #28

Subverted design isn’t 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 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. Design feels less like it’s setting the pace and more like it’s always catching up.

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.


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Tools & Resources

⚛️ Orbit is the next open-source design system for your next travel project. team has years of experience in building travel products and baked them into the system’s components, from accessibility and internationalization to advanced theming and travel-specific components. They aim to bring order and consistency to all of their products and processes. You can read their principles, explore their Figma account with a complete UI library, and GitHub repository with React components.

😍 Spirit of Joy Planner lets us prioritize joy in our working lives. With this Spirit of Joy Planner and group facilitation guide, folks at Dropbox Design want to design space for joy, and plant the seeds for building a culture that takes joy as a priority.

🌱 Primary helps UX & UI professionals and agencies across the globe to ideate, define and document their design solutions. Primary engages your teams, customers, and stakeholders and helps you model your product or app into journeys and flows that owners, developers, and designers can all understand – and bring to life.

⚡️ Useful Figma Plugins and Tools that will help you fix all the little slowdowns and boost your productivity. From color management and image assets to SVG shapes and animation. That’s Smashing Magazine’s new guide to Figma.

👀 Sprig Your all-in-one product research platform. Capture in-the-moment insights from your actual users with video interviews, concept tests, and micro surveys. Sprig makes learning from your customers fast and effortless throughout every stage of development.

📸 Ente is a privacy-friendly, easy-to-use alternative to Google Photos. They built Android, iOS, web apps that encrypt your files and back them up in the background. You can access these across your devices, and share them with other ente users, end-to-end encrypted. You can also use their electron app to maintain a local copy of your backed-up files.

📝 features a delightful, fast, and secure journaling experience, a better way to journal, made by Holstee. Start a meaningful reflection practice with a journal that guides your personal growth each month.

👩‍💼 User Persona Free Generating Tool quickly generates user personas and lets you export them as PDF immediately — without having to create an account.

Design Resources Center

Explore our ever-growing website with 1500+ design tools and resources.


Subverted Design

Joel Califa | Blog

UX in the Age of Abusability

Dan Brown | Greenonions

Which Skills Does a 21st Century Designer Need to Possess?

Don Norman | IxDF

Be the Villain

Eric Bailey | 24ways

Revolutionary type: Meet the designer decolonizing Chinese fonts

Brian Ng | Rest of world

Adobe: The Psychology of User Offboarding

Dan & Louis-Xavier | Growth Design

Design Systems 101

Anton Sten | Blog

Less is More 2.0

Allen Orr | Ideas by Product Inc.

The three-or-four-hours rule for getting creative work done

Oliver Burkeman | Blog

Designing the Story for our Readers

Christopher Ballard | Building The Atlantic


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.

🎓 Don believes that better design education can train and empower designers to do better. That's why he has partnered with IxDF to develop a course on 21st Century Design and help make future-oriented design education accessible for all. In fact, this video is from one of the lessons in Don's new course: Design for the 21st Century with Don Norman

What happened

  • Study shows automated résumé scanner mistakenly rejects millions of viable job candidates.

    • 99% of Fortune 500 companies and 75% of the US employers algorithmically screen job applicants, a new Harvard Business School research shows—and the software has filtered out more than 10 million potential employees.

  • South Korea passed the first law to free app creators from Apple and Google’s fees.

    • Apple and Google have long enjoyed total control over their respective app marketplaces, but in South Korea, the landscape is about to change drastically. Apple and Google must allow developers to use other payment systems, new Korean law declares.

  • Apple’s car chief is heading to Ford. Doug Field has been hired by Ford as chief advanced technology and embedded systems officer.

  • El Salvador officially accepts bitcoin as legal tender, as of yesterday.

    • The Central American nation will become the first sovereign state to make bitcoin “legal tender,” meaning it’s now an official currency alongside the US dollar. In theory, El Salvadorans can now pay for anything—a haircut, house, or even taxes—using bitcoin.

  • The New York Times got in on the crypto craze and published a visual-heavy analysis of bitcoin’s energy consumption. Two key findings:

    • It now takes the equivalent of nine years of an average household’s electricity to mine a single bitcoin. In 2009, it took a few seconds to mine one coin. Bitcoin mining now uses seven times as much electricity as Google’s global operations.

  • The world's largest direct-air carbon capture machine is up and running in Iceland.

    • The plant, run by Climeworks, can reportedly take carbon dioxide from the air and trap it underground. The technology is cool, but will only capture about 4,000 tons of CO2 per year, equivalent to the output of about 250 US residents.

  • Apple's latest event saw the company unveil a host of new products including a new iPhone, Apple Watch, iPad and iPad Mini.

    • Apple just finished its “California Streaming” event, and it announced a whole lot of new products, including the iPhone 13 lineup of smartphones, Apple Watches with bigger screens and new iPad. If you’re looking for a quick recap of the biggest news from the show, The Verge got you covered right here.

  • A NASA astronaut, Mark Vande Hei, is set to stay in space until March.

    • That will bring his total mission time to 353 days, breaking the record for the longest single spaceflight.

  • Elon Musk’s new satellites could sneak internet access into repressive countries without their permission.

  • Hoefler&Co is joining the Monotype family.

  • Just one year after the launch of The Social Dilemma, the film has won 2 Primetime Emmys for Outstanding Writing for a Nonfiction Program and Outstanding Picture Editing for a Nonfiction Program.

    • A friendly reminder: The Social Dilemma is streaming free on YouTube until Sept 30. Our goal is to reach as many people as possible who may not have Netflix access. Now’s the time to spread the message to anyone who still hasn’t seen it!

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 to maximize 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. The real question, then, isn’t whether we know whether design is getting better. It’s: What can we do to mature the practice of design?

— Dan Brown, UX in the Age of Abusability

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?

— Joel Califa, Subverted Design

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. 

— That’s it for this edition. See you next month.


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