Halloween is an unusual holiday. Historically, it has connections with the Pagan festival of Samhain, which marks the end of harvest and the beginning of winter. It is also a part of catholic and orthodox Christian observance, as a time for remembering family members who have died.
In addition to these traditional meanings, Halloween has assumed an independent identity as a secular cultural event, as part of which children go door-to-door in their neighbourhood in costume or disguise, demanding candy from strangers.
What these different customs have in common is an idea of Halloween as a day when thresholds are crossed: ordinary social rules are subverted (children are usually told to refuse candy from strangers), ordinary identities are concealed (behind spooky masks, under cover of darkness), and people’s ordinary lives are interrupted (by spending a day thinking about the dead).
In the midst of this strange celebration, it seems fitting that we take some time to consider the ways that designers are also engaged in the business of disguise and deception, of tricks and treats.
In this article, we’ll first ask how designers are called upon to trick their audience – whether by designing seductive packaging, choosing attractive typefaces, or crafting addictive apps. Then we’ll examine some examples from history, where the manipulative capacity of design has been used to glorify war, sanitize scandal, and draw people in with promises of meaning and belonging. Finally, we’ll look at 10 of the most common tricks and treats in user experience (UX) design today.
Design as deception
Disguise, manipulation and deceit: we might think that these are activities engaged in only by a shady and disreputable kind of designer – not by us in the respectable mainstream, doing our pro bono projects for a local charity. But if we’re honest with ourselves, all design – at least, all effective design – must contain a measure of deception.
Aesthetic decisions as emotional tricks
When we choose colour schemes, typefaces, and layouts for a project, we are not making purely visual decisions. We are really making aesthetic decisions – but “aesthetic” in its 200-year-old meaning:
aesthetic, 1798, from German Ästhetisch or French esthétique, both from Greek aisthetikos ‘sensitive, perceptive,’ from aisthanesthai ‘to perceive (by the senses or by the mind), to feel,’ from PIE *awis-dh-yo-, from root *au- ‘to perceive’
In this sense of “aesthetic”, our decisions as designers are driven by the way we expect others to perceive and respond. Hence the word anaesthetic: something that causes us to be without (an-) feeling (-aesthetic).
What’s more, our emotional responses to visual cues are often very deeply culturally embedded, or even an innate feature of human consciousness. It’s almost as rare to see a poster for a heavy metal concert set in pastel pink and copperplate script as it to see a sky blue “stop” sign printed in lowercase Comic Sans.
Aesthetic choices gives us the power to deceive people. And with the power to deceive comes the difficult issue of how we should use that power. I’ll come back to this important ethical question towards the end of the article.
Branding as deception
Before that, let’s take a look at an example of an everyday product and explore how its branding and packaging sets our expectations and manipulates our feelings. I’ve chosen to look at a moisturising cream by Simple, but I could just as well have chosen any other brand or product.
Simple, like many moisturisers, is presented in pared-down, mainly white packaging. This communicates cleanness, and is already silently saying to the consumer “I don’t contain weird scary nasty stuff”. The bottle also has splashes of green and an illustration of a leaf, inviting us to interpret this as a “natural” product.
The product’s name, “Simple”, perfectly sums up the impression that the entire product is trying to make on the shopper. For good measure, the word “Simple” has been set in all-lowercase type, making it appear friendly and unthreatening. There is also a smile-shaped curve underneath the wordmark, encouraging us to unconsciously make a positive emotional association with the product. (For those really interested in unconscious triggers, “simple” also contains an anagram of the word “smile”.)
Amazon uses exactly the same lowercase-with-a-smile trick:
Finally, the moisturising cream inside the container is also a perfect white, carrying all of the associations on the packaging through to the actual product. But how many consumers have considered that the white colour of the cream is itself designed and engineered? And how many consumers would be surprised to read Simple’s list of ingredients? Here it is:
Aqua, Glycerin, Paraffinum Liquidum, Polyglyceryl-3 Methylglucose Distearate, Cetyl Palmitate, Dimethicone, Cetyl Alcohol, Panthenol, Borago Officinalis Seed Oil, Carbomer, Potassium Hydroxide, Bisabolol, Methylparaben, Pentylene Glycol, Tocopheryl Acetate, Acrylates/C10-30 Alkyl Acrylate Crosspolymer, Disodium EDTA, Propylparaben, Lactic Acid, Sodium Lactate, Mica, 2-Bromo-2-Nitropropane-1,3-Diol, Serine, Sorbitol, Urea, Titanium Dioxide, Sodium Chloride, Allantoin, Pantolactone.
The point of this analysis isn’t to suggest that Simple is doing anything wrong by packaging and branding its product in this way. The same process is followed, to different extents and to varying degrees of success, by every product on the shelves of your local store.
On the contrary: we all know that we are attracted to certain products because of how they are presented to us. Yet we can still feel uneasy with this truth when it is pointed out. Frank Chimero nicely sums this up in his book The Shape of Design:
The salesman doesn’t tell an untruth in order to get us to work towards it. Instead, he misrepresents what is in front of us so that we buy into a mirage. It’s a messy distinction, and it’s why design, rhetoric, and politics are so sticky and often mistrusted: the language we use to build the world is so close to what can be used to undermine it. Design and persuasion are manipulative, and if we have the skills to seduce others toward green pastures, we can also lead them off a cliff.
With that in mind, let’s turn to history and current affairs to see how the deceptions of design have served some questionable political agendas.