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Design as Persuasive Art

4 minutes

A friend much wiser and smarter than I once told me that design is a “persuasive art.” He explained that, while art inspires behavior, design intends to change it.

Although my dear friend is probably not the first to make this assertion, his observation caught me by surprise. I couldn’t deny that it was true and this realization proved to be intriguing and….when you think about: terrifying.

The best example I can give is my transition from the iPhone 4 to the iPhone 6.

When Apple unveiled the iPhone 4 in 2010, I had just recently been granted freedom from my parents’ phone plan (read: pushed out). At the bequest of my tech-saavy friends who were tired of watching me T9 all of my text messages, I ordered an iPhone off the AT&T website and prepared to join the rest of my generation in the 21st century.  Needless to say, I was not disappointed. I loved my new iPhone 4 like it was my child, quickly becoming accustomed to the hardware and software of the new device, maneuvering my way through apps, webpages, text messages, and photographs with ease. In fact, the phone became so integral to my daily life that I couldn’t imagine functioning without it.

And then, when the iPhone 6 came out, I was thrown a curveball: the power button.

In the four years I had my iPhone 4, I had become quite attached to the way it fit in my hand, the way it felt, the way I could make my way around it. Suddenly, with the iPhone 6, my muscle memory no longer served me. My ill-fated attempts to lock my phone resulted in me adjusting the volume instead. Looking to commiserate, I turned to the internet and realized I wasn’t alone in this frustration; as often happens when people have a lot of time on their hands and a keyboard at their disposal, message boards and tech reviewers had a lot to say about the design.

But for as much as I and others were lamenting Apple’s decision, the next day I woke up and used the iPhone 6 as if it was all I had ever known; within 24 hours my muscle memory had conformed to the new design and I never thought about it again.

It may seem like a small example, but it does speak pretty clearly to the wonder of design: engineers, architects, product designers, mobile app and web developers, user interface designers, creative design firms, and even fashion designers have tremendous influence over the behavior of the rest of the world.

What if an architect creates a house that encourages family members to interact more, rather than remain secluded in their own spaces?

What if a designer creates a chair that promotes comfort and good posture by having the user kneel instead of recline?

What if a consumer’s emotional connection to a logo influences his or her purchasing choices?

What if an engineer develops a platform that allows humans to instantly communicate from all places around the world, calling into question whether or not face-to-face interaction is becoming an obsolete form of communication?

What if a well-designed poster plastered to the walls of your city sparks such immense fear and hatred that your community is convinced to support a mass murder movement that results in the death of 11 million innocent people?

Some of these may seem extreme, but they are true and worthy examples to consider. Design influences how people buy, see, act, feel and even think. How does one discern when the forces of design have steered us toward something good? How does one discern if a well-intended design is actually threatening the wellbeing of society?

This is not an argument for the eradication of design – far from it, actually, as I truly believe that it has resulted in much of the good we see in the world. Perhaps this is more a call to be careful and recognize what’s at stake.

It’s a call to designers to carefully weigh the benefits and consequences of the work that they do; to not blindly create based on assumptions but to genuinely attempt to understand the diverse issues at play, the possible outcomes, and whether or not value is being added to the world.

And it’s also a call to the rest of us. It’s a call to discern whether or not designs are worth testing, believing and promoting. It’s a call to carefully discern whether or not the behaviors that result from new design are beneficial for ourselves and our society at large.

Designers and laypeople alike have a responsibility to promote the betterment and wellbeing of our society; while design may be a “persuasive” art, we still have the ability and responsibility to decide if and how we are persuaded.