•  The Curse of Designability 

     “The true investment is the investment in design itself, as a discipline that 
     conducts research and generates knowledge 
    – knowledge that makes
    it possible to seriously participate in discussions that are not about design.
    Let this be knowledge that no one has asked for, in which the designer is
    without the handhold of an assignment, a framework of conditions, his
    deference, without anyone to pat him on the shoulder or upbraid him. Let the
    designer take on the debate with the institutions, the brand names or the
    political parties, without it all being about getting the job or having the job
    fail. Let designers do some serious reading and writing of their own.”

     Daniel van der Velden, Research & Destroy Graphic Design as Investigation. 


    I think that the first virtue of a graphic designer is responsibility. I am responsible for the information and products I release to the world, for the techniques of persuasion I use in my work, and for the ideas I promote. I am talking about the kind of responsibility parents have to their children – social responsibility.

    In April of 2012, I gave a presentation about design in my daughter’s school. I asked, “Why do we need design?” One of the fourth-graders said that design makes our life different, easier, and better. Design changes the way we live.

    Design provides necessities and enriches our experiences. It makes our environment more comfortable; our food, tastier; and our view, more inspiring. Design can generate a mood or invite a different kind of behavior. A room designed by Naoto Fukasawa is spare and inspires slowness, harmonious movements, and gentle touches. John Pawson architecture galvanizes mind, deepens breadth, and sedates the visitor. Louisa Parris’ dresses elevate their wearer out of gravity into the frame of a pastel geometry. A page from Irma Boom’s book pervades our world with the world of inspirations unique to its subject.


    Design is an amazing catalyst of reaction. The coolness factor, the color effect, the shape, the timeliness, the who-is-using-it, or who-has-been-seen-wearing-it influences cannot be dissected in a scientific experiment. But a legendary design success can rise overnight and fall as quickly as a popularity rating of a political leader. Apple (and until recently AT&T only) customers spend double the price of their ordinary mobile phones and mobile packages to become the hip owners of the first, second, or fourth generations of iPhones. On the first two days of the iPhone release in 2007, AT&T reported a so-called “disappointing” 146,000 iPhone activations. But this report was lower that the real numbers were, since many activations did not go through at the first attempt due to technical issues 1. The culture of iPhone jackets, iPhone apps, iPhone screen papers, iPhone specific mobile sites became a tightly integrated part of our cultural identity.


    Like iPhone to Kindle – Whole Foods’ shopping experience which targets the senses and the social guilt of the upper middle class – and lives off a corporate version of a green-living philosophy – cannot be compared to a rush through the aisles at Shoppers Food and Pharmacy. Shoppers Food a Pharmacy, is a place to quickly dropp by for the cheapest apples on the market. Whole Foods is a place to experience the aisle, not just getting the groceries.

    In “The Omnivore’s Dilemma. A Natural History of Four Meals,” Michael Pollan describes the Whole Foods experience as visually and emotionally loaded with information, edited to elevate the value of a pseudo-organic, packaged meal, as well as the origin of a somewhat local raw ingredient. The light and healthy language of Whole Foods has a colossal underlaying structure. Shoppers approach does not differ too much from the Whole Foods one. Although these two chains cover a completely different market, they are very similar in a way they present information to consumer. They feature only the part of the information that serves their interests. The revealed information many times hides more cons than there are real benefits on the label. An example is the controversy of a Free Range Chicken. The claim of Free Range on a package can survive a shopper’s casual scrutiny but not a serious examination. Of course, there are true stories in the Whole Foods line-up, but they are definitely not recognizable just by their packaging.

    Many products and services today are flourishing because of the laziness of the public mind and the speed of our life rather than our needs. Usually the package looks like it is worth more than is listed on its price tag and if the aisle is colorful enough than the shopper can stumble on one too many other stimulating packages on the way to the one he came for. A setting like this leads to a bigger chance of unconscious over-shopping. There is less chance of realizing the real price, the real story, and the origin of the product in the shopping cart if the shopping is done in such conditions. It is also easier to justify the purchase when it has a good story, beautiful packaging, and a good deed attached to it. The taste of the product will also inherit some of the values that are ingrained in its packaging. Most of the information on the labels, covers, and TV screens is not a lie; it is a designed truth, and when the truth is designed, the public likes it better.


    Design is about small details and about important decisions. It makes beautiful things and creates mind-changing experiences. It can be serious and light, and.... What is important, from my perspective, is that all design affects people on an unconscious level. These effects are invisible to the general public. Designers, I think, are consciously and also unconsciously evaluating their work based on four factors: pure esthetics, impact on the life of design recipient, including culture and society (this factor also covers the function of a designed object), revenue generation, and the advance of design profession.

    Most of the time when someone says the word design, he means architecture, engineering, or decoration, but none of the things that I just mentioned. Ergo, design adds power to anything it is married to. Design can add great value. Many able people will pay more for the Whole Foods experience and its sustainable look than for Giant’s fresh-promise rebranding, no matter what part of both brands is true and what part is not.

    Drawing on many different ways to convey messages (visual, written, audio, tactile, sensual, and in combination), what we call graphic design today proved itself an equal partner with other means of social influences as early as the beginning of the nineteenth century. The invisible power is known to have a stronger effect on unconscious mind than any visible force. A psychological denouement of small repetitive messages, actions, and images that feel crime-less enough to pass through our guard unnoticed in one instance can make a tremendous impact over time. Juicy statements from a “trusted source” in the media are supported by smaller but equally effective publications, books, newspapers, on-line sharing, and even random comments from a family member. And here, anything can be instilled: that there is a pandemic of a new killer virus, that you should not eat carbohydrates but eat more proteins, that your symptoms are a definite manifestation of a gluten sensitivity, that this candidate will be a better president than the other one, that coffee is bad for you and you shouldn’t drink it, or that coffee is beneficial and you should drink it, but … no more than two cups a day, that a terrorist attack can happened at any moment and you need to keep a week of bottled water in your basement, that you need to sanitize your hands every hour, or that you should not sanitize them at all, that growing bio-engineered corn is good, but eating mass-produced meat is bad.... It is only a matter of how unconscious the recipient of these messages chooses to be.


    Social engineering is a political-science term. It is an organized way to combine all possible tools of invisible influence including design, and graphic design in particular, to influence a specific type of social behavior and popular attitude. The main rule of any influence is the invisibility of its means but combined with an overwhelming presence of its messages in every possible form. The use of social engineering also requires an ability to research the society, the culture, the market, and the consumer.

    Today, in 2012, social management has become a self-managed process that, I believe, lies at the core of American culture and the consumer mentality, American style. A social-engineering infrastructure is integrated within the mass-culture society, allowing any capable entity like the government, a corporation, or a social network to tune in and to activate the well-trodden mechanisms that people react to. Mass culture is a fruitful ground for molding mass behavior and for quickly disseminating a trend, a fashion, or a belief. As Malcolm Gladwell wrote in “The Tipping Point,” the law of few with particular skills and abilities influences the behavior of masses. Mass behavior is influenced by social, personal, and environmental factors. Mass culture affects all three out of these factors. People are also affected by family, personality, gender, and the education of an individual. Mass culture consists of phenomena that can allow an overnight effect to govern public choices and opinions.

    The invisible power of communication is used every day to seamlessly alter the public’s opinion into following their unconscious desires for comfort, beauty, safety, harmony, control, success, power; fears of death, loneliness, difference, change, failure, and defeat. Messages, images, shapes, colors, environments, shared information, media noise: there are so many places and opportunities to influence someone’s way of thinking. The questions from my point of view are not why it happens and how we might change it. Instead, my question is why can’t we use this power to strengthen our mental defense system against influenced behaviors? And are all unconscious influences necessarily bad?

    The techniques of persuasion, communication, and design are used widely today to encourage healthy lifestyles, to reduce smoking among the general population, to promote sustainable ways of consuming, and to change many behaviors and habits our society is guilty of (we might be persuaded to move from the Adkins curve to a healthy-fat diet, for example). Why not use it to help an individual become less vulnerable in the face of mass culture, mass media, mass politics, and mass social engineering? Should Walter Lippmann 2. be proved right today – in the era of total connectivity and information accessibility – in his opinion that the general public is much more interested in an image in their heads than to come to judgment by critical investigation?

    The tendency to look for fixes might suggest that this is the perfect moment to use our mind in a more responsible way. Most of the time, our change-searching, good-wanting, and help-giving are directed outwards. Sometimes people concentrate on helping others just so they can bypass addressing their own issues. Helping others is good. We can all help change the world, one good deed at a time. But while changing someone else’s world, one can miss the drought in his own backyard?

    Any change – the good, the green, the sustainable, the local, the-any-other-popular-term change – begins from within an individual, from within his mind and his vulnerability to social influences. These influences bring this individual to do things that he doesn’t really need to do and to behave in a way that disturbs his life, mood, and wellbeing. If a person can stay conscious about social influences, wouldn’t he become less vulnerable to their powers?

    Most of the time people live in an unconscious state. Unconscious state doesn’t mean “unconscious.” It means to be only partly awake to the present moment. It is a human way to survive. We receive so much unnecessary information during our daily routines that the only way for our minds to function is to fade out everything that seems not important. Consequently, people react to things, words, and impulses without observing their own reactions, without considering the reasons behind these reactions, not noticing the social influences that affect their way of thinking, their feelings, and their reasons for acting. All products, services, and political and social propaganda are designed to use this vulnerability and to influence public decision-making to the benefit of someone other than the public. If design successfully supports other goals of social engineering, can it be used to remind a person about the importance of a conscious state of mind without following the means of typical social programming? Design can propagate using your mind, not changing your mind.

    One of the most common concepts among most religions and teachings is the concept of being present. Being present means being conscious of every moment in life. It is not an easy task to maintain throughout long periods of time. Even small things – like hunger for a pink cupcake, worry about one’s hairstyle, or the rush to pick up the kids from school – can make a person slide out of the track of consciousness and fall into a sedated routine. Of course, I am not suggesting eastern philosophy should supersede design practice or public policy. I think that people should consciously engage in deeper questioning of some of their daily decisions, beliefs, actions, and purchases. An individual who is able to question himself before reacting to any outside influence is not easily controlled or pushed to form a favorable opinion.


    “Doing is the great thing; and it does not matter that the man likes drinking, so that he does not drink; ... Indeed, for a short time, and in a provisional sense, this is true. For if, resolutely, people do what is right, in time they come to like doing it. But they only are in a right moral state when they have come to like doing it; and as long as they don’t like it, they are still in a vicious state.... And the entire object of true education is to make people not merely do the right things, but enjoy the right things ...

    John Ruskin, The Crown Of Wild Olive: Three Lectures On Work, Traffic, And War, Traffic.”

    People are social beings who live in groups, create culture, and follow it. Individual thinking, decision-making, and actions are affected by society. But to what extent? How healthy is it for you or me to be influenced to certain extents by society? Can you or I in return affect society? And how can I navigate social influences? These are the questions I address as a designer, as an individual, as a member of society – and as a person who is lucky enough to be able to write this essay, to buy her kids piano lessons, and to see the beauty in the veil of muffin crumbs resting on her breakfast plate.

    I believe that most personal, social, political, and environmental issues are directly connected to an automatic way of thinking and acting that each one of the members of my society practices every day. I think that my mind is my first social responsibility. Hence, I want to maintain my ability to stay alert and conscious about my thoughts, my feelings, and my actions. As a designer, I am not only responsible for my own mind, but also for the messages I create for other people and for the ideas that I spread in society. I can choose to create and spread ideas that, directly or indirectly, invite others to accept social responsibility for their own minds. As a responsible designer, I want to find a way to design for the responsible mind.

    My design imperative is to address, through design, the issue of social influences on our minds. I want to find a language, a vehicle, and a voice that will resonate with people who decide to look inside themselves.

    The inner change is the most difficult one. It is a matter of education, time, and a long-term intent within an individual and a society. A society is a web of interconnected individuals, and, thanks to mass culture, a change triggered by an individual within that society can stimulate a larger reaction within the culture. That reaction could change the way society functions, even on a small scale.

    I am looking for ways in which design can help people to “use their minds” rather than “change their minds.” I hope design can influence people to practice active thinking, to look at familiar situations from a new angle. It is hard for people to overturn their beliefs, but they can find ways to use their minds more responsibly. I think that any individual, among those who have a choice, is capable of a much more responsible way to make judgments than it is common today. This in time can tip the point of social shift. I think design can promote and help integrate such a mind-set shift within our society.