Look What You Made Me Do: Ulterior Motives in Design

After several quiet months, American country-pop singer Taylor Swift has released another surprise single, which will play on repeat on every radio in the English-speaking world until we are as tired of it as we were of her last two. The obvious purpose of a pop song is to make money for the record company through sales and licensing. But that is not the song’s ulterior motive.

“Look What You Made Me Do” continues the long and storied tradition of musicians using their medium to take shots at their competitors. There are accounts of it stretching back through the classical and baroque movements. When a caveman first started banging two rocks together another caveman probably started doing the same thing behind him while sticking his tongue out. Most music is meant to affect the emotions of the listener but the unstated goal of a “diss track” is to make consumers think less of the song’s target(s) whilst bonding with the musician over their shared dislike.

Design is often about the pursuit of simplicity; getting users to their desired destination as easily as possible, but there is a lot that can hide behind that veneer of simplicity. Good design can fulfil multiple purposes at once and clever design can influence your behavior without you even realizing it.

© America's Army

© America's Army

When the video game “America’s Army” first came out amidst a flurry of similar products, everyone assumed it was just fulfilling the purpose of all video games; entertainment. Only upon closer investigation did players realize it had been designed as a recruitment tool for the US military, created, financed, and distributed by the army for that express purpose

In UI design there is an entire micro-industry built around subtly influencing people to make the decision that the creators intended, whether that be signing up for promotional materials you did not want or preventing you from cancelling a subscription you do not need. These set-ups are known as “Dark Patterns” in the industry, and the downside of more companies becoming aware of them is that more of them begin to appear. Design is just a tool that can be used to reach a goal and like any tool it is completely amoral. It can be used to do good and evil equally well.

On the other end of the spectrum is SciChic; a jewellery design company in Florida that offers fashionable subscription boxes filled with 3D printed designs. The obvious purpose of the jewellery is to look pretty, but the ulterior motive to the science themed designs is to encourage young women to take an interest in the STEM fields. Good design can provoke a wide range of emotions, but these designs are aiming to create curiosity and its close cousin, inspiration.

So, whether you are trying to trick innocent browsers into signing up for your mailing list, trying to trick kids into signing up for the army, trying to trick girls into pursuing a fulfilling career in STEM or trying to make it clear to the world that Kim Kardashian wasn’t very nice to you; Design Thinking has the tools needed to influence people to make the decisions that you want them to, without hammering them over the head with your demands.

Communications Director

Sutherland Labs
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