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Understanding Politics of Design

Mutant Font — designed to ward off anyone trying to swipe and use people’s private data.

1. Design is everywhere.

  • Browsers, mobile apps, social media, messaging software — are media through which we find and consume information and communicate with others.
  • Surveillance technologies like license plate readers, drone, and facial recognition software are used upon us. We don’t interact with these kinds of technologies, yet they have a profound effect on our privacy.
The design obscures the view of the guard tower from the cells, and prisoners cannot know when they are being watched or whether a guard is present; as a result they are compelled to act as though they are always being watched.
The padlock icon is one of the most well-known privacy-related design signals, and it is used whenever a company or designer presumably wants to convey some sense of security or protection — like its real-life counterpart, which limits access to rooms and boxes to those with key.
Primary & Secondary Action Buttons
Visual distinction for ‘Submit’ button. Image credit: Lukew
Never use ‘Yes’ or ‘OK’ when you could use a verb instead!
Photo: Material Design
Apple MacOS dialog box. Photo: Apple

2. Design is power.

Toilet Nudging: How Behavioral Insights Improve Hygiene in Toilet
  • People are uncertain about the nature of privacy trade-offs and about what kinds of trade-offs they prefer. Information asymmetries keep people from properly assessing risk, and even when privacy consequences are clear, people are uncertain about their preferences.
  • Our privacy policies are almost entirely context dependent. As Acquisti note, “The same person can, in some situations, be oblivious to, but in other situations be acutely concerned about, issues of privacy.”
  • Our privacy preferences are incredibly malleable — that is, they are subject to influence from others who have better insights into what will make us act.
James Gibson has theorized that although we all interact with the same objects and environment, our abilities and limitations cause us to perceive these things differently. People perceive cliffs as dangerous; birds perceive cliffs as irrelevant.
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3. Design is Political.

Photo: Donald Iain Smith/Getty Images
Photo: Halfpoint/iStock

Design is always political, because design is about changing a material world. It’s about including certain people and excluding others, whether by means of functional design, pricing, or accessibility.

— Professor Alison J. Clarke, Director of the Victor J. Papanek Foundation at the University of Applied Arts Vienna.

Design Should be Policy

Photo: Material Design

And we users are severely outmatched. Technology users operate as isolated individuals making decisions about things we don’t know much about, like the risk of disclosing information and agreeing to confusing legalese.

  • They can keep the status quo and basically ignore the design of technologies when addressing privacy law, or
  • They can confront the important ways design shapes morally relevant outcomes.
  • Foucault, M., 2012. Discipline and punish: The birth of the prison. Vintage.
  • Lyon, D., 1994. The electronic eye: The rise of surveillance society. U of Minnesota Press.
  • Thaler, R.H. and Sunstein, C.R., 2009. Nudge: Improving decisions about health, wealth, and happiness. Penguin.
  • Sustein, C.R., 2015. The ethics of nudging. Yale J. on Reg., 32, p.413.
  • Acquisti, A., Brandimarte, L. and Loewenstein, G., 2015. Privacy and human behavior in the age of information. Science, 347(6221), pp.509–514.
  • Norman, D.A., 1999. Affordance, conventions, and design. interactions, 6(3), pp.38–43.
  • Gibson, J.J., 1977. The theory of affordances. Hilldale, USA, 1, p.2.
  • Hartzog, W. and Stutzman, F., 2013. The case for online obscurity. Calif. L. Rev., 101, p.1.



Design Researcher; Initiator of HCI4SouthAsia; Ex-chair of Srishti SIGCHI Chapter; Startup Community Enabler

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Pranjal Jain

Design Researcher; Initiator of HCI4SouthAsia; Ex-chair of Srishti SIGCHI Chapter; Startup Community Enabler