(Dark) Design as Business

I’ve talked before about the idea of “design as business” and how much I agreed with that sentiment. It’s one of the things that distinguishes it from more traditional art forms and gives design its ability to inspire change. The problem, however, is that whenever profits and money come into play, it eventually becomes the driving force and replaces any well-meaning goal that a company might’ve had. You could say this is a bleak way of looking at things, but it’s hard to think otherwise when companies like Amazon and Facebook exist, raking in billions of dollars at the expense of their billions of users. 

In our era of immense technological advancement, it seems like we are turning to tech as the answer to all our problems. Unable to meet people? You’ve got a number of apps for that. Need help budgeting and managing your finances? You bet there’s an app for that. Can’t figure out your local pharmacy and don’t want to talk to real people? There’s an app for that. I’m not even going to get into today the implications of all these short term solutions to—most often times, superficial—pain points. What I want to focus on is the culture that surrounds most start ups and the kinds of negative affect of capitalism have on designers and users alike.

I’m sure a lot of tech startups began with well-intended goals, the team want to provide a solution for a problem that they saw in the world. The problem is that now it appears they’ve begun to prioritize capital gain and market competition over the want to provide a service that puts humans first. This is exactly the reason why dark patterns exist and are so abundant across the web, why companies measure success metrics and log retention and data. If it means funding, ad revenue and data collection, it doesn’t matter what they have to do to get the user to use their service and stay on their service. I’m not trying to paint the entirety of the web as villains (just some), but it’s hard to have any trust when every other day a news outlet reports on the new ways tech companies are taking advantage of and harvesting profit off their users. 

This begs the question of, are any of these new tech companies actually providing a service that we need? Or are they creating an illusion that our lives would be amiss without their cool, new, fresh, organic, vegan, alternative, stylish, all-the-kids-are-doing-it-buying-it-wearing-it product? Are we being tricked into paying (I use paying liberally as we are either paying them with our attention or our money, no matter which way you spin it, using any product is a type of transaction. We’re agreeing to give them something in exchange for a service, but whether or not we actually need this service is still debatable) for this very specific “lifestyle” that all these brands seem to be advertising?

To give companies credit, I do respect the hustle, and I understand, why would any company or product provide their services for free? We can no longer think of any means of profitability outside of ads and data collection. Companies need money to operate and users’ lives are “improved” by the exist of their service. The simplest way is to put digital products behind a paywall, but even that comes at a cost. There is definitely a larger systematic problem at play in the digital era. Consumers are so used to digital products being “free to use” that the idea of paying for an online service is very much unappealing and sometimes even criticized. For most people, between paying $10 and having their invisible data being sold, most would choose to keep the free service. This also brings to the forefront issues of class and income disparity, where the accessibility of these products will diminish if there was a paywall.

In a perfect world, we wouldn’t have dark patterns that aim to trick and deceive users. Products will be created for the good of humans and the advancement of innovation, improving the lives of users across the world. However, that’s just something unrealistic in the way our market operates. We are trapped in this vicious cycle of enthusiastic founders wanting to change the world and solve problems, but knowing that they can’t without proving the profitability of a service they know they must make free, and the only way they’re taught is to turn to what the large companies are doing, collecting data, selling ads and using any means necessary to stay afloat. 

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