Design Writing

Dark Patterns and Anti-Patterns in Design: from the Memex to the Tor Project

This excerpt is from a piece done several years ago for a design history class at California College of the Arts (CCA). Please note that this work has been formatted without formal citations, in the specific manner requested by Professor Barry Katz, a noted design historian associated with both California College of the Arts and Stanford University.

Dark Patterns and Anti-Patterns in Design: from the Memex to the Tor Project

Despite the recent national obsession with scandalous privacy issues, the role of the designer as relating to privacy is one that has not often been discussed in the media. This is somewhat surprising, because many designers specifically create aspects of technology systems that encourage the collection of personal data and metadata. Various methods are used for data collection, including the use of misleading interfaces and design cues to achieve a desired result—even if this result is not desirable for the end user. Journalists and academics specializing in technology have described a host of “dirty tricks” utilized by designers, engineers, technology firms, and governments that trick users into compliance—these tricky strategies are called dark patterns. There are also sloppy mistakes, or poorly executed ideas that have unforeseen consequences—anti-patterns. This is a paper about these dark patterns and anti-patterns in technology and interaction design, and how they can affect user privacy.

Unfortunately, these intentional and unintentional design decisions have far-reaching effects that ultimately affect more than nebulous personal privacy ideologies. The rise of big data, and the resulting privacy concerns, serve as a reminder that every situation and technology presents both negatives and positives. Despite technologists’ protestations to the contrary, innovation does not exist in a vacuum, and designed objects create both problems and opportunities. Designers and engineers need to consider the ultimate ramifications of the systems and objects they design; it is not enough to merely create without thought for what comes after. How will your invention affect the world after it is released into the wild? Will your creation ultimately be something you are proud of?

Encompassing multiple definitions, the word design may refer to a way “to create, fashion, execute, or construct according to plan,” or a plan, purpose or device “for a specific function or end,” according to Merriam Webster. The word designing usually has more negative connotations—it is synonymous with “having plans to get something in a way that is not honest or fair,” or being crafty or scheming, also according to Merriam Webster.

In short, technology design dark patterns are the very definition of being designing. According to Harry Brignull, an independent user experience consultant who created, a dark pattern is,

“A user interface that appears to have been carefully crafted to trick users into doing things, such as buying insurance with their purchase or signing up for recurring bills. Normally when you think of “bad design”, you think of the creator as being sloppy or lazy but with no ill intent. This form of low quality design is known as a “UI anti-pattern.” Dark Patterns are different—they are not mistakes, they are carefully crafted with a solid understanding of human psychology, and they do not have the user’s interests in mind.”

As touched on in the above quote, anti-patterns are more innocuous, but their end results may be no less harmful. In the book AntiPatterns: Refactoring Software, Architectures, and Projects in Crisis, anti-patterns are described as “a commonly occurring solution to a problem that generates decidedly negative consequences.” In essence, “an anti-pattern is something that looks like a good idea, but which backfires badly when applied,” according to noted software architect Jim Coplien.

Formal Analysis of a Design: Retractable Tension Barriers

This piece was done for “Writing for Designers,” a California College of the Arts class with author Jasmin Darznik. She requested that we execute an artistic formal analysis of an obscure designed object while limiting instances of passive voice whenever possible. I’ve included it here because I think it strikes a nice balance between academic writing, artistry, irreverence, and practical knowledge. Plus it’s one of my favorite works, and one that’s accessible to a wide readership. Note that I have only included an excerpt, as it’s a lengthy paper; please let me know if you’d like to see the full paper.

Formal Analysis of a Design: Retractable Tension Barriers

Long a bane of humanity, the retractable tension barrier (RTB) has become prevalent throughout the industrialized world. Despite its prevalence, few know the origins, intentions, or manufacturers behind the device. In all likelihood, the average American obliviously meanders through a line conjured by the placement of RTBs several times a week. I’ve always maintained a strong dislike for the poor planning and long lines that tend to accompany the use of these devices, but even I will forget about them—until I am trapped inside a lengthy airport security line, as I was this past August. During that trip I was once again reminded of how much I (and the majority of consumers—whether they be in an airport, bank, or office) despise being herded and corralled by these demented ribbons.

The stanchion is an early form of RTB, although stanchions do not include retractable portions, instead having the rope portion attached to a central pole by hooks or other simple means. Vintage stanchions were often elegant, with carved wood, wrought metal, and braided ropes all used decoratively. Unfortunately, modern crowd control barriers usually lack such visual refinement. Aesthetically stunted and visually offensive, modern RTBs are decidedly mundane. Composed of black plastic and nylon belting, rather than chrome and velvet, RTBs are the low end “red velvet rope.” The overall proportions are probably the best thing about this awful invention—at least if you’re the height of the average adult man in the United States (5’9”), as I am. The highly-portable barrier is usually about hip-high on persons of my height, which is tolerably innocuous. In general, the design lacks any sense of charm or balance, and I wonder if the overall depressing, disharmonious effect was intentional. After all, these are effectively prisons. Most people have heard the phrase “form follows function,” which conveys a basic design heuristic: that “form is an expression of function.” Essentially, designs should ideally indicate their prescribed use and function through their basic form factor. In this regard the RTB succeeds spectacularly, constantly reminding entrapped victims of their captivity. I suppose one could argue that the repetitions of stanchion and belt make for a sick sort of rhythm, particularly in extensively arrayed airport security lines, but I think the effects tend more toward monotonous visual tyranny. Here the RTBs become a sick sort of forest, shaped and reshaped into patterns of transient incarceration.

Telepresence Robotics Internship Thesis

This was written as a pitch/ “three minute thesis” for my 2017 robotics internship.

Over the course of my internship, I contributed to a systemic redesign of a telepresence system for older adults. We created this system to serve a presently underserved population with an especially palpable ability to benefit from this technology.

Most of the telepresence products presently on the market do not offer accessible features for older adults or people with disabilities. Prior research has indicated that these groups could particularly benefit from telepresence technology, since many aged or disabled people have health or mobility issues that prevent them from traveling or moving freely. Telepresence offers these users a way to engage socially, a factor which is known to improve quality of life. Telepresence can also help these people stay in their homes for longer periods, avoiding the expense and inconvenience of hospitals and nursing homes. Medical professionals can also utilize telepresence as a way to communicate with patients, and vice versa.

Commercially available telepresence systems tend to disregard widely accepted web accessibility features and “good design” principles championed by the likes of Google, Apple, and the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). Each of these entities has released a series of guidelines aimed at making technology more easily accessible for the widest range of people globally. Apple and Google have particularly focused on both the physical and interface design of internet compatible devices, like iPhone and Android phones, respectively. Google also applies its internal design guidelines to many of its web-based products, including Gmail and Google Search.

W3C is a community that creates internet standards. In this context, W3C primarily sets design guidelines for the use of HTML, CSS, JavaScript, and other tools for web (and app) development, and how to utilize these tools to create a better, more useful internet for everyone. These guidelines include details such as larger fonts, clear levels of contrast and brightness, color usage that accommodates for color blindness and low vision, and a streamlined interface system with easily understood icons. Established design hierarchies like grouping, similarity, and size also play a role in good design—for any population. Designers must also understand how user reliance on previously learned behaviors can be utilized in future designs—ideally creating an intuitive feel for successfully executed new designs. We followed these principles whenever possible, designing an interface system that offers both pleasing design and a high level of accessibility for any user—especially for older adults and persons with disabilities.

We expect that our new system will be rated as more usable—and therefore functional—than many of the telepresence systems presently on the market.

Visual Analysis: Japanese Ceramics

Square (Sukuea) is a porcelain sculptural vessel created by Japanese ceramic artist Kato Tsubusa in 2014. The artwork is presently located in the Japanese Art Gallery (Gallery 28) of the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco as part of the ongoing exhibition The Sculptural Turn: Contemporary Japanese Ceramics from the Kempner and Stein Collection.

A promised gift from noted collectors Dr. Phyllis A. Kempner and Dr. David D. Stein (also of San Francisco), Square (Sukuea) is a showcase piece from the couple’s large, ongoing collection of Asian ceramics—artworks amassed over a 15 year period of intense collecting (“The Sculptural Turn”; "SAN FRANCISCO COUPLE”). The collection includes work from numerous Japanese ceramicists, including multiple pieces from Kato Tsubusa (not to be confused with the mixed media artist of the same name). Tsubusa was born into a family line of potters; his ancestors have worked with clay since the Momoyama Period (1573-1615) (KATŌ TSUBUSA (B.1962). In his early career, Tsubusa worked as a production potter making traditional, painted stoneware vessels, but his later work largely focuses on the avant-garde; he does continue to make vessels, but they are now largely sculptural and non-utilitarian. In recent years, Tsubusa has also increasingly chosen to utilize New Zealand kaolin porcelain clay in his hallmark pieces—despite kaolin having a reputation for being a particularly brittle and difficult material (Hideko; “The Sculptural Turn”). Rather than focusing on the perfection achievable through the use of a more accommodating medium, Tsubusa instead chooses to create works that become compelling through their imperfections. This sentiment is a common theme throughout Japanese artistic tradition.

For example, Square (Sukuea) is medium sized (10 1/4 x 25 5/8 x 17 in.) sculptural vessel primarily composed of a relatively regular, geometric form with a surprisingly massive silhouette. However, this form has been interrupted with alternating, somewhat irregular lines; jagged, visceral tears along the seams; and aggressive fractures and fissures radiating from the thick bottom of the piece (thicker clay forms are more prone to cracking in the kiln) (Kim). In A Short Guide to Writing About Art, author Sylvan Barnet states that “horizontal lines evidence tranquility or stability,” but that description is not easily applied to Square (Sukuea) (Barnet 69). Despite being composed of mostly balanced, roughly horizontal lines, Square (Sukuea) conveys an inherent, unsettling brutality via a ragged form, with evidence of the artist’s rough hand and facture (tool marks) readily apparent to the viewer.

Though an abstracted piece, viewing Square (Sukuea) brings to mind calving glaciers and solitary icebergs in frozen, distant (and endangered) oceans. The crystalline seihakuji (bluish-white) glaze expressively dripping over the hard lines of the stunningly white kaolin enhances the icy effect, drawing further attention to the tactile qualities of the creases and crevices riddling the sculptural vessel (Kato Tsubusa). Technically still obviously a “vessel” composed of a void and outer walls, Square (Sukuea) no longer serves any practical purpose; the object is clearly too heavy and structurally flawed to contain much of anything. Instead, Square (Sukuea) has become a sculpture, with only vestiges of the object’s utilitarian ancestry remaining evident. Form no longer follows function; Square (Sukuea) is no longer a designed object, but instead an objet d'art.

Irregular and “imperfect” forms have long been prized in Japanese art, in contrast to the more decorative and representative themes commonly found in ceramics from the West. In general, Japanese people especially value the use of irregular lines and edges in ceramic objects; evidence of wear, damage or facture (the “artist’s hand”) are also prized. Traditions like kintsugi (the mending of broken ceramic vessels with gold-laden lacquer) speak to the value placed on used, loved, and even broken objects—whether they be everyday or of special importance (Bartlett et al.). Cultural and religious movements like Zen and Wabi-sabi have informed this fondness for transience and imperfection. Themes prevalent throughout Zen and Wabi-sabi philosophy include reflections on impermanence and mortality for all things, both living and not, and a certain embracement of the melancholy intrinsic to such realizations (Morigami).

Despite their cool, austere, and seemingly modern beauty, Tsubusa’s ceramics represent key ideas in the centuries-old Japanese artistic and ceramics traditions. His work serves as a new expression of very ancient Japanese ideals, with Tsubusa as a contemporary continuation in a long lineage of skilled pottery craftsmen and craftswomen. Western viewers may be charmed by the daring and unique nature of such “imperfect” works, but in Japan similar works are anything but irregular.

Works Cited:

Barnet, Sylvan. “A Short Guide to Writing about Art.” A Short Guide to Writing about Art, 9th ed., Pearson, Upper Saddle River, NJ, NJ, 2015, p. 69.

Bartlett, Christy, et al. FlickWerk: The Aesthetics of Mended Japanese Ceramics. Ithaca, NY, Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University, 2008.

Hideko, Yokoya. “Kato Tsubusa - White Porcelain Artist.” Kato Tsubusa - White Porcelain Artist, The Robert Yellin Yakimono Gallery, 2002, Accessed 16 Mar. 2017.

“KATŌ TSUBUSA (B.1962).” KATŌ TSUBUSA (B.1962), JOAN B MIRVISS LTD, Accessed 16 Mar. 2017.

“Kato Tsubusa.” Mirviss, JOAN MIRVISS LTD, Accessed 16 Mar. 2017.

Kim. “5 Ways to Prevent Explosions in Your Kiln.” ClayGeek, ClayGeek, 25 July 2016, Accessed 17 Mar. 2017.

Morigami, Shoyo. Wabi Sabi Yugen No Kokoro: Seiyo Tetsugaku o Koeru Joi Ishiki. Sakuranohanashuppan.

“SAN FRANCISCO COUPLE DONATE CONTEMPORARY CERAMICS TO ASIAN ART MUSEUM.” Asian Art Museum, Asian Art Museum Chong-Moon Lee Center for Asian Art and Culture, Accessed 19 Mar. 2017.

“The Sculptural Turn.” Asian Art Museum | The Sculptural Turn, Asian Art Museum Chong-Moon Lee Center for Asian Art and Culture, Accessed 18 Mar. 2017.