Dark Wisdom (1 of 3): How Design Manipulates The Way We Think, Feel and Behave

How evil design forces us to obey

This first column is part of a series of three posts on Dark Wisdom: How design manipulates the way we think, feel and behave. In this first post, we focus on Evil Design. Next posts will be on Bad Design and Good Design.

This essay elaborates on the TedxDelft performance I did in 2013 called ‘Why design eats advertising for breakfast’. During the past two years, I got more and more upset with how powerful forces shape our emotions, thoughts and behaviours. Governments, corporations and social movements apply the dark principles of behavioural design to exert power over nearly every aspect of our daily life. In this essay, I want to explain how evil design gets us to obey.

Design eats advertising for breakfast

I’ve always been fascinated by the subject of influence. My first real plan in life was to become a therapist, but I ended up owning an advertising agency. Basically, my job is to seduce and persuade people for brands and products (the evil part) or to get them to donate to charity or to stop wasting energy (the good part). Now what really strikes me about the advertising business is that our most import instrument of influence, creative communications is actually a pretty lame one. We keep clinging onto the belief that as long as we keep communicating in an original and persuasive way, people will eventually change their behaviour. The fact that advertising is becoming one of the most polluting forces today, probably is the best proof, both of this stubborn belief and of the failure of it.

At the same time, when you look at how governments, corporations and social movements influence us, you can see forces at work that shape our emotions, thoughts, attitudes and behaviour in way more powerful ways than persuasive communication could ever achieve. I want to argue that nearly all our thoughts, feelings and our behaviours are unconsciously shaped by behavioural designers. I see behavioural design as a dark science or wisdom, that consists of rules, principles and tactics that ultimately aim at getting us to act. I think there are only three kinds of behavioural designers: evil designers, bad designers and good designers.

Evil designers: People and institutions that deliberately use design principles to force us to comply to their will.

Bad designers: The big group of people, institutions and belief systems that unintentionally trigger the exact opposite behaviour they intend to shape.

Good designers: People that use design principles to liberate us from the influence of evil and bad design

I think bad design is far worse than evil design because it always takes a while before we learn to notice how the unwanted behaviour that follows from a badly designed system is actually triggered by the system. Let me start by exploring the nature of evil design.

How Evil Design Forces Us To Obey

When the Nazi’s gave a green light for the Holocaust at the Wannsee Conference in 1942, they put the overzealous officer Adolf Eichmann in charge. While planning the deportation, he quickly discovered after a couple of trials that the best way to get his victims to get on the train to the extermination camps was a simple redesign of the check-in procedure. When you invite people to show up for registration and ask them to take one bag with their most important belongings, and you carefully register the bag, you basically design a procedure that gives hope for a happy ending. You make them believe that you will reunite them with their belongings. Laurent Binet explains in his brilliant book HHHH why the bizarre high rate of compliance and the lack of resistance to the call for deportation.

Another example of evil design that filled me with absolute shivers is the concentration camp of Sachsenhausen near Berlin. When I visited this camp a few years ago one observation hit me in the face: Next to the entrance of the camp was an SS training school. The sickness of this design was that it actually designed horrendous behaviour: Young SS’ers were triggered to show their courage and creative cruelty to their peers and superiors by picking out random camp prisoners and play sadistic games with them. Some evil designer must have figured this out. The behaviour that follows from it is fairly easy to predict. There’s a lot to be learned from these dark episodes of our history, by looking at evil behaviour, not as a trait, but as a fairly predictable consequence of the design that triggered it.

Evil design is deeply rooted in every aspect of our daily lives. The reason why our smartphones are so addictive is that the brightest social engineers are constantly working on getting us addicted. Great software is all about designing habits, as Nir Eyal brilliantly demonstrates in his book Hooked. The apps that hook us (Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, etc) all have on thing in common: Social engineers came up with subtle ways to constantly lure their users back into using the app with little beeps, dynamic avatars, status notifications and a never ending the stream of e-mails. Social Engineering is the new discipline that basically aims at addicting us to the apps and interfaces around us. And the amount of money and talent these billion dollar companies throw at getting this right is way bigger than the money and talent that goes into designing healthier behaviour or social programs.

In a recent article on the big success of the collaboration app Slack, the lead designer writes about its secret sauce. It’s interesting to see how the makers have thought about every little detail in order to get users to use, reuse and evangelize the app:

Like a well-built home, great software focuses on giving its users hundreds of small, satisfying interactions. In Slack, every piece of copy is seen as an opportunity to be playful. Where competitor might just have a loading spinner, Slack has funny quotes like, Need to whip up a dessert in a hurry? Dump a bag of oreos on the floor and eat the oreos off the floor like an animal. A strange little injection of fun into an otherwise boring day. Slack acts like your wise-cracking robot sidekick, instead of the boring enterprise chat tool it would otherwise be.

Once one starts looking at persuasive communication from a design perspective, one could easily see that there are social engineers at work in shaping the desired outcome of corporate and political campaigning. Every populist knows that in order to win the hearts, minds and eventually the votes of the masses, one simply needs to have them to look at things through their frame. Fox News can be seen as nothing more than a machine that keeps on reframing everything into a white Republican paternalistic narrative. Protestors are terrorists, Diplomacy is for pussies, Corporations are heroes, the Unemployed are Lazy, Punishment is Good, etc. The Russians learn to see the Ukrainians as terrorists. The IS soldiers learn to see the West as the imperialists that want to destroy Islam. Our European governments want us to look at the Greek as being stubborn and lazy the list is endless. The latest elections in which the Republicans won the Senate in November 2014 can be seen as an incredibly disciplined and orchestrated campaign to win at any cost, as pointed out by The New York Times in this OpEd Negativity wins the Senate. The architect behind this coordinated storyline design is a spin doctor called Frank Lutz.

Republicans would like the country to believe that they took control of the Senate on Tuesday by advocating a strong, appealing agenda of job creation, tax reform and spending cuts. But, in reality, they did nothing of the sort. Even the voters who supported Republican candidates would have a hard time explaining what their choices are going to do. That’s because virtually every Republican candidate campaigned on only one thing: what they called the failure of President Obama. In speech after speech, ad after ad, they relentlessly linked their Democratic opponent to the president and vowed that they would put an end to everything they say the public hates about his administration.


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