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The Art of Design Persuasion

I am currently co-teaching a Masters of Human Centered Interaction + Design (MHCI+D) course in ideation at the University of Washington. The class is focused on ideation and sketching, but we decided that it would be good to introduce them to some visual design principles so that they could more effectively communicate their ideas to their audiences.

One of the sections was about hierarchy and how that can be used to not only break their ideas into smaller chunks of information that are easier for the audience to understand, but as the designer, you can decide what information your viewer sees first. It was this small, but important point that one of my students latched on to: If there is all this control, can’t you present information in a different order to change the truth? Talk about a loaded question.

Of course my initial response was that yes, that is exactly what these design principles can be used for, but you should only use it for good! (Envision me with my pom poms cheerleading for design at the front of the lecture at this point…haha). Then as a teacher, someone that is supposed to guide and influence their thinking, I really struggled to think of the right way to answer it. It was an ethical question that I know I had struggled with in the past, but hadn’t given it a ton of thought recently. Luckily over the next week, several things presented themselves, forcing me to think about that concept even more.

Shortly afterwards, I discovered an article that had been written by National Geographic called How to Make Maps and Influence People. The article discusses the use of persuasive cartography or propaganda maps throughout history.  Propaganda is defined by Webster as “information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote or publicize a particular political cause or point of view.” Sound familiar?



“The Awakening” Newly incorporated western states gave women the vote well before those in the East, partly for the purpose of increasing their electoral power. This 1915 cartoon from Puck magazine celebrates the arrival of universal suffrage in the West—and suggests that Lady Liberty is headed east. Two years later New Yorkers voted to expand the franchise.
• P.J. MODE COLLECTION OF PERSUASIVE CARTOGRAPHY AT CORNELL UNIVERSITY 


Now history is littered with these little gems. As stated in the article, “We depend on maps every day—to navigate, to check the weather, to understand the world. Perhaps because maps typically depict the real world, they are one of the most trusted forms of visual communication.” This article makes a great point early on: there is some inherent trust that comes along with every piece of visual communication that is made. It looks legitimate, polished, and usually trustworthy. However, once you learn these design principles, you’ve seen behind the curtain. You know that these skills can be used to easily not tell the truth.

So what is a designer to do? The point of showing these maps is to acknowledge that once these visual design principles are learned, there is a responsibility that is shouldered by that designer. These principles are powerful tools, regardless of if they are used for good, bad, or the gray area. They should be treated as such. At the end of the day, each person with these skills will always sit at an intersection of their ethics, deciding if they’re comfortable with their actions or not.

Now I didn’t leave my student hanging. I knew I had to come up with an answer that would not only satisfy them, but myself as a designer and an educator. I wavered for a few moments and then finally found my thread of truth. I explained that now that she had been taught these skills, it was her responsibility to decide how she used them throughout her career. As her teacher, I told her it was my responsibility to guide her in our time together and positively reinforce the importance of these skills. As a designer, she had done me a favor by making me question my own motives and ethics behind my skills, and subsequently all of my readers.

Consider the Hippocratic Oath taken by new physicians. In it they promise to uphold their ethical standards and basically use their clearly powerful skills for good. Everyone understands that there will be times when they have to make tough calls or moments of uncertainty, but at their core is that oath. Once I discovered the power of design, I always wondered why we didn’t have to take an oath. Perhaps I just found my new project…

The Hippocratic Oath


View the full, high-resolution P.J. Mode Collection of Persuasive Cartography at Cornell University here. There are some really spectacular examples!

Have your own view on design and ethics? Share your thoughts in the comments below!