Does Design Lie to You?

4th September 2023
6 min read

This one goes deep, you may want to buckle up.

No. 6 in Dieter Rams' 10 Principals for Good Design is:

Good design is honest.

More specifically, he says:

It does not make a product more innovative, powerful or valuable than it really is. It does not attempt to manipulate the consumer with promises that cannot be kept.

But is good design really that honest? Can good design lie to you?

The answer is yes. Yes, it can definitely lie to you. However, that's not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, in some ways being manipulated by design improves usability and the user experience.

For the sake of this argument however, I do not consider this to be dishonest design. This is how good design communicates, and it is far more subtle. As strange as it may sound, good design can manipulate you while continuing to remain entirely honest. I will cover that in a future post.

This is not the topic for today however. Today it's about what is honest design, and what that really means.

So what is honest design?

While I'm no sworn disciple of the 10 commandments principles, it sets an excellent baseline for what good design is. So much so that these principals have been quoted and interpreted for decades. Young designers could do a lot worse then use them as a guide. Yet despite having been around a very long time, the meaning of honest design is rarely fully understood.

Rams' statement is broken into two sentences. I do not believe this is by accident. As a man known for his careful and deliberate application of design, the same must also be true for his design principles.

There are two ways to look at how design may or may not be honest. This is very subtle, so let's take a look:

1. Design honest to itself

It does not make a product more innovative, powerful or valuable than it really is.

In this first sentence, the product is what is being subjected to the design.

This simply means the design should not permit the product to pretend to be something it's not.

The saying "you're only lying to yourself" holds true for products as it does for people. Everyone knows the truth, and it's only you trying to convince yourself otherwise. It just makes you look bad.

Cars and most luxury goods are notable offenders in this category. Let's take the 2020 Audi S6 Diesel as a perfect example. As you can clearly see below, the 'exhaust' visible to the user is nothing more than a couple of vacuum metallised plastic tubes affixed to the rear skirt. It is not an exhaust at all (and with the exception of a few microns on the outside, it's also not metal at all). The real exhaust dumps out under the car. It is entirely likely some owners will never know where the exhaust exits the car.


You're probably asking then, "Lincoln, according to Rams' definition, isn't the S6 making itself more powerful than it really is?"

My answer is no. A key point to note is if the design only lies to itself, it has no measurable impact on user experience. For this specific example, the diesel S6 is no slouch. It looks powerful and is powerful. How it does it, and how it looks like it does it, are just different. The owner of an S6 that never knows where the exhaust points does not have their user experience of the car diminished because of it.

Design that is not honest to itself just makes itself look bad.

2. Design honest to the user.

It does not attempt to manipulate the consumer with promises that cannot be kept.

In the second sentence, the consumer is subjected to the design.

This means if the design communicates a specific quality of the product that the consumer perceives to be true. Then it should be true.

Power tools that look tough, should be tough. Medical devices that look clean, should be clean (and cleanable). If the consumer believes a design to have a certain quality based on their perception of that design (as intended by the designer), then it should have that quality. If it does not, it is lying to the user. It is negatively affecting the experience of that product.

Staying with the car theme, the DeLorean DMC-12 is an excellent example. If you put away your rose coloured Doc Brown glasses, the DMC-12 was a lemon. There was enough hype for the DMC-12 that there was a waitlist to buy one, and many paid over retail at launch. It looked fast, but that was as close as it ever got to being the sports car it was supposed to be. It was slow, handled poorly, and build quality sucked. Even by 1981 standards. It made promises to the consumer it couldn't keep. (DeLorean was broke within two years.)


In extreme circumstances dishonest design in this sense can be far more insidious.

Design that is not honest to the user makes it bad for the user.

Putting them together.

Like the DeLorean, a design can be honest to itself while still lying to the user. Inversely, in the example of the Audi S6, it can be honest to the user but lie to itself.

It is also possible (and likely) that if the design is not being honest, then it is often both. It lies to the user and it lies to itself. This is perhaps why the distinction in how design can be honest or dishonest is often lumped into a single definition.

The design tries to hide its fakery to the user with more fakery.

I said it was subtle.

Putting it in practice.

The nuances of honest design is nice in theory, but how does that translate into practical design?

If we come back to Rams' principal:

It does not make a product more innovative, powerful or valuable than it really is. It does not attempt to manipulate the consumer with promises that cannot be kept.

To that end, your design should first and foremost be honest to its users. If the design looks powerful, it should be powerful. If it looks rugged, then it should be rugged. If it looks valuable, then it should be valuable. Do not let the user down by your design not being what they think it is. If you are honest to your users, it is much easier to be honest with the product.

And yes, your design should also be honest to itself. It should be open about the constraints imposed on the design and embrace them. It should explore ways to present itself honestly. It should look for new opportunities that embrace those constraints. It should use honest materials and finishes, and leverage those things to their own benefit. If it must be plastic, embrace the plastic. If it must have a giant hinge, embrace the hinge. Design should not add elements that pretend to be something they are not, or hide things as if they were not there.

If you'd like to get a bit deeper in manipulative design and Rams' 10 principles, John Mauriello of Design Theory has two videos which are an excellent watch.

Minimalism is Getting Absurd: Updating Dieter Rams' 10 Principles

How Brands Use Design & Marketing to Control Your Mind

I plan to write every week on the topics of design, medtech, and my journey in it. If you'd like to follow along, feel free to either subscribe to the newsletter or give me a follow on LinkedIn.

ⓒ Lincoln Black 2024

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