One of the biggest faults of the professional discourse is the failure to thoughtfully examine the real-world ramifications of graphic design. One of the explicit effects of branding is that it can elevate products without outlining their true implications. A change of font in a logo can increase worth of the product it’s selling, but it can also deny access from people who may need it or trick people into thinking it’s something it’s not. Graphic design can do more to intensify income inequality, even if it’s in a passive way, than it can to reduce it. Blogs such as Brand New celebrate logo redesigns and tend to talk more about the font and color choices than what the companies actually represent. Hundreds of thousands of dollars are raised on Kickstarter for reissues of corporate design manuals when perhaps graphic designers could support more timely projects instead of throwing money at these fetishized monuments of capitalist nostalgia. Often times, if graphic designers feel a sense of civic duty (or want people to think that they do), they virtue signal and try to fundraise with enamel pins and tote bags. Civic engagement in a local community could go miles farther without perpetuating consumerism and contributing to designer-as-celebrity.
However, as we all know, existing under capitalism is an inescapable restraint, and every individual has different financial and personal needs. Working in an industry such as advertising (with all its damaging influence) can be a means to an end. Not everyone has the allowance to examine and counteract the systems that they are forced into. Outside forces such as the invoice system structure in the United States make it extremely difficult for individuals to be completely independent of corporations. The options for a young designer burdened with student debt are bleak, and most jobs in the field don’t give designers much agency. To try and fight this, graphic designers need to inform themselves about more than just aesthetics, but about politics and who and what they are designing for. When nuclear warheads start flying over our heads, are we going to sit back and comment on the logos on the missiles? We need to do better.
Weaponised design – a process that allows for harm of users within the defined bounds of a designed system – is faciliated by designers who are oblivious to the politics of digital infrastructure or consider their design practice output to be apolitical
The most common way design is weaponised is through poorly considered tradeoffs, where the ideal user is prioritised over empathetic threat modelling, resulting in features that are at high risk of exploitation. Alongside this year’s Snapchat example, another example of this famously occurred in 2014 when attackers accessed automatic camera roll cloud backups and leaked of intimate photos of mostly female victims from Apple servers9. In that case, the critical key focus is not of the actions of attackers, but rather one of informed consent. One can assume Apple’s designers took a puritan, anti-sex approach to the problem of centralised photo backup: Users don’t sext, and if they do, they wouldn’t object to intimate personal photos being synced to the cloud. As the company transferred millions of users into an opt-out automatic backup service, they failed to articulate the personal implications to their user base.
Design can also be weaponised through team apathy or inertia, where user feedback is ignored or invalidated by an arrogant, culturally homogenous or inexperienced team designing a platform.
Finally, design can be directly weaponised by the design team itself. Examples of this include Facebook’s designers conducting secret and non-consensual experiments on voter behaviour in 2012–2016, and emotional states of users in 201212, and Target, who in 2014 through surveillance ad tech and careful communications design, informed a father of his daughter’s unannounced pregnancy13. In these examples, designers collaborate with other teams within an organisation, facilitating problematic outcomes whose impact scale exponentially in correlation with the quality of the design input.