Review: 'Ruined by Design' by Mike Monteiro

Us designers are more than pixel-pushers. We are the gatekeepers. Monteiro's book is a manifesto for design advocacy and ethics.

Atom bomb test at Bikini Atoll in the Pacific, 1946
Atom bomb test at Bikini Atoll in the Pacific, 1946

Dieselgate. Cambridge Analytica, Facebook and the US elections. The Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a database for keeping track of immigrants, and Palantir. Hate speech, the Alt-Right and Twitter. Google Photo AI and racism. The White Boys’ Club of Silicon Valley. The Apple Credit Card and gender bias…

…Guns, deforestation, genetically-modified food, the atom bomb.

We designers didn’t just fail to prevent such global societal problems from happening – we designed the world to fall apart.

'Ruined by Design: How Designers Destroyed the World' by Mike Monteiro
'Ruined by Design: How Designers Destroyed the World' by Mike Monteiro

Mike Monteiro’s Ruined by Design: How Designers Destroyed the World, and What We Can Do to Fix It whacks those of us making design decisions upside the head to make one point clear: The things we help design, what we choose not to design and who we ignore during the design process are all political acts with real consequences for society and humanity.

In a colorful language (I counted 41 F words and 63 SH words) and an in-your-face style aimed at pissing you off, Monteiro argues:

“‘But Mike, the decision to include some of this stuff is made beyond my pay grade!’ is a thing said by people who’ve never actually tried to fight something above their pay grade. Also, it’s bullshit. Making ethical calls on what goes on the interface is exactly what you are being paid to do. So, if you’re not doing it, you’re actually not doing your job. You’re as much of a stakeholder as anyone in that building.”

As I read the book, I couldn’t help get pissed off – at myself. For the times earlier in my career when I took project “requirements” at face value. For not standing up to the dudes who make buttloads of money and call the shots (yes, they’re almost always males). For not asking WHY? and firmly saing NO! For the times I wasn’t doing my job.

I know, you might be thinking: “Hey, cut me some slack, Jack. I didn’t know the boss wanted to use that consent form to harvest data and sell it to companies.” But Monteiro says design work is way more than just pixel-pushing; designers need to influence strategy, metrics, timelines, definitions, goals. Designers need to advocate for the people who are not in the room when decisions are being made:

“Designing something without understanding the ramifications of what it does is as unethical as designing something you know to be harmful.”

If you’re like me, thoughts have plagued you about not doing enough to help change the world for the better. Monteiro argues that you don’t have to quit your job and join a nonprofit. Be the gatekeeper at your current job; fight on inside to prevent harm to society:

“When no one else around you is asking the hard questions, when no one else around you is standing up for the people who entrust their personal information and their relationship statuses to your service… that’s when we need you the most.”

Some of the things you can directly fight in day-to-day design work: dark patterns, addictive software, data collection, misuse by bad guys (why are they always guys?). And because your company is a socio-political entity, you can stand up for workforce equality and diversity. And you can advocate for accountability for your company’s environmental and social impact, use of AI, etc.

How to fix things? Monteiro says:

  1. Persuade others: speak up, “be the expert” by doing your research, admit what you don’t know, be a story teller.
  2. Disrupt the system: be willing to get fired, gum up the works, be the whistleblower, sabotage the system.
  3. Band together: Work to make the work culture more diverse and inclusive (e.g. tell the guy who always interrupts women to shut the hell up), make allies within the organization and in the design community, organize walkouts.

I needed some real-life examples of how to make those things work – How do you really organize a walkout? How do you know if your team is diverse enough? How can you become a great story teller? – but I guess Monteiro’s point was that we as designers gotta get off our duff and make a difference.

Monteiro makes a strong case for establishing professional organizations for licensing and regulating designers, likening design as a profession to law and medicine:

“Do I care if you have a license when you’re designing data collection for two billion people? Yes, I do. […] I care that you know what you’re doing. I care that you understand the job and the ethics behind the job. I care that someone has tested you on this knowledge and you’ve passed those tests.”

But while I felt riled up about designer accountability, I couldn’t help but ask myself, “well why don’t you start up an organization, Mr. Monteiro?”

Still, if you’re a designer or make design decisions, you should read Ruined by Design. Even if you might disagree with some of his ideas, you’ll think twice before adding another form field to your UI.


Sources

Monteiro, Mike. Ruined by Design: How Designers Destroyed the World, and What We Can Do to Fix It. Mule Books, 2019. Kindle edition.

When We Tested Nuclear Bombs”. Alan Taylor. The Atlantic. Online, May 6, 2011. Accessed: November 19, 2019.


Published: Nov 19, 2019

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