The intersection between design and authority


I’ve been having an email conversation with the fascinating Erin Hoffman-John about taking part in an Ask the UXperts session, and the conversation got on to the intersection between design and authority.

Erin said:

One thing I’ve been thinking a lot about lately is the intersection between design and authority. When we design we create the rules of the universe for the thing we’re making, and those rules become affordances, which enforce what the player/user can and cannot do. There is an ethical dimension to this. One of the clearest examples we see in games is around avatar selection, and even gender selection – avatars, which gate so many game experiences, reinforce the gender binary and leave gender-fluid people of all kinds confronting their lack of representation in society every time they create an account. The user experience reinforces the societal authority. It gets a lot more subtle than that, but it’s a conversation that I have not heard the design community really have, that relationship between design > rules > authority > ethics.

I’d love to hear your take on this…


Erin makes an excellent point about the connection of design to ethics, and it’s good to see her bringing this directly to the design work itself.

Two additional voices that have strong opinions on this topic are Victor Papanek (in particular his book “Design for the Real World") and Mike Montiero (who has a great talk from Webstock 2013 titled "[URL=“”]How Designers Destroyed the World” which is well worth watching). A couple of points from Victor and Mike to add to Erin’s thinking:
[]Designers get to make things. But design is not just an act of creation but also of choosing what to create.
]Design is not how something looks and feels but also how it works and how it affects people.
[]Taking responsibility is not a nice-to-have design skill—it’s obligatory. You are responsible for what you birth into the world.
]Business decisions go through design. Designers have a role in these decisions.
[]Bad design makes it out into the World not through malicious intent but through no intent at all.
]Victor Papanek in 1974: “There are professions more harmful than industrial design, but only a very few of them.”
[/LIST] Avatars have such a potential for us to re-invent or re-present ourselves—they’re a fundamental element of online identity, and a foundation for other ethical considerations in online behaviour and designing online environments.


This topic is very interesting to me, especially when you use gaming as an example, and the environment that comes with online games. Something that now widely happens (and is only slightly more accepted) is genders creating avatars of the other gender. So for instance me creating a male character to play as. Normally the bias is on Males creating and playing female characters, and I wonder if a lot of this is not just from society but how designers have created the female avatars. A lot of them are still based around large physical attractive features, with very little clothing. Although one comment I had from a male friend who tended to do this was: if I’m going to play a game for a while, I might as well have something good to look at! But at the same time the online world gives people the freedom to be who they want to be, without some of the backlash that can happen in real life.

As part of research and the obligation to design responsibly, how do you think around all of the implications and impact that your designs might have?

For instance, mobiles and online technology has been great and is ever advancing. But now the amount of socialising that occurs, of children that grow up playing games on iPads instead of playing outside being kids… Was this something that was ever taken into account? or was it too much of a sales opportunity?