Book review: Ruined By Design

Ruined by Design: How Designers Destroyed the World, and What We Can Do to Fix It by Mike Monteiro

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Mike Monteiro is angry, angry at design, angry at designers he feels are complicit in the design that has ruined things, but he is especially angry at Jack Dorsey and Mark Zuckerberg for their leadership at Twitter and Facebook, respectively.

In recent months (July 2020 as I write this; the book was published in 2019) both social media platforms have taken a few steps to enforce what rules or standards they may have, notably when it comes to the content that Trump posts, but I suspect these minor actions would do nothing to curb Monteiro’s ire—and it really shouldn’t, if you buy in even a little to his central premise.

That premise, presented with enthusiastically crude language, is pretty straightforward: Designers have aided and abetted social media platforms into becoming wretched hives of scum and villainy, by simply doing the work asked of them without questioning it, by never objecting, by never “becoming the change.”

In the introduction, Monteiro lays out his take on the world in general and social media in particular:

“We designed the combustion engine that led to global warming (climate change deniers can just stop reading right now). We designed the guns that kill school children. We designed shitty interfaces to protect our private information. We designed the religions that pitted us against one another. We designed social networks without any way of dealing with abuse or harassment. We designed a financial incentives system that would lead Mark Zuckerberg to assert what’s good for the world isn’t necessarily good for Facebook; and lead Jack Dorsey to believe engagement was a more important metric than safety. Either by action or inaction, through fault or ignorance, we have designed the world to behave exactly as it’s behaving right now. These are our chickens coming home to roost.

The world is on its way to ruin and it’s happening by design.”

From here, Monteiro splits his effort between listing the many crimes committed by design (both literal and figurative—a go to example is the engineer at Volkswagen who was “just doing his job” when he programmed the software that would fake diesel emission test results—and went to prison for his efforts after the scandal broke) and offering possible solutions, with a mix of hope and humility. He doesn’t claim to have all of the answers, but he’s willing to put stuff out there, if only to get conversations started.

Framing design as a political act, Monteiro agitates for change from within (unless you work at Twitter or Uber, he advocates outright quitting those two companies), for designers to question decisions that will lead to bad design or worse, deliberately deceitful or malicious design, to find and work on diverse teams, to use the role of designer to stand up against dark patterns, ethically questionable decisions on handling data and so on.

Monteiro is a UX designer with over 20 years of experience and beings immense passion to Ruined By Design. It’s obvious he deeply cares about design and how it has changed the world for the worse. He admits he may lack precision in language—citing his use of “nickel words”—but his ideas are clearly presented, and argued in extensive detail. It’s hard not to root for what he calls for.

The book is aimed directly at designers and though Monteiro uses a broad brush to indicate just who might qualify as a designer, I am not part of this audience. The closest I get to design is choosing a font for the body text on my blog and I am assuming that I am not making the world an actively worse place by choosing Roboto Slab over Helvetica. But even though this book is not aimed at me, the arguments are so compelling and accessible, and apply to so much of what I interact with on a daily basis—that so many of us interact with on a daily basis—that I find myself recommending it unreservedly.

There is a lot to chew on here, and Mike Monteiro does an excellent job in both illustrating the problems design has caused, and the possible solutions that may mediate the damage done.

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