In recent years, several calls have been made for a more critical and ethical engagement of design and designers, for rethinking their role in a fast-changing and challenging world, and contributing to a more equitable and just society. As some authors have noted, though, the road is fraught with dilemmas, as design is entangled with, and complicit in, the very systems and processes it aims to critically readdress (Scherling & De Rosa, 2020; Drucker, 2020). The issue of trust illuminates one such dilemma.
“… good design instills trust. If you go to someone’s website, and everything is slick and well-made and easy to navigate, you are instantly much more comfortable with whatever they’re selling. […] If your customer-facing assets […] look good, it tends to infer that everything behind the scenes looks good and works well, regardless of whether that is true. […] Focus on the design, and much of the trust will come.” (Korchagin, 2017)
Trust is one of the central aspects of our being human, of our being social. Every day we, individually and collectively, trust ourselves to others to fulfill essential functions of our living and to extend our agency in the world, to satisfy our needs and to pursue our interests, from work to education, from commerce to politics. Increasingly, this relationship is mediated and constructed through technologies, and design is one key factor in the process. From interactive interfaces to information graphics, design has the power to make trust easy, smooth and enjoyable. In design fields such as UX, building trust is the subject of specific recommendations, techniques and training; in others, it is assumed that good, effective design will bring/gain trust. After all – the mantra of good design goes – design is a force of progress that is aimed at improving people’s lives and making the world a better place.
The ability to instill trust, however, isn’t necessarily a good thing. Certainly, it doesn’t mean being reliable and trustworthy. By definition, trust always expose to manipulation, deception and betrayal: trust doesn’t require trustworthiness, it always implies that one accepts some level of uncertainty, of risk and vulnerability. And design, for its part, can deceive. As the quote above (in all its naivety) reminds us, design can build and engender trust regardless of trustworthiness – just as it can make things look good, regardless of whether they actually are good. Indeed, the same design techniques, strategies and solutions can efficiently serve different ends – not always the good ones.
So, should we trust design?
“As an applied discipline that combines art, science and technology, cartography inevitably involves a struggle between the opposing forces of personal, subjective artistic expression and of impersonal, objective spatial communication. […] The greatest tension, however, lies between certainty and uncertainty; between knowledge and faith. Maps need both to work. We turn to maps for certainty and knowledge, yet the world is in flux and maps show us what we cannot immediately experience or verify. Maps exercise our faith by encouraging us to believe what we cannot see. But they also exercise our faith in the cartographer’s commitment to communicate truthfully (whether or not this is achieved), which lends maps their authority.” (Kent, 2017)
In the field of visual design and specifically of information design, the issue of trust is particularly relevant – after all, seeing is believing. Throughout history mankind has designed, used and trusted visual forms to shape its understanding of and its relationship with the world, its being in the world. Cartography is probably the most typical example of this endeavor, and one in which the power of design and the risk of trusting are most evident.
Maps can expand our knowledge, but they never are fully objective, they always are interpretative and partial. As Alexander Kent notes (2017), maps always involve “a struggle between the opposing forces of personal, subjective artistic expression and of impersonal, objective spatial communication”, between “certainty and uncertainty”. In practice, while one may know, to some degree, that maps are constructed, that they can be misleading, or even lie, s/he will tend, when in need of orientation, to trust their authority.
In recent decades, people’s need for orientation has reached a new scale, and the use of visual forms of knowledge has become more widespread, and more complex. The increasing availability of information and, above all, of data offered by computational systems, and the advancement of digital technologies, have made information graphics and data visualizations flourish, their production and circulation more accessible. These visual forms have become ubiquitous modes for presenting and delivering knowledge, not only in specialized fields, such as science, research and education, but in every field of our life – just think of the rise of visual journalism. For some years, in the new millennium, the specialists of information and data visualization have been hailed as gurus capable of reducing information anxiety, of helping people trust, navigate and even enjoy the beauty of big data.
The boom and recognition of information design, though, has not improved significantly the public understanding of design and data, of their specific qualities. Particularly, the implications of their constructed and interpretive – and potentially misleading – nature have received little attention. The assumption that “what you see is what is there” has remained dominant. Practitioners, for their part, have done little to shake it, generally aligning – implicitly or explicitly – with the idea that data and design are objective and transparent, and mostly focusing, in their discussion of information design, on usability or formal issues (Hall, 2011).
In recent years, several scholars have denounced the lack of critical reflection around the constructed quality of data and design, and the empiricist and positivist views that seem to pervade the practice and discourse of design. They have called for the need to deconstruct the persisting “aura” of objectivity, certainty and neutrality with which visual artifacts and interfaces are often presented and used (see Drucker, 2009, 2014; Hall, 2011; Kent, 2017; Berger, 2020). Significantly, these authors have not just made a plea for a theoretical discussion, but have urged for a critical design practice capable of making the intrinsically contingent, situated, interpretative, ambiguous and even uncertain nature of information and design truly transparent; for a qualitative approach capable of combining the traditional task of informing with that of building a less stable and objective idea of knowledge in the eyes and mind of the beholder. A more “humanistic” approach, in the words of Johanna Drucker, a firm supporter of the centrality of the visual forms of knowledge production. Such an approach, it can be argued, would also help design go beyond the rhetorics of trust, and be more trustworthy.
Can design be trustworthy?
“The post-truth world is hard on […] information designers. An increasing number of readers are less likely to trust news articles that reference quantitative data than those that stick to qualitative anecdotes. Fake news spread further, faster than real news. Tufte’s rules of graphical excellence have been co-opted by bad actors. The way forward requires that the authors of information design admit to the uncertainty in their data, pursue new formats and platforms for telling today’s data stories, and let their humanity feature in their work, rather than ignoring or denying it.” (Berger, 2020)
A critical understanding of design and a critical approach to designing are all the more urgent in the post-truth era. The same technologies that helped advance the production, circulation and accessibility of data and of information design have had some perverse effects: not only have they broken down the boundaries between the professional and the amateurish, and overturned the traditional, hierarchical and centralized media system in favor of more distributed forms and platforms of communication – notably, social media –, they have also contributed to blur the boundaries between information and misinformation, facts and opinions, truth and fake news. Eventually they helped undermining not just the trustworthiness of information and communication but also trust, people’s intention to accept the risk of vulnerability, to form relationships with others. The post-truth world is in fact also a post-trust world. The full-blown erosion of trust we are experiencing in our societies (trust in information and media, in institutions and politics etc.), however, does not make people any less exposed to deception. On the contrary, generic distrust can only leave people more insecure and vulnerable to deliberate deception, deprived of the tools, knowledge and ability to know and to act change.
Design is certainly not the only responsible for this condition, to which, however, it contributes. Visual forms, including infographics, are ideal for being disseminated and exchanged through the new channels of communication such as social media, where the fast pace of circulation and consumption exceed the logic and time of critical reflection (Peters, 2017; Kent, 2017). One may wonder, then, if design and designers can still play a differential role or will definitively surrender to deception.
Can design re-build trust?
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