Does Design Misinformation Exist?

Maggie Mustaklem
16 Nov 2022

What is Design Disinformation?

What comes to mind when you think of misinformation online? Fake news? Politics? Vaccine hoaxes? Image based online misinformation, in memes and doctored photos, receives receives strong attention in the arenas of politics, race, and health. It is widely reported on in the media and well funded as an area of academic research.

What about Insta-perfect tablescapes? A super cute fall sweater that popped up on Pinterest? A new DIY reel on Tik Tok? What is the link between the well established field of misinformation and these seemingly harmless aesthetic images? How do images shared on social media related to design relate to misinformation?

Before I explain, a major caveat: Within (dis) and (mis)information studies, disinformation is conventionally classified as intent to misinform, whereas misinformation may not intentionally misinform but still misleads. Design falls into the latter - misinformation. Images that have not been intentionally manipulated, but simultaneously may not tell the whole story.

A few examples:

If you search Dutch Design on Pinterest, there is nary a wooden shoe in sight. Instead, you’ll find a lot of super modern contemporary design. As the Netherlands are known as leaders in the contemporary product design space, this may not come as a huge surprise. However, when you key in Indian Design, it pulls up handcrafted, traditional block printed textiles, the types uses as accents in posh English country homes, saris and hand carved furniture. Aside from the issues surrounding who benefits financially from traditional Indian goods (spoiler alert, it’s not the craftsmen), this presents a fetishized, colonial version of India. It omits contemporary product designers entirely. This misinformation is not wrong, per se, but it narrativizes what users of social media platforms see, and what they don’t see. When Dutch and Scandinavian designers remain world leaders, and by far some of the most financially successful in the design world, the role algorithms may have in unwittingly reinforcing their success warrants our attention.

"When we use search platforms to do image based research, especially as designers, how diverse is the content we’re exposed to?."
We care about this with politics, why not design?

Instagram and Reality is a fairly well known concept, where a corner shot of a nightstand can easily hide the mess of everyday life for the ‘gram, shoved into another corner of the room for a photo session. This is a small but perhaps fairly well understood form of misinformation. But Instagram presents other forms of misinformation that are less specific. Unlike Pinterest, where search and keywords are an essential part of the experience, Instagram is all about the browse. While in theory all our grids and stories show us different things, based on our billions of different profiles, do they actually differ all that much? I had an interesting event occur recently. I’m interested in modern interior home design, pining for a terraced Victorian of my own. As a UK resident that follows a lot of home accounts in London, I discovered a house and designer I adored in Los Angeles, Sally Breer - she’s amazing, the very same day a friend of mine discovered the same designer. Aesthetic photos can ossify around key points and go viral just like any other content on the internet. If you’re into modern interior design, you’re likely to see numerous examples of the same aesthetic. When it comes to politics, we understand how our views influence what content we see online. Why would it be any different with aesthetic content? Therein lies a huge problem, as the content we see is being manipulated, via algorithms, to serve us precisely what we want to see. When we use search platforms to do research, especially as designers, how diverse is the content we’re exposed to?

Why should we care?

So what makes this something we should care about on par with other forms of misinformation? Seemingly innocuous trends are engineered socio-technical products. Our values, politics, and with design, often privilege, are enmeshed with our persistent use of social media. As author and programmer Vikram Chandra said, aesthetics are embedded in cultures of power, privilege, gender, and cool.

Beyond professional designers who use these images as inspiration for products that literally shape the world around us, social media, broadly, is increasingly image based. Most people are on some sort of social media platform, sharing, learning and engaging through images and increasingly reels. As images become more prevalent, thinking critically about where this content comes from and who benefits from sharing it is essential. Who decided subway tiles were cool, who benefits from them being cool, who continues to incorporate them because they saw them being used somewhere, has the supply chain increased because they were first spotted in London or Amsterdam or New York? These are broad, open ended questions worth asking.

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