Adversarial design

The first time I heard the term “adversarial design”, a chess board came to mind. A game based on faceless, angular pieces of descending size, lined up confrontationally across from similar pieces in a contrasting colour, sounds like a design that’s pretty adversarial, right? But adversarial design doesn’t have anything to do with game theory, at least not directly. It does have to do with conflict, and challenge. It refers to design that is meant to change behaviour through provocation.


The term was coined by Georgia Tech’s Carl DiSalvo in the seminal work of the same name for MIT Press. I confess that I haven’t read it, so I can’t summarise the concept with any authority whatsoever. But I thought that the idea was fascinating, wanted to find out a bit more, and have come across some strange examples that you’ll probably find interesting, too. You may not like them, but that’s “adversarial” for you…

Now, all design is supposed to influence us in one way or another, right? The aggression of the red hexagon in a STOP sign makes us take notice. Placing candy at the checkout counter leads to impulse purchases. Advertising persuades, fonts convince and colours reassure. Adversarial design aims to influence on a much less superficial level. It aims to change behaviour permanently, by affecting how we see something. We’re looking at an entirely different level of manipulation.

Let’s consider a harmless example. Look at something near you, on your desk, say, or on the table by the sofa. A lamp, for example. Now, imagine that same, sturdy, unchanging lamp with two big eye stickers on it. Suddenly the lamp has a personality. It’s got these big eyes looking at you. Now, imagine that you have left the lamp on too long, or you have too many lamps on in the house. So the eyes change shape ever so slightly to look really sad. Maybe the eyes on your lamp could even tear up a bit. You’re wasting electricity, and that’s tragic. How heartless. Because of those big eyes, you’d probably find yourself rushing to turn it off. Anything to stop it from being unhappy. You might even find yourself apologizing to your lamp, because it has feelings, after all.


German electricity company E.On is using adversarial design to reduce energy consumption in Sweden. In an ingenious campaign designed by Forsman and Bodenfors, E.On is distributing consumption apps, in which a cute furry creature will thrive or waste away according to your usage. Or, if cute furry creatures don’t do anything for you (hunh?), a fashion designer will play the drums well or badly, or a comedian will either be funny or yell at you. Design influencing behaviour.

DiSalvo’s original concept revolved around the potential impact on political discourse and democratic thinking, and put design smack in the middle of the debating process. Obviously here I’m talking about a much more superficial interpretation, but one which could end up having a much deeper influence on our behaviour and on our relationship to technology. No-one can argue that computers, tablets and phones are getting sleeker and easier to use. To what extent is that conditioning us to use them more? I can’t deny that my iPhone’s curves, the texture of the matt casing, the colour and resolution of the buttons and graphics all conspire to get me to fondle and tap away much more than I actually need to.

So, we’re being manipulated. But before we decry the role of technology and design in a nefarious attempt to take away our humanity, let’s go back to basics. If we don’t water a plant, it dies. Dead plants are not attractive. Therefore, we have an incentive to water them. Babies are adorable, and their chubby cheeks, toothless grins and perfect little fingers trigger a desire to take care of them and make them happy. Adversarial design? No, just nature, in its intelligent, manipulative glory.

We are aesthetic creatures, visuals matter and motivation is a complex system that, in general, can be harnessed for good. It doesn’t hurt, though, to be aware of the impact that design – either by nature or by engineers – can have on our conscious and not-so-conscious decisions. It’s ok to let ourselves be manipulated, as long as we are comfortable with the potential outcome. Saving electricity, taking care of things, performing tasks have positive or at worst benign results. We need to be aware, though, that adversarial design may one day end up having a different connotation.

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