Trust Design relationship between trust and design
Trust Design was a research project created and directed for Premsela, the Netherlands Institute for Design in Amsterdam to explore the relationship between trust and design: can you design trust? Can you trust design?

Over the course of two years, Trust Design operated as a four-part publication series in collaboration with Volume Magazine (available here), led students at Design Academy Eindhoven on a semester long investigation into designing for trust, talked about the relationship between trust and design at the Milan Design Fair, Amsterdam’s PICNIC festival, and much more.

“Trust is probably the most significant theme of our times. According to Burnham the paradigm has changed. It’s not only design functionality that counts foremost, consumers want to trust that companies and designers have taken care of environmental and social issues as well. Scott Burnham visited the academy various times and had in-depth talks and workshops with the students about trust and design. The results of this period offered a surprising new perspective in the design field, for which I would like to thank Scott Burnham.”

– Louise Schouwenberg, Design Academy Eindhoven
Trust Design

You can purchase the complete four-part Trust Design series here, which explores with trust and design across four themes:

  • Trust Design, and Aging
  • Trust and the Internet of Things
  • Faith is Trust
  • Public Trust

An excerpt from Trust Design…

Trust is a thread that weaves through almost every area of our life. It is comforting when it works and can be catastrophic when it doesn’t.

Design’s functionality used to be measured in a linear fashion. If Object X did Function Y, we were content. But design’s functionality has extended into areas of our lives outside of the direct role of the object. One of many examples is the iPod. When the iPod first appeared it was celebrated as a revolutionary piece of design on which to play music. In reality it altered how we purchased, navigated and interacted with audio entertainment. The impact of the iPhone and iPad has shifted our relationship with communication, information and media even more significantly. The increasing reach and impact of design outside of its initial form brings with it an increased responsibility on behalf of design and the designer. Is the industry ready for an increased responsibility? As Milton Glaser asks in his blog post ’10 Things I’ve Learned’:

It is interesting to observe that in the new AIGA’s code of ethics there is a significant amount of useful information about appropriate behavior towards clients and other designers, but not a word about a designer’s relationship to the public. We expect a butcher to sell us eatable meat and that he doesn’t misrepresent his wares … We can accept certain kinds of misrepresentation, such as fudging about the amount of fat in his hamburger but once a butcher knowingly sells us spoiled meat we go elsewhere. As a designer, do we have less responsibility to our public than a butcher?

Milton Glaser
Bruce Sterling: The relationship between trust and design
Trust Design Interview with Bruce Sterling

As design increasingly transforms our relationship with finance, food, media, public space and more, designers must acknowledge their due responsibility. This begins with the responsibility to increase trust.

Obvious questions arise when contemplating design and trust – how can trust be made a function of design? What are the ingredients for trust in design? Can you design trust?

The core mechanics of trust and those of design are closer than most imagine. Sociologist Marek Kohn’s recipe for the two basic conditions of a trusting relationship in his book Trust: Self-Interest and the Common Good offers a succinct starting point:

  1. The party being trusted will incorporate the trusting party’s interests into its own.
  2. The party being trusted is capable of the actions required.

Layering design terminology onto these conditions for trust, we find that they are aligned with basic notions of design values and functionality:

  • The party being trusted to ‘incorporate the trusting party’s interests into their own’ is a statement that the values of the two parties must be aligned for trust to occur.
  • The condition that ‘the party being trusted is capable of the actions required’ is a statement that expectations of functionality must be satisfied as a condition of trust.

Increasing trust in design is a challenge, but one of great worth. Trust works with mechanics not usually included in design values or functionality. Therein lies the inspiration to world towards a new design language to create conditions for trust as design values.

Trust requires transparency. Transparency enables understanding. Simplicity and authenticity create truth. Truth allows the individual to gauge relevance…. The recipes connecting design and trust begin to sound like dialogues; they are. Trust is a dialogue of conditions and design must enable this dialogue within the design process and between the object, system or service with the public.

The crisis of trust is not born from finance alone. The word ‘trust’ has been used so excessively and carelessly by the graphic design and marketing side of the industry that it has been dried of meaning. While transparency is one element towards creating trust in design, our need for transparency is also an admission that we have lost trust already. (If you really trusted something, why would you need transparency?) The imbalance needs to be addressed.

Ultimately, the essence in the creation of greater trust in design is the creation of value. The value of design has been proven many times over in our history. The value of trust is the foundation of our society, economy and prosperity. The combined value of integrating design and trust is great. It isn’t enough to measure only if we recover from the damage the crisis of trust caused, but how. Will the products, design, communication and services embody new values to in turn create better value in the larger context to strengthen us against another collapse?

As Umair Haque describes it, it’s about thin value vs. thick value: ‘The real crisis isn’t about bankers, bonuses, and bailouts’, Haque writes in the Harvard Business Review. ‘It’s about an economy that’s geared to create thin value; value that’s artificial, meaningless, and often, actually worth little, in human terms. So the real challenge isn’t about … churning out more lowest-common-denominator “products”. It’s about learning to create thicker value: authentic value that endures, resonates, and multiplies.’

While the formal Trust Design project with Premsela has concluded, I still speak frequently on trust and design in cities, public spaces and products and services.

Please get in touch if you’d like discuss me speaking or writing about the relationship between trust and design.