Designing nice things for horrible people

Alastair Somerville
3 min readFeb 6, 2017
Faberge egg

Peter Faberge designed beautiful eggs and other jewelled items for the Czars of Russia between 1885 and 1917 (that last date is quite important to this post).

Artists and designers creating beautiful artefacts for wealthy and powerful people is utterly embedded into human history.

How horrible those clients are has often been skated round as an issue.

  • People need money.
  • People want to stay alive.
  • People don’t have the power to do more in structures of privilege.

This problem: designing nice things for horrible people has come up at Interaction17. The politics of design is a real thing in these early days of Trump. The session with Thomas Wendt and James Auger was excellent on this tension.

Amplifying awfulness

I was already nervous about this point from running a workshop yesterday on techniques to change power balances in usability research. How to use ideas drawn from both disability rights campaigning and indigenous research to empower participants.

These tools were developed for the excluded and unvoiced. Yet the workshop showed that their use in general design might be with user groups who have privilege and power.

Tools developed for diversity and inclusion actually amplifying the awful behaviours of powerful people.

2 ideas

I’m not sure what to do. No one is really.

The two things I’d say for now are:

  • Don’t lose your sense of agency
  • Remember the revolutions

Be strong in yourself

Compliance to authority and to wealth is a hard thing to accept. The feeling of loss of agency and personal autonomy is bad.

If you need money, do the work. Contracts and money replaced threats and barter to gap nice people from horrible people.

If you can use the money earned to do good then do that.

Keep control of your sense of self.

It’s here also that communities and groups help. Structural inequalities of power create stresses for individuals. Use community to relieve that pressure.

Help yourself.

Help each other.

Remember the revolutions

Execution of the French King

Another way of thinking about it is to remember some history.

Faberge stopped making eggs for the Romanovs because the Czars were overthrown by the Russian Revolution.

Designing nice things for horrible people now does not mean they remain in power and privilege for ever.

Finally, remember the French Revolution.

The philosophies of the Revolution were actually funded by the French aristocracy. Their salons were where impoverished designers and writers were paid to attend and show off novel ideas.

The possibility of using design to embed the fall of the horrible people is worth thinking about.

Using the wealth of horrible people to create the beautiful designs that will lead to their loss of power and privilege.

It’s worked before.



Alastair Somerville

Sensory Design Consultant, usability researcher and workshop facilitator. Twitter @acuity_design & @visceralUX