Regarding his most famous work—the classic “I♥️NY” graphic—Glaser said at age 90: “You know, I don’t know what makes it powerful. I mean, of course the mystery of what we do is a deeper mystery to ourselves than anyone else.”

He was speaking to an interviewer for a PBS special about his life’s work that includes the New York Magazine logo, the Brooklyn Brewery branding, and the psychedelic Bob Dylan poster. It was one of his last interviews before passing away in 2020, and Glaser appeared mentally sharp and introspective—ready for what was to come after leaving Earth. After being a designer for nine decades, he seemed at peace with his work and self.

graphic designer Milton Glaser, creator of the I ♥ NY logo
Milton Glaser, creator of the I ♥ NY logo
New York Magazine logo
New York Magazine logo by Milton Glaser
Milton Glaser Dylan Artwork
Psychedelic Bob Dylan poster created by Milton Glaser

Legend has it Glaser would present 12 hypotheticals to his students about the steps leading to design hell. He got the idea while working on an illustration for Dante’s Inferno, so he made a distinction between despair and hope in the design realm.

If a designer finds themself in purgatory, they are fully aware of the actions that led them there and thus have hope for redemption. If they aren’t aware of their actions, they’re doomed for all eternity.

If design is your religion and you subscribe to a list of sins, Glaser laid them out:

  1. Designing a package to look bigger on the shelf.
  2. Designing an ad for a slow, boring film to make it seem like a lighthearted comedy.
  3. Designing a crest for a new vineyard to suggest that it has been in business for a long time.
  4. Designing a jacket for a book whose sexual content you find personally repellent.
  5. Designing a medal using steel from the World Trade Center to be sold as a profit-making souvenir of September 11.
  6. Designing an advertising campaign for a company with a history of known discrimination in minority hiring.
  7. Designing a package aimed at children for a cereal whose contents you know are low in nutritional value and high in sugar.
  8. Designing a line of T-shirts for a manufacturer that employs child labor.
  9. Designing a promotion for a diet product that you know doesn’t work.
  10. Designing an ad for a political candidate whose policies you believe would be harmful to the general public.
  11. Designing a brochure for an SUV that flips over frequently in emergency conditions and is known to have killed 150 people.
  12. Designing an ad for a product whose frequent use could result in the user’s death.

A question of ethics

While building products for our users, ethics is always top of mind at Dropbox. As a content designer, it’s my job not only to influence the perception our users have of our products but also to avoid dark patterns in the UI and make copy as clear as possible for a good experience.

We actually cover several ethics scenarios and the best way to approach them here.

Glaser’s 12 steps to hell are filled with infinite gray areas, but at least they create awareness of what can lead to the ultimate gray area. Purgatory is scary, but on the spectrum of fire and brimstone, design hell sounds a lot scarier.

This leads to a discussion of design and professional ethics and how you should approach the 12 steps.

Do you treat them as a checklist, aiming to avoid steps that could lead you into the abyss?

If you’re aware of the steps that lead to design hell yet take them anyway, does that mean you have no hope for redemption?

What if you can’t avoid committing these offenses?

While this was the intention of Glaser’s classroom discussions—to harp on the hypotheticals—we know life is complicated, especially when it comes to designing solutions for users.

Glaser’s original 12 steps were centered on graphic design, but for this discussion I’ve updated them to relate to product design and today’s world.

The New 12 Steps That (Might) Lead You to Product Design Hell

  1. Knowingly design dark patterns or other deceptive interactions.
  2. Ignoring alt-text descriptions and other accessibility features.
  3. Designing a feature that copies another platform.
  4. Designing for a company you ethically or politically disagree with.
  5. Building features that enable doomscrolling.
  6. Designing for a product that can potentially be used for harm.
  7. Designing in-your-face paywalls that seem like the gates of hell.
  8. Designing without user empathy.
  9. Designing without collaborating with a diverse team of individuals.
  10. Using copy associated with historical racism, war, death, or similar traumas.
  11. Designing for a product that could ultimately take advantage of working-class, marginalized folks.
  12. Designing for a company that exploits gig workers.

These new 12 steps are for thinking about design-ethic scenarios at a higher level, to be fully aware and to avoid design hell.

As Glaser said in an interview back in 2017, the only thing that makes your life meaningful is your relationship with other human beings. When designing products, the first thing we think about is who will use it. The relationship between the team that designs products and those who use them seems to be—by Glaser’s standards—the key to meaningfulness.

The new 12 steps to product design hell will help you think more strategically about users, the design process, and the decisions you’re making.

How to add these steps to your design practice

One of the best ways to improve your everyday design practice is to make yourself fully conscious of the design sins you might commit—in the same way Glaser did with his students—and discuss the repercussions.

Explore these 12 sins to find your boundaries as a design org. Being proactive is preferable to undoing dark patterns and poor user empathy after a product has been designed. This discussion will create cohesion in your team so that users are better served and bad experiences can be avoided.

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