Persistent Fools

Cunning Intelligence and the Politics of Design

Back in the fall of 2014 while editing and revising my first book and finally having some time to read things that were not directly related to that project, I stumbled across a provocative thesis on the relationship between design and deception. We commonly cast design in honest, benevolent terms: design creates new things and experiences, “solves problems,” and restructures our worlds in order to create futures that are more preferable than the present. While true, these conceptions of design tend to leave out the basic idea that any introduction of the artificial tends to do a certain amount of violence to the “natural,” however we choose to define it. Artificial, designed interventions introduce change, and depending on our conceptions of truth and reality, we can read this change as a fundamental deception of what already exists.

Once the current book was published, I began researching these ideas, leading me down multiple paths, from trickster mythology to ethics. After many months of compiling research, I landed on the tentative title of Persistent Fools: Cunning Intelligence and the Politics of Design. As it stands, the book outline contains material on rationalist design history and technical mediation, discussions of tricksters and the role of deception, the deception-design relationship, and how we can read the deceptive qualities of design to articulate new perspectives on design ethics. 

I am including a draft of the book’s introduction below. 

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“If the fool would persist in his folly he would become wise.”(Blake, 1927)

“The briefest rummage through the dictionary reveals implies that designers aren’t to be trusted.” (Singleton, 2013)

The trickster archetype has been with us since the beginning of artistic expression. From ancient mythology to modern popular culture, tricksters have shaped our conception of reality and the role of deception in everyday life. Prometheus and Hermes, as two of the original tricksters, have evolved in to figures such as Puck from A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Q from Star Trek: The Next Generation. The main practice of the trickster is cunning intelligence, bending the truth and manipulating situations to suit his (the trickster is almost always male) needs. He becomes skillful at deceptive practice, honing his skills as if his life depends on it, as it often does. The work of the trickster is to recognize his situation and the elements in his environment; realize what his end goal might be, whether to eat, copulate, acquire wealth, or simply escape a dangerous situation; devise a plan by which he might manipulate his environment in order to deceive an opponent, often through outsmarting the opponent without actually being smarter than them; and finally, to carry out that plan with grace so as not to alert his opponent of the deception in progress. I want to argue in this book that the trickster has much in common with the designer: from reading their current environment, to planning future scenarios, and even to using deception to carry out these plans. There is an inherent link between design and deception, but instead of reading deception as simply a destructive, malevolent force, I want to show how deception and trickery can be used to articulate an ethics of design. I will also show how the use of cunning intelligence can be beneficial for both designer and user—for the designer as a means of circumventing rationalist impulses and driving toward deeper, more sustainable design innovation, and for users as an emancipatory means of restrictive scripts placed upon them by designers.

I first came across the question of design and deception through Vilém Flusser’s work, particularly an essay in The Shape of Things entitled A Word About Design (Flusser, 2013), in which Flusser draws a connection between design as an act of planning and an act of cunning. The word “design” has its etymological roots in “planning,” “drawing,” “sketching,” and other words we quite naturally equate with design practice. But “design” is also related to “scheming” and cunning intelligence. As a designer who got his beginnings in the heyday of human-centered design, it struck me as both interesting and disturbing that design is so fundamentally, at least linguistically, related to scheming, which of course calls to mind various conceptions of cunning, deception, trickery, etc. The positive side of me sees design as a benevolent force, contributing to the betterment of humans and the world. But the admittedly more vocal pessimist in me sees the darker side of design, the side that contributes to hatred, violence, natural resource depletion, and oppressive politics. As François Laurelle (2012) describes philosophy as a “harassment of thought,” this connection between design and the deceptive qualities of trickery and scheming began to harass me. I wanted to reconcile the benevolent and malevolent forces in design, while at the same time resisting the binary lens of “good and bad” design.

Thus, I began work on this book. The research took me in many directions: conceptions of nature through history, trickster mythology, the psychology of deception, etymology, utopia studies, ethical philosophy, contemporary design practice…all of which will be discussed in the coming pages. What began as a raised eyebrow to Flusser’s short essay nested within a larger collection turned in to many months of intriguing and at times dizzying research. Now as I put pen to page, or fingertips to keyboard, I still lack a comprehensive strategy for where I am going, what I will say, and why it will even matter. But I suppose a letting-go of the need to plan, rationalize, and map out details is part of the point of this book. It is an act of persistent foolishness, and as the argument will (hopefully) emerge in later chapters, embracing foolishness and improvisation is a necessary skill among designers — whether designing payment systems in developing countries, mobile applications that help people meet their next mate, or even a book. As cheesy as it sounds, I am experimenting with a “trickster approach” to writing this book, with little outlining or planning, writing nomadically with no real home base, reactively adapting to what emerges in the argument, taking opportunities when they come, and crossing some disciplinary boundaries. The main difference is that I will certainly edit my work.

This is not to say, however, that this is a stream-of-consciousness book. Some planning is necessary for design in order to imagine possible futures, as Tim Ingold (2013) so aptly puts it: “We cannot make the future, however, without also thinking it. What then is the relation between thinking and making? To this, the theorist and the craftsman would give different answers. It is not that the former only thinks and the latter only makes, but that the one makes through thinking and the other thinks through making.” While there is a strong thread of advocacy for adaptability over rigid planning running through this book, the point is not to completely eliminate strategic planning; rather, it it to highlight the advantages and disadvantages of both strong planning and improvisation, with an equal weight on each, as opposed to a strong preference for one that we see in much design literature. I will attempt to resist setting up binary relationships between academic/theoretical and industry/practical design. I want to show how this separation is detrimental through the lens of deception, trickery, and design. My interest is to further develop how the theorist and craftsperson are not separate, and that there is value in one incorporating the skills of the other. The conceptual and practical distance between thinking and making is a relic of past rationalistic modes. Design must move past it.

One of the main goals of this book is to take a deep look at this apparent relationship between design and deception, paying specific attention to how this relationship can contribute to design ethics. This is an uncomfortable conversation. Especially with the emergence of human-centered design and an overall warm-and-fuzziness that commercial design attempts to promote, suggesting that design is inherently connected to deceptive practices and cunning intelligence is a bit taboo. Nonetheless, I want to argue that while deception can have malevolent qualities, we do not need to rely on such extreme definitions. Deception can occur on a much more mundane level and can even be beneficial in some cases. There is, of course, a boundary line between too much and too little, which I will attempt to articulate, using design practices and products as examples. Similarly, I will explore the spectrum of rationality in design, from the hard positivism of much commercial design practice to the unwieldy playfulness of the trickster archetype, in attempt to show where the two might meet.

We design because we are not at home in the world, because nature is lacking. Our environment lacks the necessary components of what humans, as an evolved species, desire. If nature, however we define it, was adequate to provide for all our whims and pleasures, design would not be necessary.But the natural world is not enough. Perhaps as the ultimate narcissistic act, we shape what has been provided for us — sometimes for good, sometimes for evil, sometimes for something in between — to meet our ever-expanding expectations of what it means to live a good life. On one hand, it is liberating and invigorating to know that humans take such an active stance in their world, bending natural materials to suit their needs; on the other, one might point to the many wicked problems human evolution has directly caused or contributed to — from global warming, to the increasing gap between rich and poor, to mass warfare, to citizen surveillance — in order to see the detrimental effects of design. This is the Anthropocene, and it’s not pretty. Whether these problems are the result of some evil genius’s master plan or the unfortunate effects of otherwise well-intentioned individuals is irrelevant to the current study. These problems were designed. They are the result of the human need to make a home, to dwell in a place that was not meant for them, because it was not meant for anything. In this way, the built environment deceives nature, defined as that which existed before intervention.

Design theorists from Herbert Simon (1996) to Tony Fry (2015) have argued that the proper study of humankind is the study of design. It is an extreme statement that certainly does not account for the entire study of humankind, but nonetheless, the idea here is that we cannot understand ourselves without understanding the things we create, care for, and dwell within. The objects that make up our environment, context, habitus, etc., retroactively influence the ways we think, feel, and act. One role of being is to learn how to dwell with what we create. Heidegger (1971) sets up a reciprocal relationship between building and dwelling, in which Dasein — the being who exists as self-consciously thrown into a particular context — cannot build without dwelling and cannot dwell without building. If individual being is literally thrown into a pre-existing context, design becomes a way of actively caring for the things given to us and creating new things for us to encounter, cope with, and use to augment the given environment. The following chapters will study the nature of dwelling through the lens of deception. If we frame dwelling as deception, what emerges from this new conceptual ground?

The difficulty with studying design is attempting to mediate the temporal dimensions planning and action; that is, the activity of design is always a future-focusing practice, but the critique of design is backward-looking. As Hannah Arendt (2013) says, “In contradistinction to fabrication, where the light by which to judge the finished product is provided by the image or model perceived beforehand by the craftsman’s eye, the light that illuminates processes of action, and therefore all historical processes, appears only at their end…Action reveals itself fully only to the storyteller, that is, to the backward glance of the historian, who indeed always knows better what it was all about than the participants.” Yet another goal of this book is to explore how to reduce the temporal gap between design practice and design critique by hopefully encouraging designers to incorporate critical-ethical practice into their work with greater care than ever before. Michel Foucault (1997) highlights the liberating quality of critique with his delightful definition of critique as “the art of not being governed quite so much,” and even further “critique is the movement by which the subject gives himself the right to question truth on its effects of power and question power on its discourses of truth. Well, then: critique will be the art of voluntary insubordination, that of reflected intractability.” (ibid)

This book is an exercise in intractability. It will ask difficult questions and provide insufficient but honest answers. The real test, however, is its capacity to foster a deeper sense of criticality and ethical responsibility in the reader.


Comments and critiques are welcome.

Arendt, Hannah. The Human Condition. University of Chicago Press, 2013.

Blake, William, and Max Plowman. The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. JM Dent and Sons limited, 1927.

Flusser, Vilém. Shape of Things: A Philosophy of Design. Reaktion Books, 2013.

Foucault, Michel, Sylvère Lotringer, Lysa Hochroth, and Catherine Porter. The Politics of Truth. Semiotext (e) New York, 1997.

Fry, Tony, Clive Dilnot, and Susan Stewart. Design and the Question of History. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2015.

Heidegger, Martin. The Origin of the Work of Art in Poetry, Language, Thought, Trans. A. Hofstadter. Harper & Row, NY, 1971.

Ingold, Tim. Making: Anthropology, Archaeology, Art and Architecture. Routledge, 2013.

Laruelle, François, Drew Burk, and Anthony Paul Smith. Struggle and Utopia at the End Times of Philosophy. Univocal, 2012.

Simon, Herbert A. The Sciences of the Artificial. Vol. 136. MIT press, 1996.

Singleton, Benedict. “(Notes Towrds) Speculative Design,” May 2013.