What are you reading?

XXXI.1 January - February 2024
Page: 12
Digital Citation

What Are You Reading? Ben Sauer

Ben Sauer

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Freedom for the wolves has often meant death to the sheep.
    — Isaiah Berlin (as quoted by Priya Parker in The Art of Gathering)

As designers, we often find ourselves in an ambiguous space between being the authority and being collaborative. We are the expert in the room on design, but also part of a team making decisions about it. We're leading a workshop, but leaving the new ideas to everyone else. Act with too much authority and we'll squash potentially great ideas. Conversely, if we don't act with the authority of our expertise, we leave a power vacuum that others with less expertise will eagerly fill to the detriment of the final design outcome.

That gray area of thoughtfully enacted authority was on my mind while writing Death by Screens: How to Present High-Stakes Digital Design Work and Live to Tell the Tale. In the end, my approach is to encourage designers to adopt a position of confident humility: Believe in your ideas when you present them, and seek input on them.

In this vein, the two books I've chosen are both appeals for designers to thoughtfully lead groups to better outcomes. That's how we can avoid the harm that occurs when there's a power vacuum.


Starting with darkpatterns.org in 2010, Harry Brignull has been naming and shaming the tech companies that deceive users with deceptive designs. His impact is hard to overstate: Without the exposure of misdeeds in our industry, governments might not be regulating as they are today.

In his new book, Deceptive Patterns: Exposing the Tricks Tech Companies Use to Control You, Brignull explains the different types of deceptive patterns—from the much-hated cookie consent form (99 percent of them are deceptive!) to e-commerce plug-ins shamelessly designed solely to lie to users—why we're vulnerable to them, and the harms they do. You might feel some righteous anger as you read this book.

Brignull's clear and concise writing makes a complex topic, covering psychology, design, ethics, and law, highly accessible. The book will likely fuel heated discussions in boardrooms, law offices, and government buildings.

It ends with ways to fight back, primarily what's happening in the world of regulation. Increasingly, organizations will have to be mindful of how regulations work. Designers should read Deceptive Patterns to arm themselves with the legal knowledge of what not to do. Brignull makes this aspect easy to understand for anyone who hopes to persuade their employer to do the right thing, or perhaps, more importantly, to stop them from exploiting the very people we're here to serve.


Priya Parker's The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters is a call to action for us all. If you've ever felt trapped at a poorly organized event and experienced the urge to curse the event organizer, this book is for you. Parker presents people-focused methods of gathering, designed to facilitate unforgettable gatherings both professionally and recreationally.

The book is a collection of ideas and principles drawn from unusual events that Parker has organized as a facilitator or learned from, like Diner en Blanc, where thousands of strangers dressed in white dine together in a public space that is announced at the last minute. Parker teaches us how the Diner en Blanc dress code isn't purely an aesthetic choice: It facilitates a new relationship between people who don't know one another, a feeling of togetherness impossible within the bounds of everyday etiquette.

Although the book covers what's important at each stage of an event—from planning to ending—it's more signpost than manual. The topic is too broad for a how-to; Parker is more interested in the emotional, transformative experiences we're all secretly craving, and in inspiring us to take some risks and design for them.

The book asks us to ignore our desire to create artificial harmony, suggesting that "`Chill' is selfishness disguised as kindness." When we don't stop our boss from talking too much in a workshop. When we invite unsuitable people we feel obliged to, just to keep the peace. We often default to putting our own safety first, over the needs of the group.

Parker wants to create space for authenticity: to help people have personal breakthroughs, or get a team talking about the elephant in the room. "It is in gathering that we meet those who could help us, and it is in gathering that we pretend not to need them, because we have it all figured out," she writes. In The Art of Gathering, she offers methods for helping people take off their masks and share their imperfect, human selves. At Parker's regular event 15 Toasts, everyone shares a personal story on a theme, such as "a good life." The twist is that the last person must sing their toast, which creates a gentle pressure to share something authentic, before it's too late.

It's a rare book that makes you want to completely rethink your workshops or organize a dinner party with risky new rules, but The Art of Gathering does. Most event planning focuses on the what; Parker has us rethink why we've brought people together, and how to make a gathering truly transformative.

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Ben Sauer is a product and design leader, author, and speaker helping designers tell great stories about their work. He has trained teams worldwide in product strategy and conversation design, and his methods have been adopted by teams at Amazon and the BBC. During his time teaching for O'Reilly, he taught people at NASA. [email protected]

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