The Dark Side of Design: Using Anxiety to Manipulate

Design reflects humanity: it’s wildly complex, and contains at one end, lofty ideals that can better society, and at the other end, dark tools that can manipulate and exploit.

This is why, as designer Mike Monteiro states, “ethics can’t be a side hustle.”

Despite the pull of the dollar, and the seductive nature of power, designers must think about the implications of their designs, and why, as human-centered designers, we need to put the benefit of the human first.

Unfortunately, more often than not, many prioritize the dollar, manipulating consumers by capitalizing on anxiety . 

Capitalizing on the Anxiety of New Mothers: Nestle’s Baby Formula Controversy

The power of money is no better illustrated than through Nestle’s baby formula controversy. In the 1970s, mothers in the U.S. and Europe began choosing breast feeding over baby formula. To make up for losses, Nestle, a major manufacturer of baby formula, aggressively marketed their product to mothers in developing countries, preying on new mothers’ anxiety to do the best for their children.


A 1975 Nestle ad in South Africa

The key issue with this campaign was that baby formula requires clean drinking water, something of short supply in many developing regions. The result was a significant increase in infant deaths due to diarrhea, dehydration, and intestinal infections.

Instead of truly caring about their consumers or understanding their needs, Nestle saw an opportunity to make money, and proceeded with no regard of the consequences.

Events like these prove that Designers must “have a seat at the table,” meaning, they must have a voice in key decisions. Human-Centered Design inherently puts the customer’s needs above all else, which is both good for the person and for the business. After all, your service will ultimately fail if it doesn’t serve the customer’s needs, or worse causes great harm.

However, while I’d love to posit that had designers been a part of Nestle’s process, things would have been different, designers are still human. They are just as vulnerable to the pressure to make money, to “hit those numbers,” and just as susceptible to fear, anxiety, and group think. The very existence of Dark Patterns is a case in point.

Dark Patterns & Attachment Anxiety

Dark Patterns are design strategies to manipulate people into taking an action they don’t originally intend.

One dark pattern is taking advantage of attachment anxiety.

According to Dr. Brian Cugelman, “attachment anxiety is that uneasy feeling you experience when you’re feeling insecure about a relationship… It’s that heightened awareness that you experience, when you sense that someone is threatening your relationships, such as someone making a move on your business contacts, or even more devastating, your social media friends.”

I recently left Facebook (I recommend it!), and like many companies, Facebook uses “attachment anxiety” to keep you from leaving, showing you a list of friends who will “miss you.” (Featured second to the left in the line up is my sweet brother, Joe.)

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This is harmless enough, but an obvious strategy to elicit fear that I will lose love and connection by leaving this virtual community. God forbid that I have to call my brother and actually connect, instead of falsely connecting by mindlessly scrolling through his photos.

While creating anxiety can help a corporation profit, it can also stifle its ability to innovate.

Turning the Tide: Using Design Thinking to Combat Anxiety

Anxiety and the fear of failure are powerful reasons why so many businesses resort to desperate manipulative practices as opposed to entertaining new strategies that actually put the user’s needs first.

When developing new ideas, many look to what worked historically, as opposed to creating the future, regardless of the past.

From the past, we can find data to support our idea, and, as Roger Martin states, “logic plus data provides proof, which generates emotional comfort, which leads directly to commitment.”

On the other hand, “for a new idea, the equation is likely to be: logic without data produces speculation, which results in emotional discomfort.”

Unfortunately, many times, the logic we use to understand the world as it is can keep us from understanding the world as it could be.

Thus, we over-exploit what’s worked in the past and under-explore other opportunities. 

Design Thinking provides a powerful bridge between the known and the unknown, providing a mechanism which creates data while building a new idea.

design thinking

In Design Thinking, an idea results from rigorous ethnographic research, during which the designer gathers data and develops empathy for the people she wants to help. The designer then prototypes that idea and tests it with the user, gathering feedback and continuously iterating, ultimately building data, logic, and emotional comfort, which then rallies commitment to the idea.


The practice of Design Thinking gives designers a framework that generates confidence and provides data towards something new, as opposed to using it for the same old calculating measures. Perhaps, instead of using fear and anxiety, designers can build a new business framework driven by empathy, creativity, and compassion.

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As an experiment, I played with the idea of using Facebook to present this material:

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