The Road to Hell is Paved with Good Intentions

The first time I heard this phrase was when I was a young adult. I overheard my mother and aunt (her sister) arguing about how I was raised. For background, I am the first born and the two sides of my family had competing ideas as to how I should be brought-up (religiously). My mother said something to the effect of: “we just thought it would be better to not pick a religion for him, and let him decide when he can make a conscious decision.” To which my aunt replied, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

Reflecting on that conversation, I realize now that my aunt was judging my parents’ intentions, rather than the results. I’ve grown up to be the curious, empathetic, semi-normal (because who wants to be completely normal?) human that I am today. In no way do I think my aunt is ashamed or disappointed about the person I’ve become, but on some level, she clearly feels that my parents did me a disservice by not making that decision for me.

This phrase parallels much of what we’ve learned in the first two weeks of our Advanced Theory class at AC4D. Many designers (or anyone for that matter) approach problems with great intentions, but their ideas ultimately end up doing more harm than good.

An example of a well-intentioned idea that has gone awry is the PRODUCT (RED) campaign. Started by Bobby Shriver and Bono, lead singer of U2, in 2006 PRODUCT (RED) seemed like a win-win-win scenario for addressing the AIDS epidemic in Africa: business partners can demonstrate they care about social issues (without sacrificing profits), consumers can donate through purchases they would make anyway, and The Global Fund (non-profit partner) gets the funding they need to make a difference in the world.


While I don’t fault the creators of PRODUCT (RED) for the idea. I have a major issue with how it has evolved — which is not at all — despite criticism it, and a few of its partners, has received over the years. With little to no iteration on the concept, (RED) perpetuates the idea that by buying stuff, one is fixing the world.

… consumers will also gain self-satisfaction with their purchases because they will be a part of the “help” to Africa.

-Cindy N. Phu

This is particularly dangerous because it allows the consumer, thousands of miles away, to believe that they’ve done their part.


There is a cultural desire for a magic bullet or magic pill that will solve everything. Of course, this is not possible due to the nature of wicked problems but it’s a lot easier to self-serve ourselves nonsense than face cold, hard truth — there is no one-size-fits-all solution to societal problems.

Some believe technology is the answer. But they are mistaken or fooling themselves as well. Technology has the propensity to make things easier, more efficient, faster, etc… but technology is a tool. It is a tool in which we see our own reflection, for better and worse.

Take the internet, for example. The creators believed that the internet would connect us all, break down barriers, enable people a world away to communicate openly and freely. Indeed it has done those things, but it has also allowed for the proliferation of hate and racism, for the polarization of ideologies, and distribution of misleading news. Worst, it allows us to binge on the information that fits our view of the world. Believe your race or religion is superior to all others? There are plenty of sources you can find online to affirm that view.

All this is to say that intentions are not the criteria that should be used to judge policies or programs. Instead, we should objectively view results, form opinions on outcomes, and iterate on what works. The creators of powerful movements, such as PRODUCT (RED), have a responsibility to understand the problems they mean to address, embrace the good they intend to achieve without ignoring the bad, and learn from our collective mistakes.