From Seminal Writing To Dark Patterns … And Back

Skimming is a shame. As much as it negates the efforts of writers, and contributes to the degradation of design, sadly it is natural. The abundance of digital and physical content devalues the sole purpose of writing – voicing what can’t be voiced.


More so, writing in design becomes a devil’s playground for manipulation, misguiding, deception, and fuckovers. The notorious dark patterns come in hand with a specific type of wording that UX writers have to annihilate.
In this piece, we’ll go deep into the history of writing, analyze the impact it had on the development of society as we know it, see where we stand today, and learn whether modern day writing is a far cry from its great and terrible predecessor. Worth saying, we are not focusing on fiction writing, poetry, and scientific treatise, as they deserve their own research. Instead, we’re interested in the evolution of the most influential texts – the ones that accompany our day to day existence.         

Writing to eternalize existence

What is known today as writing started much earlier than any system but is systemic in its origin, and thus can be explored. The evolution of the ways to express graphically what we can’t express verbally is an important aspect of our understanding of the future of design. Graphic design is the primogenitor of all forms of modern design.

Having accompanied humanity since the autonomization of the carpometacarpal joint, the ability to depict things by indenting the surface of the surroundings, became a real bridge between “us” today and “them” back then.

Whether it was the desire to commemorate the early human finite being or a form of offering to the gods, our prehistoric ancestors across the globe were knowledgeable about the techniques of visual communication.

From Seminal Writing To Dark Patterns ... And Back | Shakuro
With the advent of portable media like papyrus, clay tablets, and woodblocks, symbolic writing became reachable by a wide range of people. The symbols became teachable, which turned them into the ultimate and first ever communicative system that could exist autonomously and pass through generations.
The cultural aspect still played a dominant role in the development of graphic design up until the Pre-Christian era when writings became the main influential tool in passing the knowledge that was destined to shape our today’s society.

The earliest instance of dogmatic writings symbolizing the religious evolution from ritualistic to more ethical is the Ark of the Covenant with two stone tablets of the Ten Commandments.

Even though the contents of the Ark became ingrained in the Western Society, there is no tangible proof either the Tablets of the Ark existed. The ongoing dispute about the location of the Ark of the Covenant remains one of the greatest religious and historical mysteries of humankind.
It’s hard to exaggerate the role of the written religious texts. The existence of modern western society is a painful product of Ancient and Medieval Christianity. The significance of the Dead Sea Scrolls is incremental for fundamental science. The discovery and the translation of those texts pushed back the dating of the earliest biblical texts to the 2nd century BCE, as compared to the 9th century previously considered to be the date.

Despite the role of these ancient texts, they were not meant to push any agenda and influence people in a manner that later texts were.

The true meaning of the Dead Sea Scrolls was to manifest the rules and beliefs of a particular group within greater Judaism. Eternalized existence in its finest.

From Seminal Writing To Dark Patterns ... And Back | Shakuro

Writing to domineer

There are few things that have as much impact on us as religious reverence does. It was only a matter of time until faith started serving the mercantile interests of one group while providing consolation to the other with equal efficacy.

The politization of religion started as early as it gets. After all Christ’s Apostles and their direct disciples deceased, and Christianity spread around the Levantine region, the early episcopal structure developed, whereby bishoprics were governed by bishops. One of them was Eusebius of Nicomedia who is known for baptizing Constantine the Great – the fact that implicitly earned benevolence for Christianity in the Roman Empire.

This is when for the first time, a person was textually entitled a “Man of God”.

With the majority of the population of the Mediterranean region being illiterate, the theological narration relied heavily on liturgical or service books published by the authority of a church body and containing the text and directions for the liturgy of its official religious services.    
The later Romanesque period signified a shift towards the synergy of visual art and writing. The illuminated manuscripts began to appear as illustrated passages of the Bible. Single cards or posters of vellum, leather, or paper were in wider circulation with short stories or legends on them about the lives of saints.

The illuminated manuscripts were mainly used to enforce the artistic vision of those doing the public divine service. Captivated performer captivates the audience.

From Seminal Writing To Dark Patterns ... And Back | Shakuro

12th century German example of an illuminated manuscript. Image credit: Daily Bruin

One of the darker periods of European history is Inquisition. Because of the massive amount of debate between different sects, cults, and movements with different interpretations of Scripture, the critical weapon in the battle of those doctrines was written text. “Heresy” became a widely used term to define what one movement believed to be a false study. The earliest attacks upon alleged heresies formed the matter of Tertullian’s Prescription Against Heretics (in 44 chapters, written from Rome).

Medieval Catholic Inquisition largely targeted the adjacent Christian sects, denying them to their Christianity. At the time, the authority of the Pope was strong enough to have a special type of writing attributed to the godly power. That type is called “papal bull” – a document issued in the form of a decree or privilege of the highest standard.

One of the bulls of Pope Innocent IV, called “Ad extirpanda” authorized the use of torture to eliciting confessions from heretics.

Age of empowering

In 1440, Johannes Gutenberg introduced the first ever printing press in Europe. But it took him 15 more years to print the first 42-line Bible, known as the Gutenberg Bible edition of 180 copies. It was a monumental event in the history of civilization. The manuscripts of the churches a lot of which weren’t even transportable fell into oblivion. The ability to literally understand the Scripture signified the change in public perception. Reading silently became possible. Literacy began to spread like a wildfire. The impact Gutenberg’s perfected invention had on science is impossible to exaggerate.   

“The Printing Revolution occurred when the spread of the printing press facilitated the wide circulation of information and ideas, acting as an “agent of change” through the societies that it reached.” – Elizabeth Einstein    

However, the story would’ve been incomplete and Gutenberg’s figure would’ve ended up in the sainthood if it wasn’t about the profane urge for simplified perception and vicious categorization we have in our DNA.

Writing to impoppress

The next great societal convulsion came about 15th century and did not do so alone. The epidemic of the Black Death, The Hundred Years’ War, and a gradual cooling of the climate called the Little Ice Age resulted in a horrendous witch hunt. The one that its pagan predecessor could envy. The central written source of that endorsement came in “The Malleus Maleficarum”, usually translated as the Hammer of Witches.

For the next 200 years, this book will be the second best selling book, only relinquent to the Bible.

From Seminal Writing To Dark Patterns ... And Back | Shakuro

The 1669 title page of Malleus Maleficarum, the most important and polarizing treatise on witchcraft.

In the age of religious turmoil which late 15th century certainly was, Malleus Maleficarum certainly added to the insanity and signified the ever going battle for the “purity of faith”. From the writing standpoint, the treatise is a curious case. Being a religious and dogmatic work, it observes the publicistic structure of narration in its infancy.

The classical three-part structure builds momentum. The first part focuses on what had been considered to be unequivocal evidence that “witchcraft must be real because the Devil is real.” By not holding back any weapons of demagoguery, it refutes critics who deny the reality of witchcraft, thereby hindering its prosecution.

Malleus Maleficarum is a Medieval example of gonzo journalism, which considering the severity of allegations it makes, is a horrendous piece of writing.

The tension builds as the second part discloses how witches cast spells, and which remedies that can be taken to prevent witchcraft, or help those who have been affected by it. The pinnacle and the most brutal part that has not even been translated into some languages is the third section. It provides a step-by-step guide to the conduct of a witch trial, from the method of initiating the process and assembling accusations, to the interrogation (including torture) of witnesses, and the formal charging of the accused.

Birth of the copy and its first commercial use

In addition to the fact that The Printing Revolution gave a locomotive power to thinking, it had a strong commercial undertow and it’s amazing how close it is to what we have today. The outreach that printed media began to generate after the 16th century was second to none as compared to any type of verbal means.

Reformation of Christianity itself has a lot to do with the way early Protestants propagated their stance. Between 1518 and 1520, Martin Luther’s tracts were distributed in 300,000 printed copies. With these fairly up-to-date media, Europeans were no longer held in captivity of a single-source knowledge and this new reality caught papacy off guard.

From Seminal Writing To Dark Patterns ... And Back | Shakuro
However, the popularity of printed texts spoke to the public on so many levels, it was impossible to hold it back. In the late Republic of Venice, there were avvisi – the political and economic news sheets, the precursors of the German Avisa. This started the age of newspapers. Throughout Europe, as well as the American colonies, newspapers, and gazettes pop up with a growing audience with each new issue.

“Good and cheap”

The societal impact they were making was a force to be reckoned with. Among the first businesses to jump on board of the new periodical printed media were the printed media themselves. The first ever printed ad features a small message written by William Caxton which according to Erik Kwakkel, was printed to promote Caxton’s book (he was the first English publisher). Check out the ad – it’s beautiful:

From Seminal Writing To Dark Patterns ... And Back | Shakuro

This 1477 ad praises “Sarum Ordinal”, a manual for priests – the book William Caxton just produced. The sheet describes the book and then states that “you can get a copy at the Red Pale” (the name of his shop) in Westminster, London. You will not be disappointed because the book is “good and cheap”.

“At the sign of his own head”

The early adopters of printed ads, just like the early proponents of digital technology were the main consumer demographic of their own craft. Being very affordable and increasingly popular among the rising middle class, printed ads got quickly picked up by the adjacent progressive businesses.

Medicine sellers invented a special ad format where instead of asserting a product’s presence, it offered a clear concern or pain relief.

This technique is still widely used by marketers and product description writers but with a far better ingenuity. Back then, ads were primarily placed in the back of a paper, were usually not very artistic, and relied heavily on the narration. For today’s product writer, those early paper ads are an incredible portal to the heart of early modern marketing and (why not?) UX writing. For example, the 1652’s first paper ad of the first coffee shop in London:

From Seminal Writing To Dark Patterns ... And Back | Shakuro

Handbill used by Pasqua Rosée, who opened the first coffee house in London. From the original in the British Museum

It’s fascinating in the way it addresses the chronic health issues a typical Londoner of the 17th century would possess. The enumeration-heavy story highlights the benefits of the drink that haven’t lost its relevance to this day. In fact, some of the strengths of coffee are even better phrased than most of our modern copies:

“It is a simple innocent thing, composed into a Drink, by being dryed in an Oven, and ground to Powder, and boiled up with Spring water, and about half a pint of it to be drunk, fasting an hour before, and not Eating an hour after, and to be taken as hot as possibly can be endured;” [sic]

“Merchant’s Gargling Oil”

As technological development introduced more advanced printing methods, including colorization or chromolithography, the copy had to give way to illustration. It never abandoned advertising but became an essential part of it and it’s the start of the 19th century when the voice and tone of commercial texts was shaped.
The affordability of printed ads attracted a lot of shady medicine producers and distributors. Quacks of different caliber flooded newspapers and telegraph poles with questionable remedy ads. Even though most of them have been debunked on multiple occasions, there are those having a rational kernel. An extensive library of Victorian quackery cases is here.

From Seminal Writing To Dark Patterns ... And Back | Shakuro
A noticeable trend of the 19-20th-century ads is the subtlety and emotive approach to persuasion. A lot had to do with a humorous and cartoonish depiction of those not using the product advertised. Plain mockery, bigotry, and racism in its finest.

“Gets them every time!”

The importance of product presentation also begins to shine with better printing media. A lot of the ads from that time demonstrate the current marketing tools like snapshots of the real-life situations. An attractive image of a successful person shifted the focus from the product to the person.

It was no longer about what the product does, but what it does for you.

From Seminal Writing To Dark Patterns ... And Back | Shakuro
The brands embraced the voice of an old friend giving guidance. Suspension dots representing pauses, an abundance of exclamation points, text formatting – all of those emotional markers used to highlight the value of the product. A clear reference to sexuality is particularly interesting about this seductive Duke hair pomade ad.

The language style of the Victorian ads and obvious glorification of the products blended into what we call “vintage ad culture” today.

“Horror, shame, despair”

The happy smiley pin-upish ads worked more like educational evidence. By promoting a certain product, the brands automatically promoted the industry and gave collateral PR to their rivals. The growth of commercial markets introduced more players to the game, ultimately leading to a harsher level of competition.
This is where aggression started creeping in. Manufacturers, by means of marketers, went to war with each other. With their eyes on the prize which is people’s money, that war didn’t shun any means. This Listerine ad is particularly disturbing. Someone thought it’d be a good idea to use a bad breath break-up letter as a slice-of-life scenario for an ad.

From Seminal Writing To Dark Patterns ... And Back | Shakuro
The road towards dark patterns started right there. The caricature depiction of reality, twisted social behavior norms, and total lack of a sense of proportion led to a high tolerance level for commercial texts.

If we step back for a second and retrospect, the seminal persuasive techniques used in the Medieval writing were fundamentally different. The words set in stone have magical power. The power to guide nations.

Gradually, like anything else, the power of words became a tool in the hands of the agenda-driven and opportunistic folk.

From Seminal Writing To Dark Patterns ... And Back | Shakuro
I now take an oath to research the area of propagandist texts from the most turbulent periods of time – before/during the two World Wars and the Cold War. It’s mind-boggling how many scary similarities are there to be found with the current content.

Digital fallacy

Disinformation is still information. We live with an innate sense of urgency and distrust built by the generations of manipulators. Every tiny spark of hope and trust gets nailed down by a greater disappointment. That’s the internet. It brought as much love and adulation as despair and confusion.  

When everything is debatable and relative, clusterfuck is inevitable.

Writing to confuse

As soon as reading became a subject of psychological studies, taking advantage of people’s reading patterns became a thing. Online and digital media reading relies on simple principles that are created by the designers with a purpose. Now that purpose may come from the marketing needs which does not guarantee there will be no interjected tricks to make users opt in an additional cost.

The writers are not innocent either. We’re good at advocating the knowingly foul or insufficient functionality by masking it with exaggerated dignity. After all, it is all business. In that case, nothing really changed since the greater excommunications of our medieval past. However, deception is not only a political tool, it’s a marketing tool now.

From Seminal Writing To Dark Patterns ... And Back | Shakuro

Image credit: Reddit

Looking at the extensive dark pattern libraries which there are plenty, I can’t stop thinking of Caxton’s ad to buy his book. “Good and cheap”. When was the last time you heard anything as genuine and simple as that. I know, it’s been seven hundred years since that ad, but man…

There are hundreds of manipulative techniques forcing users into taking action. Most of them do rely on writing. Social pressure is one of them. This is an evolved version of the “missing out” approach where an ad elicits a customer’s feeling of inferiority.

From Seminal Writing To Dark Patterns ... And Back | Shakuro

So fucking happy for Mark from Columbus, USA. Image credit: Wooninjas

Why dark patterns (don’t) work

Every product meeting is a pressure cooker for those who constantly have to take action and report results. Marketing people included. Dark patterns is an unethical shortcut to virality and exposure. In fact, a lot of people don’t even notice them or teach themselves to ignore them.

Ultimately, if it’s dark on one side, there has to be light on the other.

Most people taking action are on that “other” side, either willingly or because of the circumstance. The good thing is, we know better. Writers, in particular, are more than capable of affecting user perception. All it takes is a bit of knowledge of the history of writing, the mistakes made, and the changes done.

Writer’s checklist to avoid dark patterns (at least on our level) if you are writing anything online

  • Write for a perfect user. The one you’d love to help. Genuinely. For free. For a handshake. Now write for them.
  • Write about the real benefits. If there are none, say at least it doesn’t hurt anyone. If it does …well fight it.
  • Don’t shoot corny phrases. Excellent and premium shit does nothing except for being deja moo. If it really is excellent, say why.
  • Easy on superlatives. Everything best has something bester. Being #1 has to be provable and undisputable.
  • Create narratives. Writing microcopy is writing atomically. But if your writing voltrons into something bigger, it’s a wow.
  • Legitimize with real facts. Don’t namedrop. Don’t shame. If there is a success story – tell it like it is.
  • Use fleshy words. Being sharp and short is cool. But being a virtuoso in whatever you do is also cool. Find the appropriate places for sensory words.
  • Don’t hold back your best. Despite a shame it is, people will skim. Make sure they skim the right things. Cover your bases.

Recognizing dark UX patterns is a drinking game in our office. Treated as sport, dark pattern or “asshole” design does not trigger our butts so much. Seeing them, knowing they are out there and never using them in any of our products is our contribution to the purification of the internet. Our Malleus Maleficarum.


*  *  *

Written by Moses Kim

October 4, 2018

  • Link copied!

Subscribe to our blog

Once a month we will send you blog updates