What has been seen cannot be unseen

A new economy of transparency is gaining steam today. As are its contradictions in a densely technology-driven reality. Thoughts on the role of design in trust-building and persuasion processes.

As ever before, the onus today is on brands to find ways to get to increasingly belligerent customers. Fixed channels have given way to fluid networks. Audiences take part into consumer-driven conversations. A new people’s demand for transparency and open information pushes brands to question the very channels they’ve always taken for granted.

Where does the contemporary idea of transparency come from? Why now? Some time ago, authenticity became kind of an imperative for brands.

According to a survey carried out by BGC in 2013 on 2500 consumers found that being authentic was indeed one of the main qualities they said would attract them to a brand.*

Companies thought that inundating consumers with minute details of their products, their history and their values and calling them “stories” could be the silver bullet strategy.

As in The Economist, Nov 14th 2015(1), “Shoppers at Whole Foods can peruse scintillating biographies of the chickens they are about to casserole. Prospective Tesla drivers can learn not just about the cars’ specification and performance but about the principles of a stator rotating magnetic field[…]”.

Though if we consider issues like content overload, information redundancy and hyper connectivity in a digital world, such a strategy may be arguably unsustainable in the long run.

Then came post-truth. The dawn of its era-as formulated by The Economist- is usually associated with the two major events of 2016, Trump’s election and the Brexit vote.

Glimpes of a Post-truth world in Cold War Steve’s imagery

From then on, things seemed to start changing a bit. The general perception is that something is amiss. Fake news-related scandals have shaken everybody’s confidence in the information system and in the global technology economy.

A new form of McCarthyism has spread, whereas the word of established authorities and the very role of experts and prominent institutions are chronically questioned and blasted.

We can spot the reflection of this mindset in western politics and culture, in the forms of populisms and in the comeback of religious patterns respectively.

If we don’t trust anybody’s authenticity, on the grounds of vague statements and declarations of intent, there may be other parameters for people to judge. Here is where transparency comes into play: people demand to see where information and what they buy and use come from.

And it is also an era where more and more of us are concerned with issues such us privacy, surveillance, safety and manipulation of our individual freedom and our economic might.

However, this demand of “knowing” apparently clashes with another cultural pattern.


Many argue that we are entered an era when people have less patience for facts, data and truths.
This poses huge challenges for institutions, media and brands. A pattern that is spreading today is the prevalence of emotions and of“statements that ‘feel like the truth’ but are not based on reality” over objectivity.

But transparency can still be a quite elusive concept for many organisations. There is still confusion about how to do it, and on what aspects of the business.

Not every company is prepared to open up to their audiences in an unfiltered way. Even fewer are willing to talk serenely of anything even remotely similar to wrongdoing. “What has been seen cannot be unseen”, as a popular meme goes. That’s the reason why companies are likely to keep a few secrets from their consumers. Today, secrecy is not tolerated anymore.

Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine offers a spark on that. In that movie, Cate Blanchett seduces a well-off business man and ends up engaged with him, only to be abandoned on a highway hard shoulder after he finds out all details of her past.

To a closer look, the character could hardly have done any better. She couldn’t tell the man who she really was. If she did, he would have done the runner, with all good reasons. On the other hand, the mountain of lies she made up for the purpose was obviously deemed to defeat, because it was unsustainable in the long run.

So, Cate was in a classic cul-de-sac. There were no chances for her to marry her fiancee— nor for their marriage to last eventually. What she could avoid in the first place, though, was putting herself in that situation.

She chose a potential target, with whom she couldn’t come clean about her past and be trusted for her intentions to be a better person from that moment on. She went for an unsuitable target audience.

So also in business and economics, transparency is strictly intertwined to trust-building and therefore crucial for long-term brand success. Transparency pays, because it help brands build sustainable relationship with fitting target audiences. Designing for transparency is something to invest on.

Design can help tackle all these issues at many different levels: like building platforms for shared, meaningful knowledge, or creating design languages and imagery that reinforce the messages, or fostering a culture of openness and communications within organizations and between stakeholders. This in order to make brands “seen” by their audiences in an expected way, which is hard to delete from their minds.

How can you design for transparency? The following are explorations on how businesses could design better products, services and communications (in a word, better Product-service systems) and redefine their role as brands in a more genuine, honest way.


(Eva e Franco Mattes, Ceiling Cat)

We started hearing lots of anecdotes about people talking about random products and immediately see that product advertised on their Facebook newsfeed or on Google. Although such coincidences may seem creepy- thus becoming food for thought for self-styled digital experts with a flair for conspiracy theories-they seem to be related to the ways platforms such as Facebook track our movement all over the web through specific analytics tools.

Suspicions arise because of the general lack of understanding on how and why these algorithms work, as psychometrics expert David Stillman explains on an episode of The Hive podcast(2).

Lots of people think that Google’s listening to us via our phones, on the microphone. But as far as we can tell, there’s no evidence of that. If it feels that this is happening, though, is because people can’t really understand why Google is so good at what it does. (David Stillman)

Designing for transparency here means providing people with the necessary knowledge to understand what your company does with their personal information and stop imagining creepy things happening, when this is not really the case.

Among the big names, Pinterest has recently tried to respond to users’ growing intolerance towards the algorithm by introducing a new feed populated only by the people and boards they follow.

On our use of social media comes a second contradiction of this new transparency culture, well defined by the words of artist Stephanie Kneissl


To an extent, we willingly participate in this system that’s controlling us. There is a degree of wilful ignorance and obliviousness in our attitude towards social media algorithms, because we take what we’re given and we like it, so we often become passive. (Stephanie Kneissl)


How do you make money from your product? A transparent pricing structure can help consumers understand why your product is worth more-and therefore costs more. Everlane (see below) and Marks and Spencer are some of the big brands making a point of the cost of their products.


An investigative tech journalist and Internet experts, Jamie Bartlett has spent years studying dark web’s micro-cultures. In his bestselling book, Dark Web, he argues how drug dealers’ platforms are perfectly oiled businesses in a highly performing economy based on trust, accessible feedback and reviews and straightforward transactions. Without straining from the familiar world we are used to, 🍕Domino’s Billboard tracker on Times Square, in 2011, was a pioneering an extreme marketing concept, by putting the bad and the good of customers’ comments on public display, real time, and giving up to moderation.


As we are inherently predator animals, we very much refer to the visual component of messages in our process of trust-building.

A study by Florian Hawlitschek and Flora Lippert on the trust mechanisms in the Sharing Economy highlights the weight of hosts’ profile pictures in platforms such as Airbnb in eliciting trust and prospective guests’ conversions.

This is a reason why tweaking the brand identity and the imagery used in corporate communication is so important for users to “see” and recognize the the brand and its product.

Visual consistency across all channels is seen favourably, as it provides users with reference points, by doubling down on recognizability. It leverages on a cognitive bias, which is inherently human.

Brand transparency is a rewarding strategy, regardless of the possibility that your company’s vision and values might not resonate with everyone in your audience.

Companies’ reluctance to adopt a transparency paradigm has much to do with a general fear of becoming conspicuous to a wider public and therefore more vulnerable.

They want proof that this strategy is really gonna work. The problem is that there is no such proof. It’s only a matter of how people see, perceive and accept things. Today brands can’t escape to be honest -it’s what Blue Jasmine teaches us. But at the same time, they need to carefully design for transparency, because, as the scary meme reminds us, what has been seen cannot be unseen.




Stephanie Kneissl, Stop the Algorithm, The Photographers’ Gallery London
Everlane cost infographic educates consumers simply and effectively.

Strategic Designer @Linea-Atc Brand design and Communication| Communication Designer |Writes on design, UX and communication trends