Design without sludge

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on sludge

In behavioural economics, Richard Thaler is as close as you can get to a superstar. He co-authored the now classic book Nudge. He packs lecture halls. He’s been in a movie with Selena Gomez, which he mentioned no fewer than two and a half times at a highly attended appearance in Toronto recently.

But The Big Short isn’t the reason we’re thinking about Thaler these days. We’re obsessed with his ideas about sludge—the term he uses to describe the dreck of bureaucratic bumph that gets in the way of good decision-making, confusing people with superfluous details and complicated fine print. It’s legalese, it’s obfuscatory copy, it’s florid prose, it’s dreck. IT’S SLUDGE. And it makes for murky communications and design.

Designers often resist the sludgy copy that comes down from on high. Do we need all this text? is an oft-uttered phrase around these parts. Because most of the time…we don’t. And yet it’s tough for designers to push back at sludge. Much of the content that comes at us has been vetted and shaped by numerous hands, some of whom use legal precedent as ammunition when making the case for “keeping it in.”

On the design-led side of sludge, there are fussy flourishes that get in the way of good communication, things that look cool but complicate comprehension. It’s hard to avoid the pull of the pretty, the design for design’s sake.

So how to de-sludge our design work? The easiest question to ask is:

Is this necessary? If it’s not necessary, it’s sludge. Behavioural design is about making it easy for people to make the best possible choices, removing all barriers and obstacles that inhibit people from making the optimal choice.

Recently, I found myself rushing to buy labels. The packaging was muddy with gratuitous information, and even as I read the line stating that the product was indeed what I was looking for, the designy sludge that cluttered it made me doubtful of its contents. Were these really blank labels? Why couldn’t I believe what the package said? Why were there custom shapes on the “blank” labels? Why does the French translation of shipping labels sound more like a Guide to Good Manners while Scaling Mount Everest? (Ignore this last point.)


The backs of the packages were no clearer. One even helpfully showed me other sizes of stickers that I didn’t need — and weren’t contained inside — but that I might somehow also want to consider buying. All this extraneous information was featured as prominently as the information that I actually needed. Why?


There are many arenas in which fine print is necessary. When detailing the numerous ways you may die while taking a scary prescription medication, sure.  On a box of stickers, not so much.

Much like obscenity, sludgy design is very you-know-it-when-you-see-it. It’s the kind of design that invites you not to read the fine print. You know it’s useless, and yet it complicates your decision. It delays the time it takes to process necessary information and adds to decision fatigue.

Thaler’s oeuvre calls for a nuanced understanding of human behaviour and decision-making. Humans aren’t always rational, and sludge mucks up our choices. Let’s design accordingly.


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