The ethics of design: Fyre Festival – UX Collective

Aaron Cecchini-Butler

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Many of us have heard the story of the infamous Fyre Festival. If not, the short version is:

Guy who’s sort of sketchy (Billy McFarland) teams up with Ja Rule to create a luxury music festival in order to promote an app.

Now, that’s obviously the shortest version you’ll find on the internet, and if you’re super interested, lucky for you Netflix and Hulu both released documentaries about the event.

What I want to focus on, however, is the larger question of ethics in design.

Marketing and Design

Marketing and design are often interlaced — with designers responsible for banner ads and landing pages for Black Friday sales and marketing teams following a style guide.

Fyre Festival’s marketing and design were excellent. I would even go so far as to argue that design and marketing were the only successful elements of the Fyre Festival. (Ooh, I forgot the cheese sandwich, that looked pretty good too, smh.)

Killed it

The reason that that is so important is that it demonstrates the power of design.

Through incredible marketing campaigns and well-designed digital experiences, the Fyre brand earned consumer’s trust.

“Hooked” by Nir Eyal

I’ve mentioned the book Hooked by Nir Eyal in previous articles. I consider it the “New Testament” of marketing and product creation. If I were to boil down the entire book into one sentence, it would be this:

To create products that people will use often, you must build trust with the user.

I am aware that someone else may have a different one sentence summary, but that is what I took away from it.

Design as a Conduit to Trust

Establishing trust with a user online can be a difficult thing. The digital world is rife with “scammery” and nonsense, and users are justifiably apprehensive. However, there are a few things that build trust quickly and effectively:

  • Good copy — speaking to the person like you understand their needs and being transparent will often convince a user to give your product or business a shot.
  • Good design — I think of good web design as making sure your house is clean before hosting a party. You’re inviting people to come over and you want to show them your best. We’ve all been to that house that’s a mess, and it’s uncomfortable, you don’t want to sit anywhere, and you find an excuse to leave fast. A website that is poorly designed is scary. I know that when I look up a restaurant’s website to check the menu, the quality of the site is part of what determines if I’ll risk going. (I’d like to note that there is an exception — I expect a crappy American Chinese place, dive bar, or similar, to have a crappy website, the same way that I don’t expect my dog walker’s house to be immaculately clean.)
  • Multiple exits — If you go to meet someone you’ve never met to ask if they can provide a service, and they immediately ask you to go down to their basement with them, there might be some red flags. Not giving users a way out is the equivalent of this. When a user wants to stop using your product, let them. Don’t make them call you W-F between 11am-2pm. Let them check a box online and walk away. A perfect example of this is Purple Carrot (a vegan meal box). They allow you to pause weeks indefinitely. It’s like canceling but with the ability to easily start up again. Many products have gotten better about this, but now and again I find myself having to call to cancel something and it really pisses me off!
  • Prices — There is a great story about the Audi A3. I don’t know if it’s true, but it makes a point regardless. The story goes that Audi created the A3 to be their low-end car for college kids, etc. They priced it at about $18k and found that no one was buying it. There was a cognitive dissonance between a luxury brand and a low price. So Audi decided to just increase the price by $10k without changing anything. And all of a sudden A3’s were flying off the shelf. The moral of the story being — people will assume that something expensive is better. Pricing appropriately can help a brand establish trust. If I open a beautifully designed meditation app and it tries to charge me $2.99, I’ll be excited. But if I open another beautifully designed meditation app that charges $99/yr, I will assume it’s immensely better than the $2.99 one. This is because we assume whoever priced it knows what they’re doing.

Fyre Festival’s abuse of these principles

Reality is rough

Fyre Festival had all the ingredients of a product you could trust.

  • Good Copy — amazing descriptions of the experience complete with beautiful illustrations of what to expect. (Some of the copy is visible here.)
  • Good Design — A gorgeous website complete with amazing videos, photos, and descriptions.
  • Multiple Exits — I actually don’t know if this existed, but with high-end products, there is usually an expectation of flexibility. Consider a “Platinum” level credit card — it comes with many insurances, assurances, and protections.
  • Prices — The prices for the festival were very high and helped build trust with people. How often do you pay thousands for something that’s horrible?

Add to the above list the power of social media influencers and Ja Rule vouching for the festival and it’s easy to see how anyone would trust the Fyre brand!

The Question of Ethics

The question I’d like to pose, in regards to all of this, is:

What are the ethical responsibilities of designers?

The equation is simple — good design plays a huge role in establishing trust between a brand and a consumer. Because of this, designers have a huge amount of power over whether or not consumers decide to spend their money and/or time on a product.

It is unclear the degree to which the designers for Fyre Festival understood what they were designing for. This offers them a small degree of forgiveness but begs the question of whose responsibility is it to figure that out?

I believe that it is the designer’s responsibility to be aware of the full extent of the product they are designing. More importantly, I believe they should seriously question the ethics of that product before aiding in its success.

I know that there are many questionable industries in the US and globally. I also know that designers need jobs and not everyone has the luxury of being picky about where they work. What I am suggesting is designing honestly wherever you work.

For example: if you work for a health insurance company, using imagery that suggests you’re affordable when you’re not is somewhat unethical and could trap someone into unaffordable payments that could really harm them.

Example 2: if you work for a political campaign for a candidate who’s extremely anti-immigration and anti-abortion, don’t use a picture of him shaking hands with a Latino man surrounded by minority people and women.

Example 3: if you’re working for big oil, don’t make a beautiful background of plants for the landing page of your website. You literally help a company that kills the planet.


I know that we don’t all have the power to make big changes or decisions to designs, but I believe that we should all try to consider the ethics of what we do every day.

Because even though it was mainly a bunch of rich kids who got screwed this time, there are truly vulnerable people out there, and helping them establish trust with a brand that will take advantage of them is partly our faults if we don’t try and stop it.

For more fun check out:

Skip These 5 “Scary” UX Design Mistakes


Hey all, I appreciate the claps! 50 claps and a follow, please 🙂

Author: Aaron Cecchini-Butler

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