Pretense Design

From Design Thinking, Design Theory

Pretense Design

Surface Over Substance

By Per Mollerup

How some design appears to be something that it is not—by beautifying, amusing, substituting, or deceiving.





How some design appears to be something that it is not—by beautifying, amusing, substituting, or deceiving.

Pretense design pretends to be something that it is not. Pretense design includes all kinds of designed objects: a pair of glasses that looks like a fashion accessory rather than a medical necessity, a hotel in Las Vegas that simulates a Venetian ambience complete with canals and gondolas, boiler plates that look like steel but are vinyl. In this book, Danish designer Per Mollerup defines and describes a ubiquitous design category that until now has not had a name: designed objects with an intentional discrepancy between surface and substance, between appearance and reality. Pretense design, he shows us, is a type of material rhetoric; it is a way for physical objects to speak persuasively, most often to benefit users but sometimes to deceive them.

After explaining the means and the meanings of pretense design, Mollerup describes four pretense design applications, providing a range of examples for each: beautification, amusement, substitution, and deception. Beautification, he explains, includes sunless tanning, high heels, and even sporty accessories for a family car. Amusement includes forms of irrational otherness—columns that don't hold anything up, an old building's façade that hides a new building, a new Chinese town that mimics an old European town. Substitution pretends to be a natural thing: plastic laminate is a substitute for wood, Corian a substitute for marble, and prosthetics substitute for human organs. Deception doesn't just bend the truth; it suspends it. Soldiers wear camouflage to hide; hunters use decoys to attract their prey; malware hides in a harmless program only to wreak havoc on a user's computer. With Pretense Design, Per Mollerup adds a new concept to design thinking.


$32.95 T ISBN: 9780262039482 224 pp. | 6 in x 10 in 103 color illus.


  • “Per Mollerup's explanation of surface is a Rosetta stone for understanding meaning often hidden underneath the veneer of design.”

    Steven Heller

    School of Visual Arts MFA Design / Designer as Author + Entrepreneur Program

  • “It is always a delight to read Per Mollerup. He manages to explore what appear to be simple topics and shows that they hide great depth, depths which provide enlightenment and pleasure. His book on 'pretense design' is no exception: revealing where deception, lies, and pretense show up in many guises, sometimes (surprisingly often) for our good, amusement, beautification,  and delight, and sometimes for less virtuous motives.”

    Don Norman

    Director of The Design Lab at the University of California, San Diego; author of The Design of Everyday Things and Living with Complexity

  • “Mollerup gives us a new term to use when discussing design practices that are not overtly dark patterns or persuasive designs. There is another category of intentionally not-what-it-seems design, and pretense design describes it well. In the same way that not all persuasive design is bad (consider fitness apps), Mollerup shows how pretense design can most often improve quality of life, injecting humor, beauty, or added practicality into products and places. Throughout this book he uses clear examples from daily life to help categorize the kinds of pretense design he describes.”

    Chris Nodder

    author of Evil by Design