Patterns of Camouflage

Polymorphic Interface Design


The deceptive interfaces in this section all use camouflage patterns to set their traps. The camouflage of cunning can be used to hide as well as to misdirect, as the archetypal camouflage pattern demonstrates. The action the user wants to take is camouflaged, effectively hidden in plain sight, while the user’s eye is directed to the larger, heavier, orange button, which carries a hefty price.

Screenshot of advertisement with large 'Get Started' button and small, less noticeable link to decline.
Figure 3: "Hidden in Plain Sight," posted by Twitter user @ronbronson (Bronson, 2017). This example hides the decline action in plain sight, vastly overshadowed by the action that requires the user to purchase the premium offering.

In dark patterns, polymorphism is found where things appear to be other than they are, when light or arrangement is used as a weapon to misdirect or as a shield, to hide from view. Polymorphism is apparent when objects in the interface change in form or meaning, have unpredictable effects, appear and disappear.

advertisement from figure 3 with red line showing how a viewer's attention goes from an image through text, and away from the decline link
Figure 4: "Hidden Plainly Explained" shows the visual path a user's eye is likely to take and also explains why the decline action is colored teal, similar to the rollerblades.


Cunning's ability to change its shape is rooted in mythology. Mêtis was an ocean goddess known for the power of transformation. According to Marcel Detienne and Jean-Pierre Vernant (1978/1991), Mêtis could assume any number of forms and run through them with fascinating speed, becoming variously in succession "a lion, a bull, a fly, a fish, a bird, a flame, or flowing water" (p. 20). This ability, however, led to her downfall as Zeus tricked her into becoming a fly precisely so he could swallow her whole (Hesiod, 1914, ln. 929).

In the animal world, being fixed or frozen is to die, and a polymorphic nature provides camouflage that allows motion, and therefore life. Janet Atwill (1998/2009) noted that this transformative, transgressive motion enables "the fishing frog to transform part of its own body into bait" and the octopus camouflage itself against a rock (p. 56). Detienne and Vernant (1978/1991) added the dappling of a fawn, mottling of a snake, and stripes of a tiger, as well as the sheen on fabric and the "glittering of a weapon" or "shields that glitter as they move" as forms of camouflage (p. 19).

From these examples, it's evident that camouflage is not only for defense, but is also employed in attack. The apparent movement created by camouflage distracts the prey so the predator can move into position. The camouflage pattern is optically structured to create a disturbance in the vision. Detienne and Vernant (1978/1991) wrote, "This many-coloured sheen or complex of appearances produces an effect of iridescence, shimmering, an interplay of reflections which the Greeks perceived as the ceaseless vibrations of light" (18). With light as its tool, the technology of camouflage can both hide and misdirect; it can fool the eye in both ways.

Thus, mêtis "is not one, not unified," Detienne and Vernant wrote, "but multiple and diverse" (p. 18). This diversity is exemplified by Odysseus (whose patron is Athena), forever ready with his tricks and expedients, as well as by the artist who has from Athena and Hephaestus a techne pantoie, "an art of many facets" (p. 18) The power of metamorphosis is evident in both of these contexts: the flexibility of Odysseus's mind to always find an escape or clever stratagem, as well as the multifaceted skillset required by artisans and gifted to them by Athena who is, we must always remember, Mêtis's true daughter.

No Affordance

In this example, the true form the link take changes, shifts, and the meaning of what a link is, is transformed as well. This allows the creation of a true disguise as the real link becomes nearly invisible in a crowd of similar-looking words. The route of escape has been hidden: The user is ensnared. This camouflage will prevent at least some users from unsubscribing.

Screenshot of set of preferences for subscription, with the link to unsubscribe looking like regular text.
Figure 5: "Lack of Affordance," posted by Twitter user @jamiebrighton (Brighton, 2019). In this variant, the camouflage is achieved by not marking the unsubscribe link, which is the entire paragraph above the "Save Preferences" button.

This camouflage is effected by exploiting the conventions of visual design. The convention of consistency would dictate that hyperlinks in paragraph text all be styled the same way. Like the dark patterns of disguise, dark patterns of camouflage also rely on the Gestalt Law of Similarity and Jakob's Law. The visual properties of the hyperlink—its color and font weight—are assumed to define membership in a group, and, since almost all other websites style links consistently, users would expect this one to do the same, but it doesn't.

Low Contrast

Dark patterns of camouflage also rely heavily on the Gestalt concept of figure–ground, which states that objects that have more contrast with their surroundings have more visual salience, stand out and are seen to be the figure in the image, rather than mere background. However, when there is not enough contrast, as in this camouflage variant, the way out is difficult to find.

screenshot, where Unsubscribe paragraph is an unmarked link.
Figure 6: "Contrast Low to None" posted by Twitter user @benjwalsh (Walsh, 2018). This classic variant hides the unsubscribe link though contrast, lack of visual affordance, and in a crowd of other words.

Out of Sight

This camouflage variant hides the decline action inside the options of a select menu. Sandwiched between Denmark and Finland is the country of "Don't Insure Me," which is the only way to avoid purchasing the travel insurance this scammy site wants to sell.

Screenshot with dropdown menu where 'Don't Insure Me' is buried between country options.
Figure 7: Figure 7: "Hidden Out of Sight" posted to UXP2. In this variant, the camouflage is achieved by tucking the troublesome link away in a menu where no one is likely to look

In dark patterns, polymorphism is found where things appear to be other than they are, when light or arrangement is used as a weapon to misdirect or as a shield, to hide from view. Polymorphism is apparent when objects in the interface change in form or meaning, have unpredictable effects, or appear and disappear.