Shaping behaviour at the Design Council

RED talk, Design Council. Photo by Kate Andrews
Photo by Kate Andrews

I’ve blogged before mentioning the work of the UK Design Council’s RED research arm, which applies ‘design thinking’ to redevelop and create public services appropriate for societal changes right now and in the years to come. The previous post was specifically about Jennie Winhall’s ‘Is design political?’ essay, but I’ve kept in touch with RED’s work and was very interested to attend RED’s Open House last Friday, along with Katrin Svabo Bech and Kate Andrews.

The presentation, by Jennie Winhall, Chris Vanstone* and Matthew Horne, introduced the Kitchen Cabinet (democratic engagement) and Activmobs projects, along with a brief discussion of the concept of shaping behaviour through design, which is of course of significant pertinence to the ‘architectures of control’ idea (as it is indeed to captology).

(Sadly, there was apparently not time to give any more than a cursory treatment of RED’s Transformation Design concept [PDF link, 193 kb], which re-casts design thinking as the cross-disciplinary approach for problem-solving in a great variety of disciplines. The paper leads with a great quote from Charles Eames: “More than 30 years ago, Charles Eames, the American multidisciplinary designer, was asked, ‘What are the boundaries of design?’. He replied, ‘What are the boundaries of problems?’”. I was especially looking forward to a discussion on transformation design, as my hunch is that many of us who’ve chosen to go into design (and engineering) have realised and appreciated this for a long time – indeed, it may even be the reason why we went into it: a desire to acquire the tools to shape, change and improve the world – but that by expressing it explicitly, RED has a great chance to win the understanding of a political establishment and general public who still often equate design with styling and little more. But I digress…)

Jennie Winhall’s discussion of shaping behaviour through design was a clear exposition of the principle that empowering people to change their own behaviour ought to be more preferable than forcing them to change their behaviour externally. Traditional policy-making fails in this context: it is easier to put in CCTV than to solve the underlying casuses of crime; it is easier to fund more obesity treatment than it is to tackle poor diet in the first place (the phrase ‘symptom doctor’ was not used, but it might have been). Describing the idea of manipulating behaviour through design as being slightly ‘sinister’, Jennie noted that it has been used in a commercial context for many years (it was one of those talks where I was almost bursting to interrupt with actual examples discussed on this website, though I didn’t!), but, as Oxford’s Lucy Kimbell pointed out, there is not necessarily an easy way to apply the techniques in a field where the aims are less well-defined (“social good” as opposed to “money”):

“But the outcomes of public service designs are complex. RED sees value in making use of design methods used in Marks & Spencer, for example, to make the consuming experience “compelling and desirable” and applying them to public service contexts. In the M&S context, the use of these methods may well have a clear, measurable business objective: increasing sales, for example – and even here design practitioners may well struggle with framing the design problem, communicating with the client, and measuring the value of the design process and artefacts. How much harder it is to define and agree goals for public services or public goods?”

Looking at the politically motivated examples of architectures of control which I’ve examined over the last couple of years, I’d say a significant percentage of them are designed with the goal of stamping out a particular type of behaviour, usually classed as anti-social and usually extremely contentious: this really is social engineering. The success of skateboarding ‘deterrents’ is measured by how few children skateboard in an area. The success of the Mosquito is measured by how few children congregate in an area. The success of park benches with central armrests is measured by how there are no longer people lying down on them. The “woollier” behaviour-shaping architectures of control, such as Square Eyes or the Entertrainer are very much edging towards captology, and perhaps these examples are closer to RED’s field of experience.

WorldChanging also has a discussion of the RED Open House presentation.

*Speaking to us individually, Chris Vanstone used “stick, carrot or speedometer” as a way of classifying design methods for behavioural change, and I think this is worthy of a separate post, as this is an extremely insightful way of looking at these issues from an interaction design point of view.

3 Comments

  1. tom

    I like how Red’s presentation style seems to have been inspired by Brasseye – at least at the thing I saw them do at ideo.

  2. Pingback: Architectures of Control in Design » Design approaches for shaping behaviour: sticks and carrots

  3. Pingback: Shaping behaviour: Part 1 at fulminate // Architectures of Control

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