Deliberately creating worry

A European airport

Swedish creativity lecturer Fredrik Härén mentions an interesting architecture of control anecdote in his The Idea Book:

One of the cafés in an international European airport was often full. The problem was that people sat nursing their coffees for a long time as they waited for their planes to depart. The café asked itself: How can we encourage our customers to vacate the tables more quickly?

Their first ideas were probably along the lines of uncomfortable chairs, a seat charge, clear the tables immediately and so forth. However, the idea they finally decided upon was this: to turn off the flight monitors in the café! This made people worry about missing their flights, which led to them looking for monitors that worked, thus leaving empty tables. When the café had enough empty tables, the flight monitors suddenly started working again to attract new customers.

Creating worry in the customers’ minds would certainly seem to be effective – perhaps more effective than simply deliberately uncomfortable seating, which we’ve come across a number of times before. But is it really a sensible tactic? Won’t those customers, if they use the airport again, consciously avoid “that café where we nearly missed out flight last time because they turned the monitors off”? Has it occurred to the café operators that, perhaps, their customers value sitting down to ‘nurse’ their coffees as part of the coffee-drinking experience?

Härén doesn’t comment on this ‘contempt for the customer’ issue directly, but he does go on to suggest more positive ways of addressing the ‘problem’:

Formulating a question in different ways can help you look at a problem from different angles. In the case above, for example, you can find new angles by putting the question in another way: How can we sell more? So, instead of finding solutions to the problem of getting people to vacate the tables more quickly, you can also come up with solutions such as set up a take-away stand so that people can have a snack or drink by the departure gates, or sell picnic bags that passengers can take onto the planes with them and so on.

Are there other ‘built environment’ examples of deliberately creating worry to force certain behaviour onto users? What about product design?

Of course, much pharmaceutical (and anti-virus software) marketing and government security/crime propaganda through the ages has taken this line (it’s almost expected), but physical examples seem rarer.


  1. Three remarks.
    1: Does it not occur to the cafe to simply increase its seating capacity to meet demand?

    2: Security/pharma marketing is not quite the same. An external threat exists and they either inform people about it, or perhaps overhype it a little (and downplay side effects, e.g. liver damage from various medications or crashes and slowdowns from installing anything by Symantec). These companies are also marketing a defense against the threat they are hyping. This cafe, on the other hand, is creating the threat of missing a flight intentionally, and the coffee they sell and seating they provide is not a defense against that threat. Rather different kettles of fish, these two cases are.

    3: It’s occurred to me that some of the anti-sit devices (although clearly not uncomfortable chairs/anti-homeless benches or any indoor ones) might actually be targeted not at humans but at pigeons — particularly the fairly-dense-spikes-and-sh*t-on-a-ledge-or-standpipe type, and particularly in London and New York where they’re especially well documented and the accumulation of pigeon poop is a major public-works headache…the effects on human would-be sitters may just be collateral damage in a war with flying vermin.

  2. Firstly, any time a merchant finds themselves with a product that their customer highly values (comfortable seating and environment), it seems a plot has been lost when strategies involve ‘value removal’.

    Given that price adjustment is unlikely to be a solution, given ebb and flow of demand, and that making coffee suddenly more expensive still doesn’t persuade people who’ve already bought it cheaper to vacate, I have another solution: a secondary market.

    The coffee shop sells coffee and provides seating, but it also provides a facility for people to buy/sell their seats. And only those who’ve purchased a coffee can participate.

    Enabling customers to freely trade the seating may at first glance appear to be completely impractical, but with enough thought I reckon it could be done.

    It would only really kick in when there were no free tables. So, usually, seating works as normal – informally. However, when things get busy customers could start seeing signs on their table saying “Surrendering your seat is now valued at $1. Your table at $10.”

  3. Although I like the direction of Crosbie’s thinking, which is to recognize value and release it into a free market governed by supply and demand, I’m stuck on a missing component in the subject scenario.

    The restaurant is faced with the natural desire to increase turnover and therefore business. Doing this is common practice, and although many of us stop frequenting places where we’re subtly and not so subtly hustled through a timetable dictated meal, it seems that there are still plenty of patrons who accept the practice.

    The missing component is this. The restaurant wishes to increase sales by increasing the number of patrons served. They can’t increase their space, but is there some particular reason they can’t offer their product via take out? One would hope that their popularity is at least partly based on their primary product. If the product were available regardless of the availability of the comfy seating, the customers might very well additionally develop their own processes for getting the comfy seat inside.

    Oh, and (btw) why can’t the airport flight monitors be accessed by any traveller on a PDA anyway? Is this just a convenience/business idea no one’s thought of?


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