All posts filed under “Designed to injure

What’s the deal with angled steps?

Angled StepsIt’s a simple question, really, to any readers with experience in urban planning and specifying architectural features: what is the reasoning behind positioning steps at an angle such as this set (left and below) leading down to the Queen’s Walk near London Bridge station?

Obviously one reason is to connect two walkways that are offset slightly where there is no space to have a perpendicular set of steps, but are they ever used strategically? They’re much more difficult to run down or up than conventionally perpendicular steps, which would seem like it might help constrain escaping thieves, or make it less likely that people will be able to run from one walkway to another without slowing down and watching their step.

Like the configuration of spiral staircases in mediaeval castles to favour a defender running down the steps anticlockwise, holding a sword in his right hand, over the attacker running up to meet him (e.g. as described here), the way that town marketplaces were often built with pinch points at each end to make it more difficult for animals (or thieves) to escape, or even the ‘enforced reverence’ effect of the very steep steps at Ta Keo in Cambodia, are angled steps and staircases ever specified deliberately with this intent?

Angled Steps

The first time I thought of this was confronting these steps (below) leading from the shopping centre next to Waverley Station in Edinburgh a couple of years ago: they seemed purpose-built to slow fleeing shoplifters, but I did consider that it might just be my tendency to see everything with a ‘Design with Intent’ bias – a kind of conspiracy bias, ascribing to design intent that which is perhaps more likely to be due to situational factors (a kind of fundamental attribution error for design), or inferring the intention behind a design by looking at its results!

What’s your angle on the steps?

Angled Steps

{In|Ex}clusive Design

Spikes and rail, Bradford-on-Avon

Giving with one hand, and taking away with the other.

The juxtaposition of hand rails and anti-sit spikes outside this church in Bradford-on-Avon, Wiltshire suggests a particular configuration of design priorities: helping people climb the steps, but forbidding anyone sitting on the wall.

Are the targets different groups of people? We might think so: older people may have more difficulty climbing the steps, and so be more likely to need hand rails, and younger people might be more likely to be ‘hanging around’ outside, and thus ‘need’ to be ‘discouraged’. This might be a simple case of discriminatory architecture, aimed at excluding one group while welcoming another.

But then older people like sitting down too. People in general like sitting down. Is this a case of cutting off your nose to spite own face? Whatever the ‘backstory’ is, the intent behind the different features, and the decision-making process (the spikes look older than the rails) would be interesting to know.

Spikes and rail, Bradford-on-Avon

Spikes and rail, Bradford-on-Avon

Spikes and rail, Bradford-on-Avon

Skinner and the Mousewrap

Mousewrap -, an interesting interface design experiment by Alex Frank, included this amusing idea, the Mousewrap, to ‘train’ users not to click any more “through physical pain”.

It did make me think: is the use of anti-sit spikes on window sills, ledges, and so on, or anti-climb spikes on walls, intended primarily as a Skinnerian operant conditioning method (punishment – i.e. getting spiked – leading to decrease in the behaviour), or as a perceived affordance method (we see that it looks uncomfortable to sit down, so we don’t do it)? How do deterrents like this actually work?

It might seem a subtle difference, and in practice it probably doesn’t matter; it’s probably a bit of both, in fact. Most people will be discouraged by seeing the spikes, and for the few who aren’t, they’ll learn after getting spiked.

But on what level do anti-pigeon spikes work? Do pigeons perceive the lack of ‘comfort’ affordance? Or do they try and perch and only then ‘learn’? How similar does the spike (or whatever) have to be to others the animal has seen? Do animals (and humans) only learn to perceive affordances (or the lack of them) after having been through the operant conditioning process previously – and then generalising from that experience to all spikes?

What’s the accepted psychological wisdom on this?

Some spikes in Windsor, Poundbury, Chiswick and Dalston, UK.

Discriminatory architecture

In memory of Leonard Ball, who hated fat peopleThe entries in B3ta‘s current image challenge, ‘Fat Britain’, include this amusing take on anti- $USER_CLASS benches by monkeon.

(There’s also this, using a slightly different discriminatory architecture technique – don’t click if you’re likely to be offended, etc, by B3ta’s style.)





Destroy everything you touch

The sandpaper cover of Debord's Memoires. Images from eBay

We can’t help but be familiar with the concept of ‘malicious code’ in the context of computer security and programming, but in general the idea of products or technology which, as they’re used, sabotage or degrade the performance of a ‘rival’, is intriguing and not well-explored. Scott Craver’s Underhanded C contest is a fascinating example from the ‘white hat’ side of the fence; Microsoft’s use of deliberately targeted style sheets on to degrade Opera’s performance is another; and the CIA’s alleged planting of software bugs in Russian pipeline control software is a third. The Sony DRM rootkit might also fall into this category (as would this!)

But on a much more concrete level, we have this playful example: Memoires by Guy Debord, psychogeographer and Situationist, was originally published with a rough sandpaper cover:

Memoires was written, or rather assembled, by Guy Debord and Asger Jorn in 1957. Debord himself often referred to Memoires as an anti-book, and the original edition was bound in sandpaper, that it might destroy other books. The text is entirely composed of fragments taken from other texts: photographs, advertisements, comic strips, poetry, novels, philosophy, pornography, architectural diagrams, newspapers, military histories, wood block engravings, travel books, etc. Each page presents a collage of such materials connected or effaced by Jorn’s structures portantes, lines or amorphous painted shapes that mediate the relationships between the fragments.

(from an article by David Banash)

Debord's Memoires. Images from eBay

And from this article by Christian Nolle:

The book is most famous for its sandpaper cover. An auto-destruction feature that enabled it to damage not only the book it might be standing next to in the bookshelf, but also the person who would be reading it. An anti-book to destroy all other books.

Permild writes: “Long had he [Jorn] asked me, if I couldn’t find a unconventional material for the book cover. Preferably some sticky asphalt or perhaps glass wool. Kiddingly, he wanted, that by looking at people, you should be able to tell whether or not they had had the book in their hands. He acquiesced by my [Permild’s] final suggestion: sandpaper (flint) nr. 2: ‘Fine. Can you imagine the result when the book lies on a blank polished mahogany table, or when it’s inserted or taken out of the bookshelf. It plans shavings of the neighbours desert goat [?]’.

In all the literature that I have located, Debord is the person who is refered to as the inventor of the sandpaper cover. However, as it turns out Debord had nothing to do with it… Permild continues, «Asger loved – as he often expressed it, to place small time controlled bombs». This was certainly a bomb. A bomb invented by the printer, whose job is normally of a technical nature. The sandpaper cover was a really good idea, but practically it never managed to practice what it preached. It did, however, make its readers conscious about handling it or where to place it.

One the other hand, Memoires placed itself on a shelf among precious object, something to be handled with great care… The American Hakem Bey did something similar in the 1970s. In homage to Guy Debord, Bey made a book with sandpaper on the inside. This way he rendered the book into auto-destruct mode if you would ever dare to read it. A potential bomb to go off if you would open it. Memoires, on other hand is a bomb, not a potential bomb. No matter how you would handle it, there was always the danger that it could damage your precious collection of 1920s French poetry.

The photos above come from this French eBay listing – the copy on sale reached €3,810.

Design & Punishment

Design & Punishment chair, by Ben Cunningham
Design and Punishment, by Ben Cunningham. Photo from the Arts Institute at Bournemouth‘s 2007 Three Dimensional Design graduate directory.

Very neatly linking the themes of the last two posts (devices to make users aware of their energy use, and intentionally uncomfortable seating) is the Design and Punishment chair by Ben Cunningham, a Three Dimensional Design graduate from the Arts Institute at Bournemouth.

Simply, the concept is a chair which progressively collapses as the user’s home energy use becomes excessive, and restores itself when corrective action is taken (such as turning devices off):

Chairs are designed to support a person’s weight: this is taken for granted, but what if that feature were taken away from the user until they have done their bit? This is a way of forcefully highlighting the issue, so they cannot ignore it any more.

The idea is for a range of products with similar ideas – one of Ben’s lecturers, Christian McLening, also mentioned to me the idea of a light cord that retracts gradually the more energy is used, and a bookshelf that similarly tilts gradually. The light cord sounds intriguing, but by making the cord more difficult to reach (to turn it off), it perhaps signifies the opposite of what’s intended. Along the lines of what Crosbie Fitch suggested here, lights which gradually dimmed as the house’s energy consumption increased might be an interesting alternative. But Ben’s aim was very much to play with the ‘punishment’ aspect:

Design and Punishment was, to begin with, a look at designing a product that could make saving energy in the home easier through better awareness. The products force the user to cut down on their energy consumption. Instead of trying to make energy saving easier, the range of products forces the user to save [energy] or suffer a punishment.

Again, the line between forcing the user (physically) to behave in a certain way, and persuading him or her to change behaviour, is not a distinct one; as Toby commented here, both are methods of control, and both are powerful, but in cases such as this where the user would have to choose to purchase the chair voluntarily (Ben’s chair is only a concept product, but the principle stands), the persuasion/coercion would be two/three-pronged: inspiring the purchase in the first place/motivating the user to use it where more convenient alternatives are available, and the actual forcing aspect when the user’s behaviour is changed, rather than the product being abandoned in frustration/annoyance.