Design Governs Our Behaviour

Trine Brun Petersen, a Ph.D. scholar at Designskolen Kolding under the auspices of the Danish Centre for Design Research, has set out to investigate whether design can effect changes in human behaviour. The preliminary conclusion in her project Design, behaviour and power is that design has a considerable potential for making people act differently than they normally do.

By Hans Emborg Bünemann

That design is capable of providing us with aesthetic experiences and improving the functional aspects of objects is certainly not news. But to many people, the notion that designers would be able, through their work, to cause us to alter our behaviour in certain situations is a new insight indeed. Nevertheless, this is one of the conclusions in Trine Brun Petersen’s Ph.D. project. The project addresses attempts to affect human behaviour and interactions through design.
“We are used to distinguishing between objects and people, but we don’t typically consider that not only other people but objects too can make us behave in a particular way,” says Trine Brun Petersen.


Hippo Water Roller
Hippo Water Roller is a water container, designed to enable easier and more efficient water transportation in developing countries. This ability of design to affect human behaviour is a key point of Trine Brun Petersen’s research project.
Photo: Hippo Water Roller,

Access to Water

As an example that design has the potential to make people do things in new ways, Trine Brun Petersen points to water taps in amusement parks. People can use them to rinse their hands, but they cannot fill up their water bottles here, partly because the water is lukewarm and thus not attractive as drinking water, partly because there is no room to fit a water bottle under the tap.
“The tap design may be interpreted as part of a capitalist agenda. Patrons should be encouraged to buy bottled water rather than quenching their thirst for free. The same way that school in Denmark teaches us to be critical of advertising, I believe that in the future we should become far more aware of those sorts of mechanisms in design,” she points out.

Not-for-profit projects also benefit from the capacity of design to affect human behaviour, with the water container named Hippo Water Roller for use in the third world as a case in point. It is a cylindrical container with a handle, which enables, for example, Africans who have no access to running water to fetch up to 90 litres of water at a time without having to carry it on their backs or on their heads.

Persuasive Design

There are many examples that designers are increasingly designing behaviour in addition to merely designing objects. In the USA, one finds the so-called bum-proof benches: benches whose design prevents users from lying down, so that they do not attract homeless people.


Bænk Broadway New York Bænk Washington DC Bænk Metro New York
Bum-proof benches. Examples of benches that affect user behaviour through design, because they are impossible to lie down on. (1) Broadway, New York City; (2) George Washington University, Washington, D.C.; (3) Metro station 86th Street, New York City.
Photo: Hans Emborg Bünemann

With the French philosopher and anthropologist Bruno Latour as her source, Trine Brun Petersen mentions another example of the discipline of Persuasive design, which means using design to persuade consumers to do something they would not otherwise have done, such as buying a particular product: In order to make motorists drive safely, one might appeal to their conscience by posting signs that read ‘Speed kills’. One might also place a police officer on the site, thus threatening people with fines if they transgress. Or one might elect to design a speed bump, so that slowing down is in the motorists’ self-interest.

The Need for Research

Thus, design may replace traditional approaches to changing human behaviour. According to Trine Brun Petersen, design is often charged with values, a topic that she thinks design research ought to explore more closely. As illustrated in the examples, designers are already attempting to affect behaviour, and Trine Brun Petersen emphasises the importance of designers assessing their own practice with a critical eye. In this context, the purpose of design research is to describe these mechanisms, also in order to enable consumers to make better choices. Design is ubiquitous, but we lack the tools to assess it apart from determining whether it looks nice or works well, she points out:
“We need to become better at decoding how things affect our behaviours as citizens and as consumers. One of my goals as a design researcher is to contribute knowledge about the underlying values that form the basis for the everyday objects and physical environment that surround us. This includes everything from cutlery to urban planning.”

Statsfængslet ØstJylland
In State Prison Østjylland, Denmark, architects and designers have sought to create good conditions for social contact between inmates and prison staff. In her Ph.D. project, Trine Brun Petersen examines the extent to which the prison design achieves this goal in practice.
Photo: Friis & Moltke

Perspectives for Developing the Design Trade

Based on her own Ph.D. project and other design researchers’ analyses of the ideological aspects of design, Trine Brun Petersen sees important perspectives in design as a driving force for behaviour regulation, not least with regard to social purposes.
“The way computers are designed, the various cables only fit into the designated ports. If we applied a similar approach to sorting waste into different categories such as batteries, metal, glass and compostable waste, society as a whole would take a quantum leap in the right direction," she says.

Trine Brun Petersen presented her Ph.D. project 'Design, Behaviour and Power – A Discussion of Design as a Behaviour-Regulating Practice as Exemplified by State Prison Østjylland' at the conference 'Politics of Designing', which took place at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, School of Architecture, Copenhagen, 18-19 September 2008.

The programme of the conference 'Politics of Designing'

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Mind Design, DCDR Webzine is published once a month and features articles and interviews about current Danish and international design research. Mind Design aims to present design research and research findings from researcher to researcher as well as from researchers to design practitioners in general. Mind Design is edited and published by the Danish Centre for Design Research. Reprint is permitted if credits are included.

Mind Design #13, 2008


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