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Design thinking
Design thinking

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2.2 Changing our behaviour

The word ‘need’ also implies improvement. We design new things because we think they will improve our lives somehow; for example, they may make us look better, feel better about ourselves, develop us, help us communicate more or get about more easily. Design changes us for the better.

Or does it? Can you think of any design that doesn't make us better or has made things turn out for the worse?

Activity 5 For better or for worse

On a blank sheet of paper make three columns and label them as follows:

Table 2 Design examples
Example Better/Worse Intentional/Unintentional

Now look through a newspaper or magazine and find five examples of design (Quiet Design or Designer Design). Note these in column 1. Then, for each of your five examples note down in the second column one reason why the example has made the world a better place, and one reason why it might have made it a worse place (although, perhaps, you might not be able to think of anything here). In the third column, for each reason you’ve listed in the second column, note whether you think the reason you’ve given in the second column was intentional or unintentional.


Here are a couple of things I found in my newspaper. One was an article about how the design of urban environments has largely been done by men for men, without considering the needs of women – bus shelter seats that are difficult to sit on, for example. The other was an article about the design of new schools, and how the way that they are currently funded largely prohibits teachers from contributing to the design process. My columns look like this:

Table 2 Design examples
Example Better/Worse Intentional/Unintentional
Urban environments (bus shelters)

+ Provides shelter from the elements

- Doesn’t meet the needs of some users



New schools

+ Meet the needs of modern education

- Poor teaching environments



The effects of design are often a little different from the intentions of a designer or design team, and sometimes drastically so. In the 1990s, a new computer-aided dispatch system designed to make the emergency response of the London Ambulance Service quicker and more efficient actually resulted in more deaths through ambulance delays (Masters, 1997). We can be quite sure that this was not the intention; nevertheless people lost their lives as a result of design. Another example is that of mobile phones. As we noted before we now have an extraordinary ability to communicate wherever we are, though at the same time if this happens to be on a quiet train we curse mobile phones under our breath, and are sometimes even moved to intervene.

Design, intentionally or unintentionally, changes our behaviour. This is, perhaps, the hallmark of design. Lawrence Lessig has noticed how designs (he calls them ‘things’) often have a ‘law-like’ character, regulating our behaviour in certain ways. Lessig (1999) describes four ways in which our behaviour is controlled and regulated. Let’s look at the example of parking:

  • The first is by the law. It is determined that it is illegal to park in some places, and most people generally observe this law. If they break this law, and are observed to have done so, they are penalised.
  • The second is by norms. In places where people do park they observe an unofficial code – 'leave a bit of distance between the car you are parking next to', or 'don't block someone else's exit'.
  • The third is by the market. Whether you can afford to park affects your ability to park. So if the market determines a price that you cannot afford (or refuse to pay), then you will look for somewhere else to park.
  • The final way is by architecture (what we can think of as design). A few painted lines on a piece of tarmac mean that we all park in a certain orientation, because the architecture 'tells' us to.

Activity 6 Design and behaviour

Taking the activity of driving in a car, provide an example for each of the four ways listed above that regulate our behaviour.


Law: By law we have to drive on the left, and to a speed limit.

Norms: When we pull over on a narrow road to let someone else pass, we expect that they will acknowledge our action.

Market: Using an alternative route to avoid paying a road toll, or buying a more economical car to save money on fuel.

Design: An indicator provides a way to tell other people that we are turning. An accelerator allows us to go faster.

Activity 7 Optional reading

Even an activity as simple as walking can be regulated by things. Just putting up a sign saying ‘do not walk here’ has the effect of regulating and ordering our walking behaviour. The following short article, In the Street by Peter Campbell, gives you some idea of the kind of things that influence our walking behaviour in an urban environment.

In the Street [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)]

Design, then, is one of the factors that shapes the way we live, generally for the better, but not necessarily so.