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Last week  I attended a talk (arranged by Skillswap Brighton) on the topic of persuasive design.

This is something of a buzz topic right now- from the ubiquity of Cass Sunstein’s Nudge (winner of my “desk-furniture for planners award 2009”), to the emergence of the Persuasive Technology Lab at Stanford University, to the biggest advertiser in the UK‘s newly-stated ambition of ‘behaviour change’- it concerns bypassing the traditional ‘change-attitudes-first’ model of communications and going straight for the behaviour jugular by influencing an individual’s decision-making apparatus without necessarily engaging their conscious mind. A lot of this stuff builds upon the still-awesome exploration of human adaptation to environments in Jane Fulton-Suri’s photographic essay ‘thoughtless acts‘.


One of my favoutite books, that is.

The speaker I went to see was the fresh-faced Dan Lockton, a research student at Brunel University who has achieved no small measure of fame already for his compelling work in this area. His contribution to the field is the Design with Intent Toolkit (free to download and experiment with) which helps to stratify the various ways in which designers can influence people’s behaviour whether by ‘enabling’ choice (making an option more attractive by making it easier than alternatives) or by constraining choice (the opposite – think park benches that are designed to discourage people sleeping on them).

Here he is, giving the very talk I witnessed:


He also has a knack of coming with rather good analogies – particularly for design that failed to understand the behavioural ecosystem it exists within.

One I particularly liked was the vision of a fire door propped open by a fire extinguisher.


Anyway, the Design with Intent approach is very interesting and I think enormously relevant to any communications practice in this day and age when everything is media, and the practise of embedding communications thinking in products, services, interfaces and interactions becomes ever more important.

Here’s an example image of one of Lockton’s Design with Intent Toolkit‘s ‘lenses’:

DwI Toolkit

These various ‘lenses’ are used to provoke a myriad of possible design solutions to a particular behavioural problem.

The example he used in the talk was the problem of household energy consumption, where behavioural ‘decisions’ (or more correctly, non-decisions)  account for somewhere in the region of 26-36% of usage. Kettles, for example, are routinely overfilled- even for the purpose of making a single cup of tea. This is a behavioural norm that is harmless routine at the level of the individual, but that has extreme and problematic ramifications at the state or global level.

So what’s the solution?

Is it a ‘2.0’ style social interface that uploads your kettle-data to the web and automatically compares and contrasts you with your neighbours, fellow citizens or global best-users?

Or is it a plastic filter that automatically shuts after 1 mug’s worth of water is detected?

Or is it a signalling system employing emoticons to provide a timely feedback loop at the point of filling?

We don’t know yet – but the point of this research is to generate enough good, different hypotheses to test, and then report back on the findings, because whilst it presents a very challenging design brief, reducing home energy consumption is at least easy to measure.

At the time of writing, Dan’s talk hadn’t yet been uploaded as a podcast, but I’m sure you’ll be able to find it here soon. In the meantime, there’s plenty of other interesting talks to peruse – big thanks to Skillswap Brighton for a thoroughly stimulating evening 🙂

Images sourced from event organiser boxman on Flickr, from Andreas Kirstensson on Flickr, and from Dan Lockton’s site

Whilst enjoying the excellent Anish Kapoor – curated Brighton Festival this month, I’ve managed to poke around some artists’ “open houses” (most have lovely bathrooms), see a whole bunch of strange street performances, some hit-and-miss installations and a shed load of live music at the truly wonderful Great Escape festival.

One of the more off-piste projects I encountered during this period was Victoria Melody’s “The Demographic of a Pigeon Fancier”.

pigeon fancier

As the flyer says the exhibition was very much about Englishness, and by taking a very specific route into the topic (namely, the fading northern institution of pigeon racing) it seemed to succeed in bringing some of the more universal associations and connotations of ‘Englishness’ to light.

The installation consisted of a number of different elements.

The first, and most striking, was a hypnotic ‘pigeon-cam’ video projected onto the wall of the gallery opposite the entrance. Everyone who entered the exhibition stood, transfixed for some moments by the simultaneously familiar and alien viewpoint the film showed.

pigeon video hotchilicat

There was something clever about this – the fantasy of flight, of freedom as represented by seeing from a truly bird’s-eye view was successfully rendered smaller, mundane and mean by both the status of the bird itself (pigeons are generally regarded as flying vermin in London and the South) and the spectacle of the landscape it held lofty dominion over; characterless suburban semis with neatly enclosed gardens and garages, all smothered by the leaden blanket of an English sky.

Once you descended fully into the gallery space, you were faced by two suspended nests of handwritten parcel tags. One of these ‘nests’ was composed of messages sent via homing pigeon from people in Cumbria addressing ‘southerners’ in general – including pearls like the one captured below:

pigeon tags

The other nest was composed of messages written by people in Brighton addressed to inhabitants of ‘”the North” in general, and visitors were invited to record their thoughts on a blank tag with the promise that it may be included on the pigeons’ return trip to Cumbria at the end of the exhibition. The tags, and the functional hardwood shelves that housed them, were also deliberately reminiscent of another, even more rapidly fading English institution, the local Post Office.

The far wall of the gallery was covered in newspaper clippings, letters and photographs gathered by the artist during her extended tour of the North where she spent her time documenting the lives of England’s forgotten fanciers.

Adding depth to this material were 3 close-cropped talking-head documentary interviews, installed so that the monitors displaying the films served as the heads and faces of a tableaux of three stereotypical pigeon-fancying mannequins – all dressed up in flat caps and body-warmers with pies or pints of bitter clasped in plastic hands. These films played alternately, often freezing mid-sentence as another of the mannequins took its turn to speak about the decline of their 10,000 year old tradition.

Something about the gallery setting, and the genuinely thoughtful way in which the artist had used the space made this really feel like a trip into a different England; a place far removed from Brighton’s metropolitan sensibilities and somewhat mired in the past- but at the same time retaining a strong sense of pride and a surety of identity that is notable by it’s absence down here.

It was fun, interesting, thought-provoking and kind of sad all at the same time, and probably my favourite thing from the festival this year.

Sadly, I missed the liberation of the homing pigeons that took place at 10:00am on bank holiday Monday – I was in bed with a hangover- and am still eagerly watching Flickr for some photographic evidence of the event.

So far I have found an image of some specially bred fancy pigeons sitting in Jubilee Square waiting to be set free…

pigeon release fred_pipes

… if you saw it and have a photo, please send me the link – thanks!

PS if you want to know what I sent to our friends in the north, either dm me @smimarchie or send a homing pigeon 🙂

Images sourced from Flickr users hotchilicat, melita_dennett and fred pipes


I work in media as a strategist. I like art, robots, comics, interaction design, karaoke, wildlife photography, indian food, campari, gaming, American TV (teen drama included), reading non-fiction, reading fiction and listening to music. I also have a tenori-on because I'm so rad.

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