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Design for Sustainable Behaviour

Updated: Apr 19, 2021

Conshumourism is about employing humour to design for sustainable behaviour, so it is kinda important we understand what it means. Design for sustainable behaviour is essentially a combination of design for sustainability and design for behaviour. So we will begin with understanding what sustainability and design for behaviour means and finally look at design for sustainable behaviour.


Sustainability can be defined as a socio-ecological process characterized by the pursuit of a common ideal. An ideal is by definition unattainable in a given time and space. However, by persistently and dynamically approaching it, the process results in a sustainable system. Socio-economic inequality, waste and pollution are all designed problems and its now design's task to work towards setting things right. Here's a fun manifesto on design for sustainability for you!

source - shawnpricedpp.blogspot

Design for Behaviour

Dan Lockton who developed the design with intent toolkit says "all design influences our behaviour, but as designers we don’t always consciously consider the power this gives us to help people (and, sometimes, to manipulate them). Whether we mean to do it or not, it's going to happen, so we might as well get good at it — and understand when it’s being done to us. There’s a huge opportunity for design for behaviour change to address social and environmental issues, but as yet little in the way of a guide for designers and other stakeholders, bringing together knowledge from different disciplines, and drawing parallels which can allow concepts to be transposed.

While people are not fully predictable, there is enough psychological evidence that we are, at least, predictably irrational. There are recurring patterns of decision-making heuristics and biases, and designers with an understanding of these have a powerful tool for influencing behaviour".

We’re shaped by our context, we rely on habits and we’re heavily influenced by rules of thumb – mental shortcuts to decision making that may have little to do with the most “rational” or beneficial option. As Kahneman says “Humans are to thinking as cats are to swimming. We can do it when we have to, but we’d much prefer not to”.

In designing for behaviour there 2 important ideas:

Cognitive Bias - These are mental shortcuts that our brain creates based on previous experience (or lack thereof) to direct our responses to stimuli in a certain default direction. Probes are designed based on these, to achieve a desired behaviour. A complex mapping of the various cognitive biases are given below. (source - wikimedia commons)

Investment - These help in understanding the feasibility and impact of the probes designed based on cognitive biases as mentioned above. We don’t change behaviour because either we are unaware (psychological) or unwilling (social) or unable (physical). Designers need to be cognisant of what people need to invest, in order for the intended behaviour to succeed.

Various types of investments are as listed below. (source - behaviourkit.com)

Design for Sustainable Behaviour (DfSB)

In DfSB, design is used to encourage and enable new ways of doing and interacting with the world that in turn contribute to a sustainable society (Clune 2010; Lilley 2007; Lockton, Harrison and Stanton 2008). It is vital to remember that one cannot design behaviour, one can only influence people’s preconditions for acting with products by designing or redesigning artefacts.

Designers can approach sustainability in 2 broad ways:

  1. designing sustainable commodities and services as alternatives

  2. design that informs, encourages and maintains sustainable behaviour

As shown in the image above (source) DfSB addresses the environmental, socio-ethical and economic dimensions of sustainability. It plays out at various levels like product level to spatio-social level and has blend of technology and people involved. It is also a rather recent field of study and work in being done to figure out ways to test the outcomes. Below is a framework which highlights the different design strategies to achieve a desired sustainable behaviour.

The rationale behind design for sustainable behaviour lies in the grave global effects of unsustainable consumption, calling for immediate, fundamental shifts in consumption patterns and resource distribution. However, individual freedom is a taboo area for political intervention. It constitutes a major barrier to sustainability efforts depending on politicians taking the lead and industry acting proactively, both being under scrutiny of the main public. So it becomes all the more important for us, as designers to keep trying to inform, encourage and ensure behaviours that make for a sustainable society while also lobbying for large scale policies and systems to ensure radical changes.

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