Hidden Design Strategies

Unpleasant design strategies are intended to establish control by creating physical and social boundaries. These designs typically target people who spend a large amount of time in public spaces, such as teenagers and homeless individuals. The intent is to discourage undesirable behaviors in public spaces such as loitering, robberies, drug use, and underage drinking.

 “Unpleasant design is something that deters certain behaviors and certain users from particular public spaces.”- Selena Savic

Cities commonly use these 5 unpleasant design strategies:

1. Public Seating Restricts Contact and Communication

Unpleasant Design Strategies: Camden BenchPublic seating arrangements are one of the most commonly seen unpleasant design strategies. For example, park benches, train stations, and bus stops are designed to be comfortable for only short periods of time. As a result, this discourages people from gathering in groups and lingering in public spaces.

Furthermore, park benches typically have armrests in between the seats to restrict individuals from laying down. The only way for an individual to use theses benches is to sit upright, facing forward, without facing others. This discourages eye contact and conversation.

For example, London’s Camden Benches, feature concrete and special paint to resist graffiti. The flat surface has no nooks to discourage dealers from using the bench to hide drugs. In addition, the bench has purposefully uneven sides, making it impossible to skate on. Frank Swain, a writer for Medium, described this uncomfortable bench as the “perfect anti-object.”


2. Music Volume and Speed Influence Length of Stay

Unpleasant Design Strategies for Teenagers in Public SpacesWhen restaurants or stores don’t want teenagers hanging around outside their building, they will often play loud classical music through external speakers aimed at the sidewalk. Unpleasant design strategies such as loud music can deter teens from spending time in a given area.

In addition, high-priced restaurants use slow-paced music to encourage diners to stay longer and order more drinks. In contract, lower-priced restaurants typically play upbeat, fast-paced music to encourage quicker turnover among diners. Music helps the restaurants achieve their desired sales strategies.


3. Pink and Blue Lighting Discourage Undesirable Behaviors

Unpleasant Design Strategies: Blue Light in Public RestroomsIn 2009, the Nottinghamshire Housing Estates in England installed pink lights on busy underpasses, which reportedly have a calming impact and emphasize skin flaws. The intent of this lighting was to highlight teenagers insecurities about their appearance and deter them from spending time there. At first, local residents were doubtful about the legitimacy of this strategy. It did not prove to be effective.

Today, public restrooms and bus stops in cities often use blue lighting, which makes it more difficult to see veins. The intent of this light is to deter intravenous drug users from congregating.


4. Metal Spikes Prevent the Homeless from Resting

Unpleasant Design Strategies: Metal SpikesIn cities, metal spikes appear on walls to deter homeless individuals from resting in particular areas. For example, Tesco, a grocery store in London placed one-inch spikes outside their store reportedly to”prevent antisocial behavior.” These spikes were removed after the public protested.

For example, metal spikes help control bird behavior. Specifically, city planners oftne place spikes on rooftops and window sills to prevent pigeons from resting there.


5. Fences Control Access to Natural Areas

Unpleasant Design Strategies: Nature Center Fences

In nature preserves, wooden paths and fences often restrict public access to the woods. These borders help preserve terrain by restricting human visitors to the pre-approved paths. Wooden fences remove our opportunity to interact with plants and learn from the surrounding environment.

Is it possible for humans and nature to coexist peacefully without these physical boundaries? For example, educational programs could teach children how to respect and care for the trails.


The Contrast: Welcoming Design in Public Spaces

Pleasant Design Strategies These design strategies may prevent undesirable behaviors in public. However, when we create structures to prevent undesirable behaviors, we also remove many potential scenarios for positive human interactions. By incorporating more comfortable and welcoming designs into shared spaces, we can build communities with more connection, trust, conversation, and learning opportunity.

This blog post was inspired by the podcast 99% Invisible. To learn more about this topic, check out the book Unpleasant Design created by Gordan Savicic and Selena Savic.

*Featured Photo Source: Inhabitat