Design and Preventing Behaviours

Tesco claimed the spikes were to discourage anti-social behaviour (Picture: Corbis)

I was reading about the ‘anti-homeless spikes’ incident that occurred in UK and other countries, and being an outsider to the issue, I can see why places like Tesco or banks would want to prevent homeless people from hanging out at certain areas, but the action they took was very stupid, I can’t describe it in any other way. It was plain stupidity.

If you recall Fogg’s behaviour grid, preventing or stopping behaviors is harder than starting new behaviors. And when it is done on a societal level it gets even harder. Much more harder when it is implemented -read forced- by one entity. It’s nothing new , it’s all around us but some interventions are designed to be more subtle and blend in our environment that we barely notice them now, i.e zebra crossing. Unlike the not so clever anti homeless spikes. And I can think of a couple like these here in Cairo. (The guardian has a very good post on what is now being called ‘hostile architecture’)

Many of the public schools around Cairo face the problem of students ditching school by showing up in the morning then climbing the walls of the school to ‘escape’ and the schools solution to this was to install sharp broken glass pieces in cement on the top side of the walls!


This is a photo I took at the Nozha hospital, and they have also installed some spikes, thought not as offensive as the ones installed for the homeless, and that is for preventing people from sitting and blocking the ambulance passage to the main door. Very valid reason of course, but there was absolutely nowhere to sit and wait for a car or a taxi, no benches, no waiting area, nothing.

This makes me question how much freedom does a designer get? Are we entitled to rewrite a design brief?

There is always a behavior aligned with the behavior you want to prevent or stop. And it’s always an easier behavior to work on because it’s a behavior you would influence in order to jumpstart. And it would probably be better for your business success and image.

It sounds like a no brainer writing this down, but it’s usually not the problem solving tactic taken as seen from these examples. Meaning, instead of preventing people from sitting in an area, you can start encouraging people to start sitting in another area. If you provide me with a comfortable place to sit and wait, why should I choose to sit on the edge of a store’s “sidewalk” and block the hospital entrance?

Instead of physically preventing students from climbing school fences, you can encourage them to stay in school, and not give them another reason to call the school a prison. Instead of designing ‘unskate-able’ benches, you can design a skating area for teens to hangout at. Instead of installing spikes to prevent the homeless from sleeping under bridges maybe you can design another intervention to solve the issue in the first place.

I understand that there is more to these issues that might stop businesses or government entities from investing in this kind of problem solving; whether it’s business interests, time or money. But seeing that the spikes incident didn’t help with any of those, i think choosing a different type of behavior would have yielded better results.