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Consumers Behaving Badly: Is Design to Blame?

lady-on-phoneI am waiting at an intersection in my car in a quiet San Francisco neighborhood, when a well-dressed, professional looking woman jumps out of her new Mercedes SL ahead of me. She reaches into the back seat, grabs a big armful of clothes (no bag) and runs up to the doorstep of a Goodwill outpost on the corner and unceremoniously dumps them aggressively in a scattered mess on their doorstep. She runs back to her still running car, jumps in and speeds off.

I think: Amazing.

Over the previous 48 hours I have observed multiple instances of seemingly normal people behaving badly, although lately this seems somehow normal. But this latest incident strikes me. In a moment of giving, this lady manages to be unbelievably rude.

I am not sure about you, but it feels to me that uncivilized behavior is clearly on the rise. But the clothes-dumping Mercedes lady causes me to think more about it. Why is this happening? Clearly, stress is at an all-time high. I've probably been quite rude at times myself unintentionally. I am sure the current economic climate is behind some of it, but then an unexpected question pops in my head. Is design in part to blame?

Here's my hypothesis: We are so connected now that peace is elusive. I know I have had to force myself at times to just say no to my iPhone—I find myself in social situations having to stifle the urge to crank up the ol' pocket pal just to see what is up. We are bombarded constantly with e-mail, IMs, Twitters, RSS feeds, YouTube, iPhone games, the list goes on and on. It's hard to find moments where the brain can just be still.

mobile phones
The culprits?

Bear with me, as here is where design comes in. I work on these connected devices, both on hardware and software. And all our emphasis is on giving people easy and seamless access to more and more information. We focus most on being able to do more in less time, and to help people be more connected all the time. But we seldom, if ever, consider the consequences of this hyper-easy connectivity. I am starting to think we should stop and ask ourselves: How can I make this thing give people some peace?

This brings me to the more interesting question: Should designers focus on changing people's behavior? That is, through what we create, can we help alter human behavior for the common good? And is this approach right, ethical, or in fact Orwellian in nature?

Of course there are macro issues where design can help modify people's behavior for the better. Reducing energy consumption comes to mind. But what about just encouraging people to be more civil?

Maybe. Your thoughts?

Read more of Robert Brunner's Design Matters blog

After graduating in industrial design from San Jose State University in 1981, Robert co-founded the design consultancy Lunar. Subsequently, he was hired as Director of Industrial Design for Apple Computer where he served for seven years. In 1996, he was appointed partner in the international firm Pentagram, helping lead the San Francisco office. In 2006, Brunner and entrepreneur Alex Siow launched the start-up Fuego, a new concept in outdoor grilling. In 2007, Robert founded Ammunition, focusing on the overlap between product design, brand and experience. He continues to lead Ammunition and Fuego concurrently.

In 2008, Robert co-authored the book Do You Matter? How Great Design Will Make People Love Your Company with Success Built to Last author Stewart Emery. He also teaches advanced product design at Stanford University.