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Want To Change Your (Bad) Habits? Try Design

We tend to think of our New Year’s resolutions as psychological challenges. But applying some design thinking to our lives may make it much easier to eat less meat or call our mothers more.

If your New Year’s resolutions are a hazy memory at this point–and if willpower alone isn’t helping you, say, exercise more–you might want to try enlisting the help of a designer.

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A class of students in the Pratt Institute’s Graduate Communication Design program spent last semester trying to fix their fellow classmates’ flaws by redesigning their daily life. The project, called “Triggers,” was part of a studio project that applies design thinking to behavior change, both to tackle barriers at the individual and societal levels.


On the first day of class, everyone picked a single habit to start or stop and partnered up with a fellow design student, who spent a couple of weeks researching the habit before prototyping solutions. Students wanted to do everything from eating less meat to regularly calling their mothers.

“We expected that most students would focus on habits having to do with food, money, exercise, or bad hygiene, like biting fingernails,” says Andrew Shea, who taught the class along with David Frisco. “We were surprised by a variety of topics that they chose. One student wanted to stop grinding his teeth, one new international student was afraid that he was changing too quickly and picking up too many American habits. So his was about identity.”


The solutions diverged as widely as the problems. The meat-lover who wanted to eat less meat was assigned to post every meal to Instagram, adding tags like #meatlessmondays that helped him attract people with similar goals who offered support. An international student who wanted to be more social was given a set of cards with prompts (“invite someone to a museum”) and a booklet with tips about how to approach friendly strangers.

Even two students who had the same goal–both wanted to be in better contact with their mothers–ended up being given completely different approaches to changing their habits. It’s an interesting contrast to the proliferation of recent technology, like FitBit or the Nike FuelBand, that also tries to change behavior through design, with an approach that’s a little more one-size-fits-all. “I think there is a place for individualized solutions along with generic technology,” says Shea.

At the same time, each of the solutions could probably be translated into an app or some other type of tool. Several students distilled what they’d learned about their habits into downloadable toolkits that others can use.

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The skills that the students learned about behavior change can easily be applied to almost anything, the professors say. “While we only focused on individual habits, the variety of topics that students worked on serves as a mirror for the range of larger, societal issues that could be addressed,” Frisco explains.

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.

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