Andrew She in his article: Flies in Urinals: the value of Design Disruptions (Design Observer 2012) quotes psychologist David Neal as saying that the best way to create behaviour change is to "disrupt the environment" in a way that might help to “alter the action sequence and disrupt the learned body sequence that's driving the behaviour” What did David Neal mean by this? And how have these ideas been applied through design solutions to effect social change?

We have far less control over our behaviour than we might like to think. Psychologists have found that up to 45% of the behaviour that people described was repeated “in the same physical location almost every day” (Wood and Neal, 2007). This was first suggested by studies conducted in 2002 and 2005 that had participants write hourly diaries documenting what they were doing, thinking and feeling.

The mechanisms that make us repeat the same behaviour over and over have interested scientists for decades. Perhaps one of the first to conduct formal research in this area was Ivan Pavlov, who in 1904 won the Nobel prize for his famous conditioning experiments. Today, more than a hundred years later, psychologists are still asking these questions: How do we acquire habits? To what extent do habits control our behaviour? And how can we unlearn habits that we don’t want anymore?

Continued psychological trials as well as neuroimaging studies have helped psychologists like Wendy Wood and David Neal to develop a better understanding of the way habits form and interact with other facets of our behaviour. This might help us find answers to some of these questions. One of Wood and Neal’s papers, titled “A New Look at Habits and the Habit-Goal Interface” gives an overview of their “synthetic theory” that combines what we know about habits with findings about “the essentially goal-directed nature of […] human behaviour”. (Neal and Wood, 2007)

According to their research, habits often begin as goal-driven behaviour. Imagine you walk into a tube station one morning with the conscious goal in mind to catch up on a football match you missed the night before. You consider your options and eventually decide to buy a paper. You read the article about the football match in the paper and impress everyone at the office with your insight - you have achieved your goal.

Given enough repetition, the response of buying a paper can become disconnected from the original goal. You keep buying a paper every morning even if there was no football match the night before.

This has to do with the way our brain organizes information: We store it in chunks that contain both context clues that define any given situation and the appropriate response. Behaviours become connected to cues in the environment - this can be a visual clue, interacting with certain people or performing another action in a sequence. The sight of the station, the smell of a nearby coffee shop or the sound of the safety announcements make you buy a paper.

In most cases, outsourcing our decision-making to the environment in this way is good for us. It helps us to reduce cognitive load and allows us to perform multiple complex actions at the same time, such as unlocking a car while having a conversation.

As useful as most of our habits are, sometimes we want to change them. The fact that they are detached from our goals makes this difficult: Even if our intention is to eat healthy, cues in the environment will still trigger us to buy fast food. This becomes especially obvious when we try to change other people’s behaviour - as designers are often asked to do. As studies have confirmed, changing people’s intentions does not have much impact on their behaviour. This is especially true when the behaviours we are trying to influence are “conducive to habit formation ” (Webb and Sheeran, 2006). This is why advertising campaigns encouraging people to donate blood tend to be more effective than ones that try to get people to quit smoking. (Spiegel, 2012)

A better way to achieve behaviour change might be - as Neal suggests - to “disrupt the environment” and “alter the action sequence”. What he means is that removing context cues that we know trigger some unwanted habit can be a powerful way to regain control of our behaviour. However, this approach relies on the individual: Context cues for the same behaviour can differ wildly from person to person and consciously avoiding them still requires self-control. Neal and Wood suggest that in fact this strategy “may not reduce the need for people’s effortful control but simply relocate it”.

How can these insights help us make better design decisions to affect social change?

The fly in the urinal, which was first introduced at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam, seems to be the perfect case study. By giving men something to aim for, it reduced spillage rates by 80% - at minimal cost. Except it is not that simple. The often-quoted 80% figure was never scientifically confirmed. According to one expert the actual reduction in cleaning cost - assuming the 80% estimate is correct - is “probably closer to 8%”. (Evans-Pritchard, 2013)

This is not what makes Andrew Shea’s argument problematic. It is that quoting media reports on psychological research to justify design decisions - as attractive as it seems - does not lead anywhere. While anyone on the receiving end of such justifications will find it difficult to argue with what appears to be “hard science”, it is important to remember that scientific research is often not meant to provide practical advice.

The theory of habit formation as described by Neal and Wood is meant to give us a better understanding of human behaviour on a scientific level, and “provide a starting point” for further research. While being aware of psychological research is surely beneficial, taking it literally and relying on it as a magic one-stop solution for real-world design problems is not the way to success. (Crocket, 2012)

If not with the help of psychology, how can design achieve social change?

As San Francisco based designer Mike Monteiro puts it: Designers can achieve change the same way everyone else can. By taking a stand and setting out to fix a problem that gets in your way. Design as a profession is not in a special position to change the world.

One example for this type of “design activism” is the Clearview Typeface (Figure 1.1), designed from 1989 - 2004 by graphic designer Donald Meeker and typographer James Montalbano. It is the primary typeface used on road signs in the United States and Canada.

Meeker noticed that road signs across the United States looked cluttered and were difficult to read at a distance. This was especially true for older drivers, who constitute over 45% of America’s license holders and are more likely to suffer from weakening vision and slower reaction times. Not being able to read road signs is annoying and potentially dangerous and can force otherwise perfectly capable individuals give up driving altogether, resulting in a severe mobility disadvantage.

Meeker identified that root of the problem was the poorly drawn typeface used on road signs, commonly known as Highway Gothic (Figure 1.2)

Unlike British Transport, the typeface used on road signs in the United Kingdom and DIN 1451, which is used in Germany and a number of other European countries, Highway Gothic was not created by typographers, but by engineers.

The rapid expansion of the interstate system under the Eisenhower administration in the 1960s created a sudden need for a standardized typeface. Working under pressure, engineers produced an alphabet composed of basic letterforms used in die-cut signmaking in the 1920s. Readability wasn’t as much a concern as getting the signs up as quickly as possible.

Meeker identified two main issues with Highway Gothic: Signs too quickly became unreadable from a distance, and at night the letterforms bled into each other under the bright light of modern headlights. “The tightly wound lowercase ‘a’ […] becomes a singular dense, glowing orb; the ‘e’ a confusing blur of shapes and curved lines” (Yaffa, 2007). This effect is known as halation.

After experimenting with existing typefaces initially, Meeker and Montalbano decided the only solution would be an entirely new typeface that addressed these problems.

They recognized that halation was different on positive contrast (white type on blue or green background) and negative contrast signs (black type on orange or yellow background). Therefore they created two separate versions of Clearview, the one for positive contrast applications featuring slightly reduced stroke weight to accommodate for the stronger halation. They also opened up the letter’s counter shapes to ensure even if letters were blurred, the different strokes wouldn’t bleed into each other and render the letter unrecognizable. (Fig. 2)

To increase readability distance, Meeker and Montalbano used mixed-case lettering instead of the more common all-uppercase. The practice of setting traffic signs in capital letters comes from the early days of car travel , when signs were entirely hand-painted; lowercase letters were simply too complex to draw consistently and quickly. Perhaps counterintuitively, uppercase signs are much harder to read from a distance.

Words set in mixed case form a distinct profile, which makes our brain able to recognize it even when the individual letters are too small to discern (Figure 3). A word set in all-caps on the other hand forms a solid rectangle, making it impossible to recognize at a glance. (Maria 2014, Hochuli 2012).

Meeker and Montalbano also increased Clearview’s x-height, making lowercase letters almost as tall as uppercase ones and carefully adjusted the spacing for problematic letter combinations to maximize legibility distance. All this work was carried based on prototype signs printed on real reflective material at full size. Preliminary tests based on these prototypes showed a drastic improvement in legibility over Highway Gothic. Two independent, formal studies later confirmed that Clearview - without changing the overall type size - increased legibility distance by up to 17%. (Garvey, Pietrucha and Meeker 1997, Carlson 2001).

Armed with these positive results, Meeker and Montalbano set out to get approval for their typeface from the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), which was granted in 2004. Up to 20 states, the City of New York and the Canadian Government adopted Clearview in the following years. (Bachko 2013, Dunlap 2012)

Recently, the story of Clearview took another, rather surprising turn: In January 2016, 12 years after the initial approval, the FHWA removed Clearview from the list of allowed typefaces for new road signs. This leaves states with only one option - Highway Gothic.

While the agency quotes research questioning Clearview’s benefits (Holick, Chrysler, Park and Carlson, 2006), commentators have suggested that the $800 licensing fee might have been a more likely reason in economically difficult times. (Petroski 2016, Rhodes 2016). Meeker, who has expressed his frustration about the FHWA’s decision does not plan to pursue any formal action to challenge it. (Kapps, 2016)

While Clearview will certainly not disappear from roads immediately - the FHWA has stressed that states are not required to replace Clearview signs as long as they are functional - it is worth asking the question: Why did Clearview, despite being initially approved, fail to be adopted in the long term?

The answer might come from another failed attempt to implement and improved design system at a federal agency: The 1974 NASA redesign. The programme featured guidelines for everything from letterheads, uniforms and wayfinding for ground facilities to lettering on spacecraft. Perhaps the most visible part of the programme was the new logo (Figure 5.1) which designer Richard danne described as “clean, progressive, could be read from a mile away and was easy to use in all mediums” (Rawsthorn, 2009). Despite being formally approved by NASA, the new emblem failed to gain traction and was soon silently replaced by its predecessor. (Figure 5.2)

According to Danne, a failure in communication is what brought down the programme. While the designers managed to convince NASA directors of their proposal, they did not communicate its benefits to people lower down in the chain of command. Staff in research centers was not involved, or even informed about the redesign project until finished guidelines appeared on their desks. Naturally, this led to a rivalry between proponents and critics of the new design programme and ultimately to the failure of the project (Danne, 2016) It seems likely that the decline of Clearview followed a similar path. This shows how important it is for us as designers to not only do good work, but also communicate our thinking and involve everyone who might be affected.

One way to do this might be abandoning the idea of a “big reveal” after months of design work behind closed doors. One proponent of this idea is Pittsburgh-based designer Brad Frost. When he worked with the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank on a redesign of their website, he opened up the entire design process to the public. Everything from meeting notes and sketches to live prototypes and tools was made available online.

This approach not only help keep everyone on the design team informed about the process, it also allows for feedback from a much larger community. Many other organisations, including the team behind the redesign have made a lasting difference using this apporach. (Stewart 2012, Frost 2013)


Motorway sign set in Clearview Figure 1.1: Motorway sign set in Clearview. Capps, 2016. Available at [accessed April 9, 2016]

Motorway sign set in Highway Gothic Figure 1.2: Motorway sign set in Highway Gothic. Capps, 2016. Available at [accessed April 9, 2016]

Comparison of Highway Gothic and Clearview signs under the effect of halation Figure 2: Comparison of Highway Gothic and Clearview signs under the effect of halation (simulation) Source: ,

Shape formed by a word set in uppercase (left) compared to a word set mixed-case (right) Figure 3: Shape formed by a word set in uppercase (left) compared to a word set mixed-case (right). Maria, J. (2014). On web typography. New York: A Book Apart. Available at [Accessed April 8, 2016]

Clearview development Figure 4: Clearview development, showcasing the increased x-height compared to Highway Gothic (Left) - Available at

Current NASA Logo Figure 5.1: Current NASA Logo. Available at [accessed April 9, 2016]

Proposed NASA Logo Figure 5.2: Proposed NASA logo. Danne, Blackburn 1974. Available at [Accessed April 9, 2016]