The Social Nudge: Pick It Up Poop Campaign

In the book the Nudge (Penguin 2009)  by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, they discuss how to nudge people into making better choices through better choice architecture. In the third chapter called "Following the Herd," they provide an example of how public officials can possibly change behavior by "emphasizing the statistical reality" of how many more people tend to do the right thing, in this case related to the number of smokers. They explain a case in Montana:

Montana applies the same approach to cigarette smoking with an advertisement suggesting that "most (70 percent) of Montana teens are tobacco free." The strategy has produced big improvements in the accuracy of social perceptions and also statistically significant decreases in smoking (p. 74). 

From their book and my own thinking about how to tackle my own public menace, people not picking up their dog's poop in the park. I've decided to see if I can nudge my neighbors into doing the right thing. So I will launch tomorrow (for it is raining tonight and will ruin the posters), the Pick It Up Poop Reduction Campaign. Using the power of graphical images, statistical reality, and panopticon paranoia, I hope to shame my neighbors into picking up their dog's poop.

Each day when I walk my dog, I will document the poop left by my neighbors. I will then update the poster with an image of their poop and post it around the park where dog owners congregate (i.e. the park trash cans, plastic bag stations that the Council provides for free so you don't have to buy your own, fence doors, and water fountains). Luckily, the parks all had their maintenance this week, so I have a relatively clean slate to work with. I will I could do a more scientific approach by counting all the poop before the campaign and then following up in a week or two weeks, and then doing a guerrilla survey with dog owners, but I have no time or graduate students to do it. So stay tuned to hear my anecdotal results.

Critical Graphic Design

A few days late, but here is my response to Alice Twemlow's Feb 21 post to the Design Observer, Some Questions about an Inquiry. The article talks about critical design and the Forms of Inquiry exhibit at Utrecht last month. She poses the question of where is graphic design in the critical design praxis.

My response:

Graphic design has always had a critical praxis

From Adbusters; the French organization, Ne Pas Plier, to Design for Democracy; graphic design has been " that, through its form, can question and challenge industrial agendas; embody alternative social, cultural, technical or economic values; and act as a prop to stimulate debate and discussion amongst the public, designers and industry" (Twemlow 2008).

As a design anthropologist, the value-add of graphic design to any social endeavor for me is its ability to make critical values and perspectives -- sharpened through iterative editing and evaluation to the clearest and most concise message -- tangible to people at a level of experience that is both intuitive and rational.

In the case of activist collectives like, Ne Pas Plier, graphic design makes tangible to others the critical perspectives of the people through signs that make you feel, think, and hopefully act to mitigate social and economic injustice.

Exemplified in Adbusters, graphic design makes the critical perspectives of our engagement as designers in commerce tangible to us as well as provide models on how to subvert and hack our participation in the industrial systems.

To me, one of the most powerful uses of a critical graphic design to use it to elicit people's critical experiences of deeper social processes. For example, on a project with a government health agency billing and payment policy, the research (not inquiry) participants were people who started off not very articulate about what was wrong with the system. It was when I placed a set of brochures, forms, and signs from a proposed new information system in front of them that they could easily express how "cheap" the institution was that they would use an orange color, or how a confusing layout reflected the lack of professionalism of the institution. We could use that same feedback not just to improve the materials but to go back to the government agency and say that this is how your practices need to change to match the desired experiences of the people as represented in these materials.

To me, the iterative process of designing, based on a human-centered design process, has been a power tool for critical design in the hands of designers and researchers who have a critical perspective and are willing to use it advocate for others.

So perhaps, it is not a matter of creating something new, but rather excavating and promoting what already exists in the hearts, minds, and hands of graphic design and its collaborators.


It is interesting that a Slovenian colleague of mine, Ksenija Berk, was taking about how there is a lot of design theory and critique being practiced by young people, but the "eminent" people are not aware of it, thus keep making proclamations that it does not exist. That's how I feel about the discussion on critical graphic design.

Homeownership and subprime loans

Scouring the headlines this morning, I was trying to decide what to write about. The environmental crisis in China? The debate about health care insurance for middle class children? My new apartment and neighborhood?

I decided to write about homeownership and sub-prime loans because the NY Time's featured Chicago in their story on the Drop Foreseen in Median Price of US Homes by David Leonherdt and Vikras Bajaj. Having moved into a new apartment, I can talk about why I rent but not buy homes.

Sub-prime loans

The news has been reporting on the negative economic effect of the current housing crisis as foreclosures increase across the nation. It seems that the housing boom was predicated on providing balloon mortgages to those who could not afford them or cannot afford them now.  What has been disturbing is that none of the "experts" predicted this. What is the point of being considered an expert if you cannot predict anything. There is another article about the Countrywide Financial and how they persuaded people to take loans by promising, “I want to be sure you are getting the best loan possible."  They were very successful and people bought into the American dream of homeownership, and now the dream is fading.


I've never bought into the American dream of homeownership. Even in kindergarten, I never wanted to play house. There are some assumptions about life-style's that are part of that dream that I do not buy into because I believe that everything you own, owns you. I think it is strange that housing prices are such that it takes a 30-year mortgage to pay off a house. That is half a lifetime to be tied to a long-term loan. Culturally, of course, US people do not stay in one place for 30 years, at least in the middle class doesn't. I really don't imagine being in one location long enough to accrue great equity in a home, which I don't need too much of. I do not have children or plan to. I contribute the maximum on my 401Ks and retirement.

I know that not everyone share these assumptions, but it seems immoral that the dream is so high that for many it's becoming a nightmare.

Why corporate "social responsibility" frightens me

In October, ID at IIT's About, With, and For conference in Chicago will focus on social responsibility. It was also a module in AIGA Harvard Business School. The target of all this social responsibility is corporations. While it is important for corporations to be responsible citizens of the world, there is an inherent danger, especially in the US, in leaving the "greater good" up to corporations.

One of the most important documentaries that I rewatch occasionally is The Corporation by  Mark Achbar, Jennifer Abbott, and Joel Bakan. The premise is that since the corporation is a legally defined person, what kind a person is it. The answer is that the corporation is a sociopath. Now, reinforcing social responsibility has become the treatment for the corporation's pathology. Even in the documentary, they show the efforts of Ray Anderson of Interface to make carpet manufacturing more sustainable. And in my corporate consulting days, I would even try to get my clients to be more sociallly responsible  by pointing out how they have no social responsibility heading and content on their website. (This was actually effective in terms of getting clients to think about what they are doing in that area.)

Yet with all the emphasis on the corporation as the beacon of social responsiblity, there seems to be a deemphasis on government, which by charter is responsible for the greater good of society by protecting the weak and insuring the sustainability of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Yet, one of the key distinctions between the US and Europe is the extent to which the seat of power in the US lies with corporations not the government. By handing over social responsibility to corporations, do we let the US government off the hook?

As I have shifted my primary focus from corporate clients to government and non-profits, I have rediscovered the power of government. What I mean is that I have become deeply aware of the extent to which government regulations do effect significant changes in human possibilities and people's behaviors. It is one thing to say that "Voting counts" but another to see the tremendous shifts in priorities when one adminstration replaces another. But as the anxieties about the upcoming mid-term elections demonstrate, there is a certain accountability to the people in government that does not exist in the same way to corporations.

It is this lack of accountability that makes me nervous about the all the efforts to make corporations more responsible for social responsibility. This is not to say that there should not be efforts. Corporations do and ought be be more responsive to and responsible for the long term impacts of their decisions. But we must not forget that legally, corporations are accountable only to their shareholders and democractic processes need to be increased in that area.

Government, for better or worse, is the best system we have to ensure social responsibility and the "greater good." Because government is accountable to the people much moreso than corporations. So when we talk about social responsibilty, we should make sure that we talk about government as well.