CU Denver class teaches "nudging" the public toward social goals...and the greater good

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Think about the last time you were in an Ikea store. Whether you loved or hated the experience, you probably noticed a difference between the flow at Ikea and at other home-goods store, including arrows and signs attempting to steer you in the direction you needed to go in order to complete your shopping experience. Scandinavia, Ikea's motherland, is famous for designs that are meant to be both attractive and useful. And now the University of Colorado Denver is teaming up with Danish design expert Sille Krukow to create similar social designs in America.

See also: Crafting Yourself: CU Denver students create a creative program for kids

The pilot of a two-week intensive design class to teach these methods ended on Friday at CU Denver. The curriculum was devoted to the concept of "nudging," a social-design theory in which designs are used to nudge people into making the right decisions -- including on those basic, everyday tasks that people have a tough time doing no matter how easy they are, like throwing trash in a receptacle in public places or picking up your dog's poop.

"Situations like this appear all over the city and all over the world," Krukow says. and while they aren't a major problem on an individual level, when thousands or millions of individuals fail to do things properly, it can become an issue. "There are pets all over the city and it is a huge expense for the city to clean up," she adds.

Nudging design has been used in Krukow's home country of Denmark and other places in the EU for some time. The first success was at Schipol Airport in the Netherlands, which had a problem with dirty men's rooms: Men just couldn't seem to keep their urine in the urinals. So the designers put something in the urinals to keep the men focused.

"That was the first kind of tangible nudge case," Krukow says. "Instead of putting up signs or spending tons of money on cleaning it up, they put [the image of] a fly in the urinal. That is a thing that doesn't belong there, so it wakes them up." The fly improved bathroom cleanliness by 80 percent, she adds.

"It's amazing that just that little tiny fly in there can change the behavior of people," says Michelle Carpenter, the professor of the CU Denver class.

Another example is at work in Copenhagen. The city was experiencing a litter problem, so officials marked the streets with green footprints leading to trash cans. According to Krukow, this not only made it easier for people to find the bins, but it added a social stigma to the mix -- if other people can see whether you're using the trash can, you are more likely to do the right thing.

The idea for the CU Denver class started about three years ago, when Carpenter, an assistant professor of digital design, went to Denmark with design students studying abroad. She met Krukow while touring the TV studio where Krukow worked, and eventually brought Krukow to Denver to help teach a class.

"I was very interested in Danish design," Carpenter says. "They really design for the greater good: for the good of humanity."The class was structured so that each student picked a community issue they wanted to address, then studied the behaviors around that issue and came up with a design to help people follow the right path and end the bad behavior.

One student chose the basic issue of not knowing whether to push or pull when you come to a door. The design remedies this with colored markers on the door and the floor, showing users which way the door opens.

Another student chose to address people buying more produce at the grocery store when they already have the same things at home. The idea was to create stickers that change color as the produce ripens, so you know the right time to eat it. Krukow says the student wants to expand the idea into an app that interacts with your sales receipts to alert you when you need to eat your food before it goes bad.

Nudging has two purposes: creating social change and making it easier for everyone to understand signs and symbols -- even if they don't speak the language. "In Denmark we have been talking a lot about it," Krukow says. "Design based on basic human instincts and flaws rather than language, color or religion.

"Basically, we are making design measurable and facilitating the change," she says. "It's not about the color or whether people think it looks good. You need to make a social impact; otherwise, you haven't succeeded."

The final piece was for students to identify who to pitch their designs to, whether a government agency or private corporation. Though not directly part of the class, the students were encouraged to go and actually pitch their ideas to those organizations.

And while the class is officially over, Carpenter hopes to get it back on the schedule. "It should be offered again," she says. "Our students have had such a positive response." Have a tip? Send it to editorial@westword.com.

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