by Tegan Kehoe

Have you seen the news? An activist group in London has begun pouring concrete over metal spikes that deter people from loitering and homeless people from sleeping in certain areas.. As it turns out, the field of designing to influence behavior is a pretty developed one. Designers install all kinds of features to make a space inhospitable to loitering. Some features look formidable, such as spikes and rough metal, but others, such as stone fill and undulating surfaces, are passed off as decorative elements. Some people say all design aims to influence behavior, whether it’s architecture or a mobile app.  

folding cane stool


The design choices we make when trying to predict and guide the flow of people in exhibits and other museum spaces are also a form of design to influence behavior, although we may not think of them that way. You don’t put seating in an area where you want people to move along quickly. You make the font bigger when you want to make sure the audience reads something. I think that museum students and professionals could learn a lot by studying how urban planners think about design, to get an better understanding of the choices we make and how to make them.



First, there are the most direct applications. I work in downtown Boston, an area which has a homelessness problem. Until the city addresses the problem or provides adequate shelter, it’s pretty much a given that people will sleep in the covered stairwells leading into our building and many others in the neighborhood. If I had the luxury of designing a museum building, I would add an overhang with seating and a water fountain on one side, so that people who need protection from the elements overnight don’t sleep in front of doorways. It could even be heated in winter; solar-powered heated bus shelters have been around for years now. It would be a win-win, since we wouldn’t have to clear out the doorways each morning and people in need would be just a little safer and more comfortable. I don’t know if there is a solution that can be appropriately retrofit to our eighteenth-century building, but I’m going to keep thinking.



Learning from urban planning’s design for behavior can also be done in more creative ways. Museum researchers who do visitor studies look at which visitor spend time where, and with what features. Shouldn’t we all be doing that? This would incorporate a lot of existing knowledge, for example, if you want people to stay, make them comfortable, give them restrooms and seats. It would simply be a new way of looking at what we know and what we want to learn. It’s often valuable to start an exhibit planning process by asking ourselves “What do we want visitors to get out of this?” but shouldn’t we also ask, “How do we want them to behave?” As long as the outcome of this discussion is about supporting and encouraging visitors in good behavior, rather than rearranging the galleries into a panopticon with the guards at the center, I think it’s worth trying.