Dan Lockton

Supported by Greenhaven Road Capital, finding value off the beaten path.

These are notes from three YouTube talks by designer Dan Lockton. I found Lockton’s work thanks to Stevyn Colgan’s mention of him in the park benches section of Why Did the Policeman Cross the Road?

2014, Nudgestock. Dan Lockton wants people to know that “everything that is designed has some effect on people’s behavior.” Even things that appear chaotic (cities) have a (/n emergent) structure.

Sometimes you can’t always get what you want.  “When people feel they are being influenced in a way that doesn’t match their understanding of the situation they will rebel.” Design only does so much.

Nudging isn’t shoving, it’s small prompts for small changes. Design nudging, only in the physical rather than psychological. Misuse comes when “The people designing these things don’t understand how people actually think or act.” Bad design is from an IYI.

Good design comes from talking to people. If you want to know how the lion hunts, don’t go to the zoo. Good designers leave the lab. Good designs ‘pave the cowpaths.’

2016, London College of Communications. Behavioral economics has caught the attention of organizations and governments but it’s not a panacea. BE is a model of the world, and like all models, it’s imperfect but useful.

Lockton uses the garden cities analogy as a warning about design. “This is sort of the modernist’s dream, ‘If we plan everything perfectly and design everything there won’t be any problems anymore.’” But no complex system, including people, is predictable. Also, omnipotence excludes interestingness.

In another talk, Greg Lindsay outlined four components for serendipity:

  1. Are you ready? “You know the classical line, the true sound of scientific discovery is not Eureka but ‘that’s interesting’.”
  2. Can you talk at work? “Google started a beekeeping club so that engineers who are interested in beekeeping might meet each other and actually have discussions about unrelated subjects.”
  3. Do you meet people in the city? When it comes to serendipity, “cities are the stars.”
  4. What about your network? “It takes unknown knows and makes them known knowns.”

Lockton ends this talk with a nice example about BBQ. Many cities are concerned about fire and ban flames. But that’s not the only solution. This is the heart of what designers and businesses do, what job is your customer hiring for? Cities aren’t anti-BBQ. Cities are anti-fire. Lockton shares solutions where cities provide water or dirt to extinguish the flames.

That’s good design. Create something that solves the collective problem while allowing individual liberty.

2018, ILA, Rio. “Think of metaphors as a designed thing, deliberately created by people to try to enable other people to understand something in a different way.” In his previous talks, Lockton talked about how physical spaces influence behavior. In this one, he’s talking about mental spaces, like metaphors.

Metaphors are just another model, inaccurate but helpful. Though unique, people share overlapping parts, “and that overlap is the cultural understanding of a concept.” Metaphors often exist at opportunities, neé gaps.

Lockton looked at how people thought about energy usage. People may think of powerlines or thermostats or batteries but are those the best metaphors? How might someone know which metaphors were better?

“One of the big parts of the (energy use) project was visiting people in their homes and trying to understand how did they understand energy. You’re told to use less energy but then actually spending time with people to understand how they understand and make decisions about energy in their everyday life.”

Telling people their kilowatt usage doesn’t change behavior because it’s too abstract.

When gas costs peaked in 2012 ($3.62/gal) people connected mpg to ppg and sold gas guzzlers as fast as possible. Home energy is different and to understand their understanding Lockton got people to draw it.

Metaphors are pliable and can frame things in positive or negative ways.
The government is like X…
The city is like Y…
Life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get.

I learned how varied this could after two minutes on Twitter. Search for “Startups are like” to learn they’re like… hockey, sausages, long call options, an inverted TARDIS, embryos, moody families, Schrödinger’s cat, cults, fingerprints, babies, pirates, boats, ant farms, love affairs, garage bands….

There were many more. A lot had to do with boats and water.


Whether physical or mental, design can only influence behavior so much. But that can still be a large ROI. People change based on their understanding of the world, not yours. And just because it doesn’t seem like there’s a good reason for something means we haven’t found it yet. Thanks for reading.

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