Decorative Discouragement
By: William Wood

Have you ever been on a bus and found the curve in the seat incredibly uncomfortable? Or have you ever seen the metal bars on the edges of concrete steps? Maybe you’ve seen those weird bus stops with benches you can only lean on? Maybe you’ve even been walking past a bank just to hear bizarre classical music coming from speakers around it. These are all examples of “unpleasant design”, “anti-objects”, or what I like to call “decorative discouragement”. This comes from a very odd niche of designers that specifically design objects to manipulate your behavior without you even knowing that they are doing it.

It all starts with someone choosing to manipulate your behavior to their benefit. More often than not, you come across the business owner that just doesn’t want kids skateboarding across their nice concrete steps they just installed—so they enact the common steel bars on each step to prevent anyone from getting a good grind with their boards.

It seems pretty harmless, we all see it, skateboarders don’t try to work around it, and life goes on. However, what if it was just a little bigger than that? Let’s talk about bus stations and banks.

Imagine you’re downtown and you see something like this:

Photo Credit: William Wood
At its heart this follows the conventions similar to the steel bars stopping skateboarders. Maybe they needed more room for the sidewalk, maybe it’s “modern” and we’re trying to get a sleeker look in the town. However, design like this begins following the trend of decorative discouragement. While it comes off as just deterring you from being able to sit on a bench, the bigger issue at hand is that this decorative bench is manipulating the homeless population in the area. Business owners and town executives are all about this new “innovative” bench because it allows them to put a tight hold on where homeless people have an opportunity to sleep. Remove the flat part of the bench, make a minor change for the average person, and make a major change to a potential shelter for the homeless. It comes off as so simple and harmless, but these minor changes can be demoralizing ways of behavioral manipulation.

Now, let’s talk about banks. One of the most interesting uses of decorative discouragement is something that isn’t even tangible, and is something so deeply ingrained in our society that we subconsciously let it manipulate our behavior. The most common decorative discouragement used by banks is sound design and the manipulation of our understanding of musical preference. To start off, the modern bank lives on the aesthetic of clean, modern, sleek, sophisticated, and professional and with these words as a basis for an entire business model, the last thing anyone with these ideals wants is to be concerned with anyone that doesn’t fit their aesthetic. Because of this strong aesthetic, banks use decorative discouragement to deter away people that could potentially taint the aesthetic such as young teenagers, the homeless, and any general loiterer that isn’t there for “business”. So by placing several speakers around the outside of the bank, sound designers have been able to achieve an intangible decorative discouragement by playing classical music and slow drawn out symphonies that they use to deter people from hanging around the building. Classical music and symphonies are so deeply seeded in our minds as something of class and importance, it can be used to deter punk rock teenagers away from the building, and can be manipulated to make it hard for people to hold a conversation while it’s playing in the background. By doing this, banks help eliminate any “unwanted” bystanders from the outside of their building while simultaneously manipulating people to leave the area at potentially busy times for the bank so that they can get the people who are there for “business” in easier. With simple sound design we can be manipulated to act exactly how the bank wants us to, and we rarely ever recognize it because the design is so well crafted.

All in all, “unpleasant design”, “anti-objects”, and “decorative discouragement” are all around us in our daily lives. One of my favorite lines about design is, “Good design is invisible, and bad design is everywhere.” But where do we draw the line on design that is so good, it can be perceived as bad and manipulative? It starts to fall right in the middle because decorative discouragement can manipulate our behavior, but since it is done so well, we never even notice it happening. So I encourage you to think about the next bench you sit on, or listen to the music the next time you walk to the bank, and think about how powerful just a little bit of decoration can be.

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