22 May 2019

6 Mins Read

Tunde Ogunkunle

Tunde Ogunkunle

Design Nudge: An Approach to Creating Human-Centered Designs.

In design; function is the cake, aesthetics is the icing.


Fundamentally, design can be defined as a problem-solving process/product. It is a resultant product (physical or digital) or process that is crafted to efficiently serve a purpose—at the core, it is largely functional and aimed at solving an established problem.

Since everything designed takes a form, shape or look; it is impossible to explain design without the concept of aesthetics. And yeah, aesthetics as popularly thought to be, is not beauty; it is rather the relativity of beauty to the ugliness of a subject matter. It is a biased approach to consider a subject matter only in the context of beauty and not ugliness. “Aesthetics” says the house is 60% beautiful and 40% ugly while “beauty,” says the house is very beautiful.

In brief, when it comes to a good design, “Aesthetics” attracts while “function” sustains experience. For instance, if you are to make a choice between two similar fruit juice brands (that you haven’t seen before) in a store, you will most likely choose your preferred option based on look and feel. However, what will determine maybe you become a second-time buyer (or even a loyal one) or not, is the content.

Function meets aesthetics on the outside.

Essentially, everything around us is a design in the context of a problem. Your teacup helps contain your tea, your tee-shirt protects your body, and your notebook helps keep your records. All of these products are designs that solve a specific problem(s). When a design does not solve the problem for which it was created, then it seizes being a design in the context of that problem.

Designs are problems specific!


Humans are a bit complex in make-up and behaviour, thus, a need for a specific design approach called “Human Centered Design”. Human-centred design is a design concept with emphasis on solving specific human problems through an in-depth understanding of human psychology and anatomy to create meaningful products and processes.

Psychology defines the behavioural pattern and mind system of humans while anatomy gives an insight into the body structure of humans. For instance, a tee-shirt design for Kola, who is short, lives in Maiduguri, has high perspiration level and a muscular body structure will take into consideration all these details as it will suggest the specifics for the design in terms of the shape, material, and even patterns.

Human-Centered designers are like gods; they create experiences that affect humans physically and psychologically through designs. For example, the colours, height, and shape of a room can affect the mood and behaviour of the occupants.


Over the years, human-centered designers have been accused of forcing their design solutions on the subject matter (humans). It is not hard to find that example of an unauthorized footpath that passes through a piece of land and the design solution adopted is a fence around it. This solution usually looks forced and does not respect the self-decision of the subject at the same time. However, Design Nudge is an intelligent design approach that respects the decision making of subjects. The “nudge” theory, as presented by Richard Thaler who won the Nobel economics prize (for his contribution in behavioural economics), is a concept where people are driven to make better decisions and display a result of positive reinforcement through subtle changes in policies.

Nudges do not necessarily make it impossible to do the wrong things, but they make it easier to do the right things as people tend to make decisions unconsciously. A nudge helps redirect them toward a better one and they are usually not mandates. This concept has recently been adopted by designers to solve human-centred problems effectively.

Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport urinal design is a good application of this design concept. For several years, the airport was faced with the problem of urine spillage that messes up the urinal section of the restroom. A radical design solution such as splashback screens that let urine in but not out, rubber floor mats could have been applied. Nonetheless, without altering the behaviour of the cause, all these approaches will only solve the problem temporarily. In the early 1990s, the cleaning manager at the Airport eventually adopted a design nudge concept by settling on photorealistic images of flies on the urinal right near the drain. The idea was to give people something to aim at.

Why a fly? It is small, annoying and a little gross but not scary like a spider, which might discourage people from using the urinal at all. As Aad Kieboom, the Schiphol Airport manager who oversaw the introduction of urinal flies told Work Magazine in 2013, “a fly may have unsanitary connotations, but that is exactly why nobody feels guilty aiming at it!”

Kieboom reported an astonishing 80% reduction in urinal spillage after introducing the flies. He estimated this resulted in an 8 percent reduction in total bathroom cleaning costs at the airport. Since then, urinal flies have begun showing up in restrooms all over the world.

In another instance, the Massachusetts General Hospital Cafeteria used a light system to discourage their staff from making unhealthy food choices. Using a coloured light system—red, yellow and green—healthy options like vegetables and salads were labelled green and positioned on the shelves at eye level while the unhealthy ones were with red lights and on lower shelves.

This colour and positioning tactics helped them record an increase in green item sales from 41% to 46%, and red items were down from 24% to 21%. Two years after implementing this idea, red light beverage purchases were down by an encouraging total of 39%.

Although Nudges are relatively new in design applications, they have however proven to be an effective approach to solving human-centred problems.

The Washington Post By Christopher Ingraham, October 9, 2017.
Works That Work, No.1, Winter 2013.

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