Don Norman: Designing For People

Nielsen Norman Group

Encourage Graffiti (and explore affordances)

"Ask Don" recently received this request from Mark Østergaard, from Denmark on behalf of a design group: "We would like to address the problem of vandalism, graffiti-painting, smashed windows, etc. In this particular case, we are designing a train station. One of the ways which we would like to implement this aspect of anti-vandalism in our project is through the idea of the psychology of materials, or as you describe it, the affordances of materials and objects."

The question was clearly driven by my discussion of the psychology of materials in the early chapters of "The Design of Everyday Things." I thought the ensuing email discussion might be of interest to readers of "Ask Don," so with Østergaard's permission, here is the interchange (slightly edited):

I responded with three directions they might pursue:

  • 1. Use materials that resist defacement. Many companies make paints and materials that do not let paints stick, or that make it easy to wash drawings off.


  • 2. Make the affordances of the wall inappropriate for vandalism. Long, smooth walls afford graffiti But walls with many sharp angles and few large surfaces would discourage it, because there simply is no suitable surface.


  • 3. Encourage graffiti. If you view graffiti as an interesting form of folk art, why not encourage it? The problem is when it defaces items that were not designed to accommodate it. So, design to be supportive of graffiti. Call it free art.
  • To my great pleasure, I received back the following response:

    All three of your suggestions have actually been thought of and discussed thoroughly from the beginning of the project. The first one discarded rather quickly because … well, it's quite boring to work with compared to the other two, and really just represents an uninspired patch-solution rather then a creative solution either defeating the problem to a certain extent, or utilizing it in a constructive manner, as your third suggestion implies.

    The third actually was one aspect which we found extremely interesting, not only because the idea is quite controversial (shocking people with ones designs is always great fun), but also because it would provide a fluctuant "material"/aesthetic to clad the building with, opening new possibilities and approaches to the way we design and view buildings, and also rather then fighting graffiti as a problem, embracing it as a subcultural art form telling it's own stories. Unfortunately the client didn't find it to be as interesting an idea as we did. So in the spirit of meeting the client's demands, this was an approach which we unwillingly had to abandon.

    Besides, graffiti was only one aspect of the vandalism sought to be reduced. Breaking class, scratching surfaces, setting fires etc. are equally important, and harder to utilise constructively as an aesthetic quality.

    We are aware that long smooth walls encourage writing, glass breaking, wood carving etc. but can't help but think that there must be studies going deeper then that, looking into other aspects regarding the use of materials, not only taking into account the perceptive affordances of materials but also the psychological and emotional effect they are likely to have on people besides giving clues to a logical use.

    For example, using mahogany wood rather then plywood, would affect how people perceive whichever environment or whatever object this material was being used for, not only because mahogany usually has a warmer feel to it, due to it's reddish colour, but also is a tougher material, it sounds different when you walk on it, it feels different when you touch it and people know it's more expensive, hence a greater sense of quality, resulting in greater care not to harm the material for some, or perhaps encouraging others to vandalise it, simply because it is more expensive.

    Besides trying to prevent vandalism, this of course also has to do with wanting to manipulate the experience of the architecture, how we perceive it, how it makes us feel and what it makes us think, through the use of shape and materials and the stories they tell.

    That's a wonderful response, so wonderful I replied that they certainly didn't need the help of "Ask Don." If my books inspire people to explore further, to go far beyond the concepts presented, then I am eternally grateful and very well satisfied.

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