The real problem (as I see it)

Last spring, when I was writing my thesis proposal, I searched for research in the field of design about creating persuasive communications for environmental causes. I found very little. This is not to say that such research doesn’t exist, but rather that this is an area that needs more exploration. Certainly, the field of persuasive technology is beginning to acquire a substantial body of literature, and I’ve read a few papers dealing specifically with environmental issues. But persuasive technology does not usually focus on education and information—and while I realize these methods do not usually affect change on their own, I still think they should be a crucial part of a robust campaign.

This fall, however, as I began exploring literature outside the field of design, I found a plethora of articles and books from the field of environmental psychology. Many of these readings showcase the results of campaigns encouraging environmentally-responsible behavior. They show what works, and what doesn’t. Many include specific guidelines for the design of public service communications.

This lead me to a realization: The real problem is not that there aren’t any guidelines available for designers, as I originally thought.

The problem is that many of today’s designers, trying to affect environmental behavior through communication-based campaigns, are unaware of crucial research that has already been done.

You might argue with me, pointing to designers and researchers who are connecting the fields of psychology and design, such as Stephen P. Anderson, Sebastian Deterding, BJ Fogg, Dan Lockton, and Don Norman. Yes, amazing work is being done, and it is changing the field of design as we know it. But I believe there are still many, many communication designers out there creating campaigns about environmental issues, using techniques that have already been shown to be ineffective.

Several of the articles I read over winter break echoed my beliefs. For example, in “Promoting Sustainable Behavior: An Introduction to Community-Based Social Marketing,” Doug McKenzie-Mohr wrote that

“until we [environmental psychologists] reach out to the individuals who design and deliver environmental programs, our efforts will remain invisible to those who can most benefit from them.” (page 544, Journal of Social Issues, 2000)

Similarly, a professor in the Department of Social and Decision Sciences at Carnegie Mellon told me about an exciting research project he has started. His team will be helping people save energy at home, using educational materials and technological devices, and will study the effectiveness of the intervention. When I asked him whether the team has a designer, however, he said no (but that they probably need one).

I don’t think the burden of reaching out should rest only on the side of psychologists and social scientists, however. I think we designers need to reach out as well, and to educate ourselves.

That is why, during the second half of my thesis project, I will focus on two things: not only creating and testing a communication design piece that utilizes what I’ve learned in the literature, but also attempting to bridge the gap between these two fields and point communication designers to the work that exists in the field of environmental psychology. I hope that in the future, more cross-disciplinary research will be done to connect the two fields.

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