How can behavioural science get the most out of design?

December 2017


Behavioural science depends on communication at two levels. First, between the specialist scientific disciplines it comprises, ranging from psychology and cognitive science to psychobiology and ethology. Second, between its research outputs and its disparate non-specialist target audiences.

The word communication originates from the Latin communicare, which meant to share, divide out, inform, unite and participate in. Desirable and laudable though they sound, these goals aren’t easy to achieve when it comes to crossing academic disciplines, cultural backgrounds, age barriers and so on; as any behavioural scientist will tell you.

Science specialists often are not communication specialists, especially when it comes to the complex process of synthesising visual with verbal information – which happens not only through static, two dimensional media, but equally through film, animation, interactive technology, physical objects, built environments and beyond.

Designers have this specialist expertise. Their practical training, cultural experience, insight, and constant engagement with new forms of technology equips them with the precise tools needed to create tailored, effective communication to successfully reach intended audiences.

Even the best designers don’t always get it right. Why? In part, because accommodating everyones’ very different aspirations is extremely difficult to achieve. On a practical level it often boils down to the way the discipline of design has – in recent decades – slipped into conforming to a post-event model, where designers are employed at the end stage of a creative process. At this point the value they can add is restricted. The result is a generation of designers who’ve become fixated and dependent on solving ‘problems’ that are framed by a commissioner, without sufficiently contributing to the bigger design question about the framing itself.

Times are changing though. Both designers (like ourselves) and design commissioners (like Spoonful of Sugar) are recognising that design is more than just a discipline, it’s ‘a meta-discipline: a source of integration for all other fields of practice’. Design in fact plays an integral part in stimulating and driving the kind of trans-disciplinary thinking and doing needed to tackle the huge communication challenges facing behavioural science (and other sciences) today.

Even the most robust multidisciplinary partnerships can pose challenges, but by shifting the design process from a two way designer / commissioner relationship to a co-design, participatory process involving all stakeholders (e.g. employees, partners, citizens, patients, end users), we can change the focus from a product and commissioner-centric view to personalised user-experiences. Through that, we can demonstrate how a successful multidisciplinary team can incorporate development of ideas from all sides in order to get the results they hope for from their target audiences.