A new digital edition of the book Unpleasant Design was published last month. We caught up with one of the editors, Selena Savic, to learn more about unpleasant design and its potential for positive and negative impact on mental health in the city.
You've just published a new edition of your book, Unpleasant Design. What exactly is 'unpleasant design'?
Unpleasant design is an approach to design that intentionally restricts the use of objects and spaces. It is thus not failed design, but rather, a successful, deliberate design to prevent certain behaviours. Often these design interventions are targeted to prevent behaviours that have not been formally banned, but that people may deem unwanted in public spaces. For example, while there may be no ban on people skating, hanging out, or sleeping rough in the city, these decisions can be made quietly between the contractor and the designer, without public participation. In unpleasant design, the decision is often hidden in the design.
Can you give us some examples of unpleasant design in the urban environment?
In the book, we divided unpleasant designs into unpleasant objects and unpleasant devices. This taxonomy brings on one side a large number of seating designs that prevent rough sleeping, obstacles to skating, anti-urinating corner installations, and surfaces that prevent attaching stickers and climbing. On the devices list, we include the infamous mosquito device (a high pitch buzz that annoys teenagers), blue lights (obfuscating veins and preventing intravenous injections), pink lights (emphasizing skin blemishes in teenage population to deter them from the area) and CCTV systems enhanced with facial recognition and motion tracking (thus theoretically capable of discriminating against skin colour, outfits and gait).
No-sleeping bench at a metro station in Rotterdam. Source: Unpleasant Design.
What are some of the ways in which unpleasant design in the city could impact people's mental health and wellbeing?
The most obvious link I see between unpleasant design and wellbeing is the prohibition of rough sleeping. While it is obvious that simply making a bench "unsleepable" is not in any way addressing the problem of homelessness (people don't stop being homeless because a bench is uncomfortable), this kind of design also sends a hostile and careless message to the whole population. Not only is it evident from interventions like this that social diversity and inclusion is not on the design agenda, but it is also okay to repel people like pests.
Does unpleasant design have particular impact on the mental health of certain groups of people?
Absolutely. Unpleasant design can exclude groups like teenagers or homeless people from spaces without any possibility for negotiation and without even questioning the ethics behind this. Some would argue that the solution is to create dedicated spaces, for example where skaters can safely perform their tricks without bothering others. However, imagine if this approach was applied to all groups that those making design decisions find incompatible with their own preferences for the use of urban spaces? What if homeless people were only allowed to be where other homeless people are; if square meters of publicly accessible space were allotted to youth based on their number in the area; if older people had no opportunity to be in contact with youth? How could a frictionless society function without the opportunity for negotiation between any of the conflicting entities? What would happen when they met somewhere by chance? Designing people out of space is particularly dangerous for young people as it deprives them from the possibility to learn and adapt to the society and to the needs of other people.
Are there any positive aspects to 'unpleasant design'?
I couldn't say that there aren't. Obviously, unpleasant design helps the majority keep the space in the shape they deem pleasant. Children can play in parks where benches are clean and free to use. People are not endangered by wild skaters running along urban furniture. Toilets with blue lights have not been possessed by drug addicts. However, I would like to stress once more that these benefits are only short-term and unsustainable. All these behaviours we design against will take place elsewhere. And the message of exclusion grants the right to people and institutions to create their own little oases of law, which is not always in the best interest of majority.
What are the messages from the book for architects and city planners?
We need to be able to negotiate the use of public space. We need to talk about unpleasant designs before we implement them. We need to make it very clear what unpleasant designs are against. Unpleasant design can also be subverted, as beautifully shown by artists and activisits whose work we published in our book.
Why did you decide to create this book?
At first, we wanted to collect examples of unpleasantness in public space and show that there is a language and an intention behind these. During this process, we learned about many other groups and collectives who were doing this type of work. We decided to create a compendium of designs and reflections on the topic, hoping to spur the debate among design professionals, city planners and other interested parties. We think we succeeded in that, as the book has proved to be a resourceful reading for anyone interested in the topic.
What's new about the new edition?
The new edition is digital only, and contains some updates and new stories. For example, there is an interview with a design office which explicitly specialises in unpleasant designs, Factory Furniture.
Finally, which is your favorite city and why?
I like cities a lot. I don't have a favourite one. Lausanne is a very pleasant city, it treats people with dignity. There are very few instances of unpleasant design against homeless people (there are not many homeless people either, so that's probably why) and there is a general tendency to design public space for flexible use. The view on the lake is also winning over many other beautifully designed cities. Apart from Lausanne, I love the agitated relaxedness on the streets of Belgrade, the monumental fragmentation of venues in Vienna and other unique contradictions that appear in cities I have spent time in.
Sanity and Urbanity: