Search This Blog



Thursday, September 10, 2015

Mayhem in the Museum? The Downside of Neglecting Behavioral Design

The view from top to bottom

Watch your step when you descend the main staircase in the Jean-Noel Desmaris Pavilion in Montreal’s Museum of Fine Arts! I nearly wiped out because there was no obvious cue that registers stair depth. The white bands at the front edge of each stair are supposed to signal their  front edge, but from the top of the staircase the arrangement pays greater homage to form (i.e., a cool design) than function (your safety). When I got to the bottom of the staircase, I looked back up the stairs. That’s when they revealed their true topography.

The view from bottom to top
That design choice seemed troubling given the museum’s predominantly older demographic. At the Musee des Beaux Arts, seniors typically pay full freight. Price breaks, in fact, target patrons under 31.  (Of course, if you sport a walker or are otherwise inclined, you take the elevator.)

The staircase would prove suitable grist for Don Norman’s seminal study, The Design of Everyday Things. It’s a deeply insightful marriage of behavior and design, of form and function. The author would no doubt consider those white bands as inept “signifiers.” Signifiers, he notes, deploy design to signal attributes, including what actions are possible and how to undertake them.
A social science classic, the book has received its due from behavioral economist Richard Thaler and social scientist Cass Sunstein, who credit it for inspiring elements of their own approach to creating conditions that nudge people in the direction of constructive behavior.

While many of Norman’s examples explore misplaced design that leads to awkwardness and inefficiency, he devotes less attention to design that is downright dangerous. The "Beaux Arts" stairs certainly qualify here. “Museums are repositories where form trumps function,” a friend remarks. “The Beaux Arts has certainly proved that here.”

*Designed by Canadian architect Moshe Safdie, the modernist Jean-Noel Desmaris Pavilion and its challenging stairway have greeted visitors since 1991.


Lew said...

Above all, buildings have to function well. Short of this, no amount of aesthetic beauty matters. This obvious principle was ignored in the Montreal museum. And you and, no doubt, others suffered.


Clyde Bennett said...

Were you able to ask the casualty centres of nearby hospitals of their statistics for musing injuries?