5 Innovations in Behavioural Design for Physical Distancing

Published - 6 May 2020


The field of behavioural design, combining design led approaches with insights which are deeply rooted in human behaviour, has emerged as an influential playground for innovations through the COVID-19 pandemic. One of the core behavioural science frameworks proposes that if you want to change behaviour, you need to make a service or action more attractive. Making something more attractive is about getting the right attention and making it more appealing. Think about all the instances that you go to purchase something from the supermarket and end up with several items that you did not plan to buy.

In this article, we highlight the insights underpinning five innovative behavioural designs for making physical distancing more attractive in public spaces.

Behavioural design#5. Eight sourdough loaves

Innovator: Government of Yukon (Website)

Location: Yukon, Canada


The team at Yukon's Department of Health and Social Services analysed many advertisements for physical distancing and wanted to design something that resonated with Yukoners. The first concept included their iconic caribou (reindeer in North America) and evolved into a series of quirky Yukon-themed ads promoting physical distancing including ravens, huskies and sourdough bread for the seasoned bakers many of us are becoming.

Insight. People have a tendency to recall more information when it is related to themselves, which behavioural scientists refer to as the self reference effect.

Takeaway. A touch of humour can go a long way in making a serious health message more memorable when it is made relevant for your target audience.

Behavioural design#4. Fashionably safe

Innovator: boriah.rtw (Instagram)

Location: Lagos, Nigeria


As this Fast Company article shows, fashion designers are finding ways to express their love of traditional patterns like Indonesian batik and West African kente cloths in their design of face coverings. Valerie Steele, chief curator of The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, further explains how people have used protective facial gear throughout history to send a message to those around them.

Note. Please follow advice from your government’s health department on face masks and homemade cloth face coverings.

Insight. A mask can be designed as a symbol for cultural expression or even share a smile for our healthcare workers. We know from behavioural science people reciprocate to gestures of kindness.

Takeaway. The stigma of physical distancing practices can be overcome by encouraging individual expression and small acts of kindness.

Behavioural design#3. Foolproof

Innovator: Transport For Ireland (Twitter)

Location: Dublin, Ireland

Many government teams have adopted nudges for getting people to maintain physical distancing in their public transport networks. This concept stands out as a simple, visible and foolproof solution which makes it near impossible to accidentally sit too close to someone else.

Insight. As we navigate environments filled with new information and with the heightened stress of making the wrong decision, we have a lower cognitive ability to properly read and process information. Setting the right defaults in the choice architecture can make it easy for people to go with the flow. 

Takeaway. A good design principles for nudges in public transport is to make physical distancing almost too easy to not follow.

Behavioural design#2. Face fits in your hand

Innovator: Mona Chalabi (Instagram)

Location: New York, USA

Mona, a data journalist, was inspired to make this image after speaking with a friend in France who asked how much six feet was in metres. Her idea was to make something informative, but not scary, and something people could actively use in the supermarket to remind others to maintain physical distance.

Insight. Novel information can exist in the form of an unusual sight, a strange sound, a bizarre taste or an uncommon smell. We are more likely to notice and share novel information with others.

Takeaway. Design exciting ways for people to actively engage people in maintaining physical distancing in public spaces.


Behavioural design#1. Reframing intimacy

Innovator: Mediamatic (Website)

Location: Amsterdam, Netherlands

Photo: Anne Lakeman, Willem Velthoven

Mediamatic, a restaurant in Amsterdam, has designed an innovative solution ‘Serres Separée’ (separated greenhouses) that prompts a positive experience while physical distancing. The concept was inspired by envisioning what dining out might look like under the new normal. They are taking reservations from 21 May for a plant based 4-course menu at their restaurant which is now sold out till end June.

Insight. Offering a new experience in a different way, such as intimacy with your dining partner, can generate a positive response, particularly if we change the comparison set it is viewed in. This is what behavioural scientists refer to as the principle of ‘framing’.

Takeaway. Reframe your offering with the positive experiences which can be introduced to make it unique and socially desirable.

If you have an innovation in behavioural design that you would like to share, we would love to hear from you. You can check out our Covid-19 checklist for NZ Employers and other behavioural insights in our library.

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