We Are What We Do: Designing Tools to Facilitate Behaviour Change


 We Are What We Do (@WeAreWhatWeDo) is a not-for-profit behaviour change company. In 2007 they were behind the creation of the ‘I’m not a plastic bag’ carrier and back in 2002 they published the book ‘Change the World for a Fiver’ which sold more than 1.5 million copies globally. Tori Flower, We Are What We Do’s Creative Director, speaks to us about how the company design tools and applies the ‘Incidental Effect’ to achieve positive behaviour change among masses of people.

Tell us a bit about why you do what you do, and about your practices
We Are What We Do is a company that originally started back in about 2004. It’s gone on quite an interesting journey since then. It initially started as a social movement that was a big campaign to encourage people to do small positive things everyday by messaging and just trying to spread the word and get as many people hearing about it as possible. Through that work, we produced the book ‘Change the World for a Fiver’ which sold over 1.5 millions copies and is now published in 8 languages. It was an enormous success. It was endorsed by Number 10 in the UK and had a huge amount of accolades and attention.

Besides that, we also did a lot of work around communications and encouraging people to do things. Whether is was working in schools, in communities, creating mini films, creating flyers, postcards and posters and those kinds of things.

Since then, I think there has been quite a noticeable shift in the organisation, from a messaging-based organisation to one that is working a bit more cleverly and indirectly, in a facilitative way. This came from realising that whilst there was a really high recall of our messages, this wasn’t actually translating into tangible behaviour change when they were out of the context of those behaviour changes. So issues that we were trying to tackle with messaging had a limited effect, which is why we changed tact and what we now do is something which recently has been solidified into a paper by our CEO called the ‘Incidental Effect.’ It’s a short article that says that our behaviour is affected by thousands and thousands of little influences on our lives. These influences are much more subtle and complex and predominantly subconscious. So as a result, as a company we moved toward creating products, tools and services that facilitate behaviour change.

Tell us more about the Incidental Effect
We look at all the everyday human behaviours related to an issue, laying out the things we do that have a positive and negative effects, and then think about how we can make it easier, more cool, more interesting or fun to do the positive behaviours. So the incidental effect is about creating things that are useful, practical and fun in their own right, and it is these qualities that attracts people to the product or tool. They also happen to help people do good – but this is something that is not necessarily apparent in the top layer of messaging. The good behaviour is buried inside the product or tool. Which is why we call it incidental.

A tangible example of this is the “I’m not a plastic bag” shopper which we designed in 2007. We did it in partnership with Anya Hindmarsh (a fashion accessory designer) and Sainsburys supermarkets, bringing together some unlikely bedfellows. It started with research into the issue and then in this case, was about changing the perception of using reusable plastic bags. It was also about creating something practical that people could use. So it wasn’t a poster that said “use plastic bags” it was a tool that someone could take, a real thing in the world that facilitated behaviour change. Secondly it was designed in such a way that it was desirable. It was featured in a huge number of fashion magazines, from Vogue to Grazia to daily newspapers. The bag was also seen on the arms of celebrities and that re-positioning of reusable bags as something that was desirable and mainstream, populist and cool, meant that the way that whole issue was examined was completely changed. It wasn’t eco-warriors doing it. It was a really populist thing that was about getting people involved in an issue without them even thinking about it. This goes back to the incidental effect –  a subconscious message where the good is hidden. The inherent behaviour change is our trademark approach for We Are What We Do’s design practice.

How do you describe yourself and what is the make up of the team there?
We are an unusual organisation. We describe ourselves as a not-for-profit behaviour change organisation. We are not for profit which means that whilst we try and make as much profit as possible, we have to spend that within the company and within our social aims. We have open projects, for example Historypin (an online archive of the history of our neighbourhoods and communities), which was conceived internally and later attracted a number of partners and investors. We also do work as an agency and have a number of clients on our roster for example Liberty Global, Sainsbury’s and Sky. We do a whole range of things with them, including working with them to create products, tools and services together which can facilitate behaviour change. Working with companies in that agency role lets us reach large audiences which we really we love. More than anything it’s our approach that characterises our agency, the problems we take on and the way we tackle it.

What are the current drivers of change in your design practices?
I think we are looking very much at these new developments in psychology and cognitive behaviour science and looking at ways that humans are behaving and thinking and how that affects our practice. As designers it’s our responsibility to build a world that people are subconsciously encouraged to change their behaviour.

Could you explain a bit about the origin of the company? Why did it focus on the idea of behaviour change and why are you doing what you’re doing?
We were started by a really amazing man, David Robinson. David worked for 30 years as a community worker in the Borough of Newham which is one of the poorest boroughs in the whole of Europe. It’s a part of East London that has massive social problems. He set up an organisation 30 years ago called Community Links which was an organisation that provided things for the community by the community – everything like legal aid, parental advice, extra educational resource etc. It’s an amazing organisation and it’s still the largest community organisation in the country and a true flagship. David went on to lead the Prime Ministers council on social action. So he was a very important person within that field.

Back in 2004 he wrote a paper called ‘Reconnecting’. It was a short paper about the changes that he had seen in the community that he was working in, as well as some research into global patterns (highlighted by people such as Robert Putnam) that were showing the same picture – how there was a massive break down in community engagement and interaction. So his focus was on what can we do to get people actively engaged and activity doing things. He set up We Are What We Do and brought together a group experts from all different fields such as communications, PR, social experts, environmental experts, people from the charity sector and got them working together.

This original approach that David began with absolutely runs through all our work to get people to change their behaviour. It’s about active participation, about them doing more, and becoming more involved in their community and becoming involved in global issues. It’s about thinking of clever ways of engaging people in it.

We often talk about making sure we have as wide and audience as possible as well. If you only talked to people in an outward way about issues, you’re only ever going to reach the 1% audience, who have some kind of interest and sensibility to these messages and in many cases you’re preaching to the converted. So what we are trying to do is talk to those people who have no active interest in doing good. And by talking to that audience we’re working with much bigger potential numbers.

What really excites you about design at the moment?
The most exciting design for me is probably the really subtle examples that nevertheless have a really powerful effect on major issues. This morning we were looking at how packaging can be used to control food portions. An incredibly simple thing on the side of a packet, a clear panel that marked out different portions of rice, has been shown to affect obesity and food waste in the UK. These really tiny and subtle details that are overlooked by the majority of the public and the design world can have a major impact.

What do you think the future of design will look like and why?
I think it’s the move from messaging to finding more indirect and clever ways of speaking to people. So for example in Sweden they are developing safety belts in the back of cars and only when you plug them in, does your in-car entertainment system work. For me that’s a lot smarter than a TV campaign reminding people to wear their seatbelts. I think in the future this kind of thinking will happen more and more.

One Comment

  1. Christian Murphy

    I just found the site whilst browsing the internet and just wanted to say that i’m very impressed and inspired by your work and the ethos behind your company. I work in a prison in the north of England, delivering offending behaviour programmes to prisoners (mostly based on Cognitive Behavioural Therapy).
    I am currently developing a programme to address Victim Empathy and Restorative Justice, and I am always looking for innovative ways to encourage behaviour change in my clients. Your site has inspired me to try and think of more subtle yet effective ways of encouraging that change.

    I look forward to reading and learning more about your work.


    Christian Murphy

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