Want Cleaner Bathrooms? Draw a Housefly in the Toilet

DDD_WantCleanerBathrooms_UrinalPublic restrooms are unpleasant. Ladies, you have your own set of hurdles in those less-than-savory public spaces, but for men there is a unique problem with urinals—men don’t always aim where they should. As any guy knows, one of the most uncomfortable parts of being in a public restroom is the “spillage” that you have navigate your feet around when using the porcelain receptacle.

In an airport in Amsterdam a few years back, officials wrestled with this very problem. Without spending enormous amounts of money on research and the design of a new toilet, they wanted to know what they could do keep that annoying (and disgusting) mess off the floors. An economist that worked for the airport had a brilliant solution: etch a little housefly into the bowls and give the guys something to aim at. And you know what the result was? An 80% reduction in spillage! (I’d hate to be the guy who had to research the before-and-after statistics on that).

Who would have thought that such a little change could do so much? There’s an interesting visual communication design principle called “nudge” (discussed at length in a book by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein). The idea is that you can make a very small adjustment to a design in order to significantly change the way people respond to it. The true principle of nudge suggests that the design change must be small and shouldn’t provide any real obvious incentive (like giving people money to use it).

In the case of the Amsterdam airport, patrons didn’t experience an overhauled urinal design and they weren’t offered free candy bars if they didn’t miss or spill. In fact there was no real reward other than the fact that peeing at a fly was somehow entertaining and it focused attention.

In the world of visual communication design, sometimes overhauls in design are necessary. But, if we think creatively, sometimes just a small “nudge” is all that we need.