Using design to change behaviour.

Creatives are often commissioned to help change behaviour. It’s not an easy task — we all find comfort in doing things the way we’ve always done them.

This week we’re sharing research that maps how, and why, people participate in change. It is not design-specific but could easily be used in design decision-making — especially when trying to judge design effectiveness or return on investment.


The Ladder of Participation was written in 1969 by Sherry Arnstein. Arnstein was a public policy analyst and project manager who shifted focus to the emerging field of technology assessment, specifically health care. She designed the ladder to describe the public’s involvement in planning processes in the United States.

It is still one of the most widely referenced and influential models in the field of democratic public participation.

Arnstein’s ladder describes a continuum of participatory power moving from non participation (no power) to degrees of tokenism (counterfeit power) to degrees of public participation (actual power). It proves that in any genuine or practical sense, participation requires the redistribution of power.

How the ladder is used

The ladder identifies who has power when important decisions are being made. It was born from Arnstein’s frustration trying to push people beyond the bottom rungs.

It has survived because the problem still exists – it is still difficult to change human behaviour.

Recently the ladder has been used in youth and education programs where the projects are initiated by the adults but the decision-making is shared with the young people

The ladder has 8 rungs

Rung 1: Manipulation is an ‘claytons’ type of participation where people are mislead into thinking they have a say when really the decision is made. It’s a public relations exercise. An example might be a rubber stamp advisory committee.

Rung 2: Therapy involves activities aimed at ‘curing’ rather than attempting to persuade. It can involve extensive activity, but all are skin-deep rather than addressing the real problem. An example might be a brochure explaining racism (this is biased behaviour and you should stop it).

Rung 3: Informing is important but often the emphasis is on a one-way flow of information with no channel for feedback. An example of this may be a poster.

Rung 4: Consultation takes information and adds a feedback channel. The consultation may include surveys, neighbourhood meetings and/or public enquiries. Problem is, often it is not clear what is done with the information.

Rung 5: Placation (proactively trying to overcome distrust and animosity.) This might include recruiting ‘champions’ onto committees to help persuade. It includes a feedback loop, so the public can advise or plan. Problem is power holders retain the right to judge the legitimacy or feasibility of the advice. Arstein viewed 4 and 5 as tokenism.

Rung 6: Partnership. The balance shifts and power are redistributed through negotiation between the public and the power holders. Planning and decision-making responsibilities are shared. An example of this would be a joint committee.

Rung 7: Delegation. The balance shifts more toward the public. In this category the public hold a majority of seats on committees and have delegated powers to make decisions. They also have the power to assure accountability of a program.

Rung 8: Public control. Power is completed handed-over. The public have the entire job of planning, policy making and managing a program. An example of this may be a neighbourhood corporation with no intermediaries between it and the source of funds.

Why use the ladder in design

Confidence. The ability to access credible research to explain the steps needed to change behaviour is powerful.

For example: the ladder would be valuable when a client accepts a change behaviour strategy, but then suggests the solution may be a series of posters rolled out across campus to ‘inform and invite’ students to participate.  Use the research to prove how ineffective posters will be on their own, and to explain why combining a poster with a participatory campaign — preferably with end-user control — will be more successful.



What do you think? Got any problems/questions? As always, happy to discuss further, just email.

Carol Mackay

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About Carol Mackay

After 30+ years running a graphic design firm, I pivoted from client-focused projects to consult to the design industry. Now with the Design Business Council I use my experience, and research, as a design mentor and coach. I help designers build robust, sustainable businesses, and help businesses integrate, and profit from, design.

The core of the DBC is the building a design community – over 85% of designers work in businesses with less than 5 employees, many less than 3. That means designers don’t have the same support network of other professionals. The DBC’s solution is supplement paid gigs with research, mentoring breakfast meet-ups, informative UNseminars and practical workshops in Melbourne, Perth and Sydney.

An archive of my previous career is at
My current work can be viewed at and

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