How Design Designs Us | Part 2 : Cognitive Activation Design

Leyla Acaroglu
Sep 6, 2016 · 10 min read

Part two of my exploration of the ways in which design designs us, I report back on the experimentation I have been exploring into how design can be used to positively affect cognitive experiences, especially since design alone provides a tremendous unexpected and typically unquestioned consequence on all of our cognitive experiences, as I described in Part 1 of this series.

At Disrupt Design, we design activations that intentionally seek to affect positive social change in the experiencer. At The UnSchool of Disruptive Design, we design educative learning arcs that employ different cognitive activations to rapidly transfer knowledge and create a transformational experience. These experimentations have provided a wealth of tacit understanding of the ways in which design can affect positive social change, specifically through a new type of approach — cognitive activation design.

What do I mean by activation design?

To activate is to set in motion, ‘to organize or create,’ to stimulate activity in another organism, to cause energy, to create activity, or to ignite change. In chemistry, the term activation is used to describe the reversible transition of a molecule from one state to another. It is the opposite of protection, in which the molecule decreases its propensity to change. Activation is the ability to curate change potential, to form a design perspective that is manifested through the use of well-crafted mechanisms that motivates people and moves them to action.

An activation is a transitionary experience that shifts someone from one state of being to another; it pushes or provokes a reaction or action rather than encouraging or allowing for a sedentary or non-implicated state. How does one design activations? Well, we have all heard of ‘experience design’ –it has boomed and blossomed in recent years, putting it in hot demand in various industries, from advertising agencies to app builders. Yet the field of ‘user experience’ design, or UX as it is commonly called, seems to see the ‘user’ part of the ‘UX’ design as being about manipulation, rather than collaboration or cooperation.

Experiences evoke cerebral changes

This is how activated experience design differs from traditional UX design. Whereas traditional user experience design is intended to create a space that increases the likelihood of a user following a pre-determined path, activation design is about creating an opportunity for a person to reach an activated state of knowledge growth or intrinsic change, based on an interaction, and often as a result of participating in an experience designed with an intent to create change.

This is not to say that UX design is evil or wrong in any way. I’m a strong supporter of the increased benefits that well-designed experiences can offer, and I personally benefit from the elation and exciting experiences that good UX offers all the time (often **almost** falling victim to the click-bait impulse buys that they are designed to prompt!). But as a social scientist AND a designer, I am passionate about finding unique and productive ways of activating people for positive social change– figuring out what mechanisms motivate people to overcome biases and shift perspectives, or even just to evoke a greater chance of participating in change in the future.

At the UnSchool we design different types of activated experiences for evoking change, from secret dinner parties to design game nights.

How to Design Experiences that Activate

Engagement and participatory-experience design is being used more and more. Experiences evoke neurochemical resonances and trigger pre-existing schemas (both positive and negative), which is one of the reasons they can be so powerful.

Through my research and personal practice, I have discovered several key approaches to designing encounters that facilitate change- approaches that anyone can implement into their own design experiences, even on an every-day level. Here are the top six things I have discovered from my experiments in designing activations that evoke positive social change:

Ask questions. They implicate and prime the mind.

We respond to challenge and reward. Setting up questions that ignite people’s curiosity and encourage active participation not only creates an environment in which people feel invited to contribute, but it also challenges the brain in a different way from the standard flow of listening and absorbing. Questions can be rhetorical, open-ended, multiple choice, quests, reflections, word associations, challenges, or even hypothetical; it doesn’t matter what kind you use, so long as you use questions well. Don’t just ask arbitrary or random things, but instead use well-placed and thoughtful provocations that trigger critical thinking and inspire action. I use questions to do three things: ignite the mind, set up a frame of reference, and then provide the opportunity to see something differently. Asking questions can be an incredibly powerful way to spur reflection that will frame a point, as you set up the space for people to positively question themselves and to be curious about the answers. The objective is not to prove someone is right or wrong; it’s about creating the right level of curiosity so that, even if someone is wrong, they feel good about the new knowledge they receive.

The Game Changer Game uses quests as a frame for thinking through change design.

Design for the Experience Outcome

Design is a powerful social influencer that affects our emotions and experiences. Whilst good design delights, bad design can annoy and irritate. Designing experiences does not only require you to consider the physical environment, but also the journey through space coupled with the artifacts and visuals used to curate a particular outcome.

Think about the type of transferable outcome you want to participants to gain. Not just the notion of a good feeling or a ‘take away’ but the imbued, internalized experience that evokes the type of change you want them to experience. How can you curate the elements and components of your design to maximize the type of feeling and thoughts you would like your participants to feel and have?

Consider all the simple spatial decisions that will trigger different responses in your audience. Consider the room, the visuals you choose, and your introduction to the experience. All these components work together to create an atmosphere that people will respond to. You obviously can’t design for everyone’s needs, but you certainly can consider the ways in which subtle cues are influencing people positively or negatively and then alter things for the better.

Make it Fun. Play Evokes Change.

Even if you are not funny per se, I’m sure you know the difference between a fun and a boring experience. The most dry and depressing content can still be broken up with a little humor or creative activity. Fun can be embodied in everything I do; even if the topic is harsh and sensitive, there are ways of bringing the opportunity of creative play to explore and understand the different elements at play.

I often run classes on design critique and observational research in random outdoor environments, as they provide a totally unique space to learn in and make the process of discovery more fun! I use gamified mechanics such as reward and risk to create environments that excite people. I’m really into turning things into games- not dumbing them down or making them just about play, but incorporating game mechanics in subversive or subtle ways.

Think about it: we all know how to play games; it was a critical part of our social construction to learn to play by the rules and the reward of winning, so games are a really useful mechanism for creating fun and playful experiences that ignite change.

One of the UnSchool’s early activations

Tell Stories Well

Far too often, facilitators of experiences forget about the power of personal and relevant narratives. Not only are we inherently primed for storytelling, but also, good stories can trigger all sorts of emotions, like empathy and even anger, which are powerful tools for memory and cognition.

I always try to weave a learning objective into a story. Whether it is a personal anecdote, something I witnessed, or a historical study or experiment, the narratives I share help to trigger visual and emotional memories for the listeners. When feelings and memories are linked to the content you’re covering, the learnings become easier to comprehend and remember.

Obviously not all facts or information need to be storified, but there are countless opportunities to interject a narrative into complex pieces of information, illustrating the point in different ways. Whenever I’m doing a big public speaking engagement or designing a dinner experience, I design a series of story- based vignettes around the critical themes I want to convey. I often end up throwing in random analogies and anecdotal experiences as they come to mind as well, all anchored on the core transfer objective of what I am trying to convey.

Say, for example, I want to teach people to understand that everything is interconnected and that humans create complex systems, which overlay and mismatch with the ecological systems that sustain life on Earth. I could tell a story about being lost in Tokyo due to the complex, yet culturally relevant, Tokyo subway map. In doing so, I would be layering the narrative of that experience over a lesson on the cultural relevance of systems design, and afterwards I could ask people to share similar stories of their own.

Create the right size knowledge gap

It happens to all of us- there is stuff that we just don’t know. We should, in the spirit of knowledge sharing, admit when things are outside of our skillsets or knowledge sphere. In fact, admitting knowledge gaps can help get them filled quickly! Someone else might have the answer, or get inspired to find the answer, and share it with everyone else. I find a lack of knowledge about something to be more interesting than an overabundance of knowledge, as it drives my curiosity and the desire to learn more. If we are to be effective educators and facilitators, then we should be willing to show just how much -and how little- we know about the world. After all, it’s an amazingly complex mess that we humans are all collectively and continuously trying to figure out.

Professor George Lowenstein has a great theory about the relationship between knowledge acquisition and curiosity. It is called the Information Gap Theory, and it is all about what motivates us to find out new things. Some say it’s a little like the story of Goldilocks. If someone is presented with a gap in their knowledge that is too big, they will ignore it because it’s too hard. If the gap between what someone currently knows and what they need to know is too small, they often ignore that too, because it’s too easy. But if the knowledge gap is “juuust right,” then people will be intrinsically motivated to seek out the information required to fill the established gap. “This gap has emotional consequences: it feels like a mental itch, a mosquito bite on the brain. We seek out new knowledge because we know that’s how we scratch the itch” (ref).

Designercise is an ideation toolkit I designed to help bust through cognitive biases and build flexible thinking

Co-create, Don’t Dictate

Co-design is a creative practice of allowing for problems to be unpacked and explored through facilitated collaboration. Sometimes called Participatory Design, it’s all about just that- including everyone in the discussion and design of the outcomes. There are many different ways of employing this approach, but I personally like to use question cards, gamified experiences, and team- based workshops to create an atmosphere of contribution and empowerment.

Co-design can be tough, and in some cases you do need to pull rank (especially on some unruly teenagers or silverback CEOs!), but co-creating allows for an open equal space to be developed and should at least, in part, be utilized in your experience design. You can jump out of co-curator mode and back into boss mode at any time, but be mindful of the entire experience that you are facilitating. It is helpful to incorporate a collaborative space into your program, as it makes people feel respected and appreciated. Under the right conditions, participants are more likely to respond to complexity and let creativity flow.

There are some times, however, in which your objective is to translate and transfer knowledge in a short period of time; having everyone participate equally in that could ruin or derail the experience. But once you have a co-design framework to draw on, you can sprinkle it into your program where it fits. For example, I was recently facilitating a multi-day educational experience for the UnSchool and, after a series of mishaps, our bus driver got lost. We ended up driving around for hours, never making it to our original destination. As the host of the experience, I could have made an executive decision about what we would do next without consulting the group. But, knowing the potential impacts that this would have on the collective experience, I instead opened it up to the group to weigh in all the options plus decide how they wanted to proceed. In the end, the entire group was happy with the choice, which led to stronger long-term outcomes.

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There are many more insights that have been gleaned through this constant experimentation into the ways in which design can be used for creative change-making.

In part 3 of this series on how design designs us, I will explore the fascinating and sticky arena of ethics in design and technology. Experiences change our minds, so how can we be sure that our experiences don’t damage the collective minds of our species?

PS If you loved the photos of the toolkits and card games I have designed in support of this methodology, you can learn more about them- or get your own!- right here.

Disruptive Design

Going against the grain; disrupting the status quo. This curated collection of articles explores the themes of disruptive design, sustainability, cognitive science, gamification, social innovation, positive change interventions and the systems that connect it all.

Leyla Acaroglu

Written by

UNEP Champion of the Earth, Designer, Sociologist, Sustainability Provocateur, TED Speaker, Educator, Founder of, &

Disruptive Design

Going against the grain; disrupting the status quo. This curated collection of articles explores the themes of disruptive design, sustainability, cognitive science, gamification, social innovation, positive change interventions and the systems that connect it all.

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