Weeknotes Week 084

A quick post for a quick week. We were strewn about again. Marco was in London presenting at the European Future Energy Forum and Justin and I were in Boston charretting on Low2No.

It's always nice to hear other people's thoughts about our work, which is why I enjoyed Thomas Lockwood's post at the Fast Company Design blog reflecting on his time at HDL Global 2010. Thomas runs DMI, whose annual Design Management Conference starts today.

Boston is as gray as Helsinki this time of year. The lack of dissonance between their skies is actually more odd to adjust to than if both cities were distinct.

Speaking of weather, the results from last week's photo shoot are back and they look stellar. Here's a sneak peek:

Photo by Marc Goodwin
Photo by Marc Goodwin

This week we particularly enjoyed an 'op-chart' in the New York Times depicting strategic changes to a high school lunch line that resulted in healthier eating habits. Here's the key line from an article in another paper:

How much... would a school need to cut its prices for apples, oranges and bananas to increase sales by 5 percent over a year?

Brian Wansink was called in to play detective. But... soon discovered he had been hired to answer the wrong question. Price wasn't the problem. It was the presentation.

By making small tweaks such as changing the order that food items are presented in, offering more descriptive names, and changing the containers that food is kept in, Wansink and his team were able to effect positive change in the diet of those who used their test cafeteria. The interactive illustration in the Times is great, check it out.



This is of course nice and important, but would it be — from the system design point of view — I think the solution is not very clear at all.

I think the offering of the school cafeteria should be part of the curriculum aiming anyway to "teach" young people the importance of healthy food. What is a better place to "learn" it than the school cafeteria, the most authentic learning environment for this topic?

The school cafeteria should show for the young children that healthy food can be tasty and taking care of yourself is a good thing. 

To design school food offering to be part of the curriculum is totally different design challenge than “solving” the issue of “lunch line”.

With this particular design case I would get back to the stage of defining the problem: is the problem that students have unhealthy lunch? Or is the problem that students do not understand the importance of healthy food?

What kind of design solutions there are to solve this challenge? Most likely lunch line will play a role in here, too.


@Teemu: great point. Pairing work such as this with a curricular adjustments seems like a promising combination to not only change cafeteria purchasing behavior, but also build a deeper understanding of the importance of those changes.

Wansink's work is interesting to me for three reasons. First is that in his context, the US, there are huge budgetary problems in many schools which would make introducing new curriculum difficult, slow, or both. If changes to the presentation, organization, or functioning of the lunch line are effective, then it would be silly to overlook them.

Second is that previous attempts to introduce healthier options have not necessarily been enough to affect change. Healthy foods are promoted, but junk foods will always be promoted—advertised— more aggressively. The realization in Wansink's research is that it's not just availability (healthier foods) but also attractiveness. Could it be as simple as fruits selling better when they are well lit and therefore look more delicious? Probably not, but presentation certainly is part of the equation. The WP article sums it up nicely:

"There's a lot of talk about putting more whole grains and dark green vegetables in the lunchroom. But it may not be the best way to improve health unless we are sure the kids will eat them."

Third, and maybe most relevant to our interest in strategic design at Sitra is the recognition that something as basic as a lunch line can be rethought as a design question.

There is no a priori perfect Lunch Line, just the challenge of feeding kids in school. That's something that can be designed in any number of ways. From my point of view, the value of Wansink's work is that it reminds us that the things right in front of our noses are often accumulations of quick decisions. After a while these accumulated decisions become more than the sum of their parts, often in a negative way.

Bringing a dash of behavioral economics into the lunch room is a way of empowering everyone at the school to think about their role in looking after the wellbeing of the students. Teachers and administrators, yes, but also staff people such as those who work in the cafeteria also have an important role to play.

Or as Wansink was quoted in the WP article, "the goal is to give people the tools to innovate."