The New Design Paternalism

According to a story in last Sunday’s New York Times, working long hours can be bad for you—even if you secretly kind of enjoy it. As a result, some companies are trying to discourage the practice. To wit:

Sprint Nextel, for example, offers its employees time-saving services like the ability to fill prescriptions at work and help with travel planning, said Collier Case, Sprint’s director of health and productivity. There are also incentives to stay active at work: the headquarters in Overland Park, Kan., has covered pathways between buildings, and stairwells are designed to be inviting. (Also, some elevators operate at deliberately slow speeds.) [Emphasis ours.]

Inviting stairwells are nothing new—indeed, the New York Times’s headquarters has them in spades—but deliberately slow elevators? Sneaky! This reminds me of an excellent 2006 story (this time in the Times Magazine) about the new, soft paternalism. As it explains, some states have experimented with voluntary gambling blacklists that allow addicts to self-exclude themselves from casinos. Violate the ban in a moment of weakness and you can lose your winnings and even be arrested.

The slow elevator idea is a little less “soft”—riders have no choice in the matter—but it works in a similar vein, subtly encouraging people to do what’s best for them (take the stairs) or suffer the consequences (an obnoxiously long wait). The question is: Should designers (or building managers) be in the business of helping us do what’s best for us? Or is there something queasily presumptuous—not to mention annoying—about the practice? Give us your thoughts in the comments form below.

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