As I’ve said before, games can do a lot more than just entertain. They can can make accounting fun, help kids learn, teach valuable lessons in design and suggest new interactions with the world around us.

In that context, here are two more examples of game design techniques in two of the least frivolous areas imaginable – health and wealth. Both from Raph Koster’s great blog (which is essential reading for people creating anything that another person will use/experience). 

Games for Health

Coming up June 10-12th is the Fifth Games for Health conference which looks at all the ways that games can act as a positive disruptive force in healthcare. For example:

  • games used for rehabilitation and therapy
  • “exergaming” (exercise gaming) which exploded onto the scene with Wii Sports and is here to stay 
  • improving doctor patient communication by using virtual environments
  • games to raise awareness of issues like STDs (“Catch the Sperm”)
  • game environments to train surgeons and rapid response teams
  • where games help kids to develop (and where they might be a problem)

Games have two things to offer healthcare. Firstly, they are engaging and can bring an addictive reward structure to just about anything. This is valuable for us all, as we tend to live our lives less healthily than we should due to the  of the delayed benefits. Using game mechanics to make the rewards more immediate could revolutionise our attitudes to our health.

Secondly, they can be very realistic simulations. Games can educate and train healthcare professionals in more engaging ways, which ultimately makes the learning more effective. They can also simulate things which are hard to otherwise experience (see Burn Center below).   

Here are some of the sessions that caught my eye (full list of sessions announced so far is here):

Mindless Eating Challenge
In the game, players are tasked with caring for a virtual pet or plant, similar to the popular Tamgotchi.  Pet care requires the user to follow a variety of health and eating recommendations and verify their actions with photos taken with their phone’s camera.  For example, the recommendation “Eat a hot breakfast” would require the player to submit a photo of him/ herself eating a bowl of oatmeal.  Photos and compliance are then judged either by judges or peers.  Based on compliance to these recommendations, the pet or plant changes its appearance and gains features or accessories–a tree might grow taller or grow more leaves or fruit in response.  Alternatively, leaves might fall off if the player’s performance is poor.  A social portion of the game allows the user to see various depictions of their performance in comparison to the performance of others in their group, as well as of their group in comparison to other groups.

Case Study : Burn Center
This session covers the design, development, and rollout of Burn Center by 360ED an award winning training game covering a mass casualty burn-victim event. Burn Center not only provides the immersive experience of a full-scale, chaotic triage situation, but it also features an extensive resuscitation mode that follows patients over the course of 36 hours of treatment on an intensive care unit following a disaster event.

Case Study : The Skeleton Chase, A Healthy ARG
SThis session covers the development, rollout, and results of an Alternate Reality Game (ARG) titled Skeleton Chase that was developed to serve as an intervention for college students who studies show routinely dial down their exercise activity upon arrival at college which in turn sows the seeds for bad health habits and outcomes later in life. (more at this link)

The Coming Age of Sensor Based Health Games
Increasingly, games are using a new generation of sensors that can detect movement, haptics, proximity, global position, light, audio, visuals, brain waves, emotional states, and physiological states, to name a few. These sensors often transmit their data to games without requiring players to transmit the data themselves, such as through an accelerometer attached to the player’s belt throughout the day, or a GPS system that inputs the player’s physical location into the game state.

Advances in sensor technologies and affordability are giving health game designers new gameplay options. This session will cite research findings and case-study examples to provide an overview of the many types of sensor systems that exist today or are just around the corner, and their potential integration into the research and design of games for health.

A Conversation with Richard S. Levine : Developer of Microsurgeon
 One of the first games about health ever debuted for the Intellivision video console. Microsurgeon featured incredible graphics for its day and detailed gameplay where you guided a nanobot through a human patient helping them battle a variety of ailments from cholesterol build-up in arteries, to bacterial infections, kidney stones, tapeworms, and tar deposits from smoking.

The YouTube clip of this 1982 game is a must see.

Games for Money

Personal finance sites like Mint and Rudder have been springing up to help us save money and make sense of the hundreds of options out there. They have incredibly useful tools which aggregate all your accounts in one place (so you don’t get fooled by your own mental accounting) and allow you to set budgets and send reminders when you go over. Mint has been a great success, and now reports over a million users.

Despite the zillions of products out there to do this, we still managed to wheel, deal, and borrow ourselves into a financial crisis (that is still ongoing, though swine flu may be eclipsing it just now). Clearly, something was lacking in the appeal here, for if said product category were truly successful, we wouldn’t be in this fix.

Now, Mint is in closed beta on a feature that turns personal finance into a game, complete with points earned for doing things like socking away some cash into the savings account each month, or switching to a credit card with annual rewards. Get enough points in a sustained way, and you too can be a Financial Guru.

This seems like a fairly straightforward harnessing of game-style incentive systems towards a laudable goal (though I should note that said credit card with rewards is likely from one of Mint’s partners). But honestly — money is points anyway, isn’t it? Why is it that we value the cash less than the flat-screen TV?

Raph goes on to wonder at the kind of game mechanic that would nudge us to try and save as money in the same way that WoW players go nuts over experience points.  

It may be that one reason why we used to be thriftier is simply because the money we hoarded was more tangible… gold coins trigger the brain’s systems in a way that a bank balance does not. This is what the Mint point system is designed to supplement: by creating a non-fungible point system, the game is giving you something other than real-world stuff onto which to displace your acquisitiveness, a “virtual stuff.” It would do even better, perhaps, if the points were gems or something else more “stuff-like” in terms of its representation.

Go read it the whole thing. It’s a powerful point. As with health, we save too little because the tangible reward comes in the future, and we massively understimate our future wants. Using game mechanics to bring that value forward can only help.

Grain silos (1984)

Should form equal function? If something is to work well it often must, but that tells you less about what it should look like than you’d think.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the amazing photography of Bernd and Hilla Becher, a German artist couple who spent the last fifty years taking pictures of industrial architecture:

The Bechers first collaborated on photographing and documenting the disappearing German industrial architecture in 1959, and had their first Gallery exhibition in 1963 at the Galerie Ruth Nohl in Siegen. They were fascinated by the similar shapes in which certain buildings were designed. In addition, they were intrigued by the fact that so many of these industrial buildings seemed to have been built with a great deal of attention toward design. Together, the Bechers went out with a large format camera and photographed these buildings from a number of different angles, but always with a straightforward “objective” point of view. The images of structures with similar functions were then displayed side by side to invite viewers to compare their forms and designs. These structures included barns, water towers, storage silos, and warehouses. (from Wikipedia)

Looking at these pictures it’s fascinating to watch different shapes emerge in the designs of each type of building. Even though they are utterly functional and mostly have the same constraints, they still vary considerably. More evidence that, as with the Chords Bridge, creativity can be born out of thinking not outside but *inside* the box.

Here are a few pictures of their works. More here (from their book Typologies) and in exhibitions worldwide.

Gravel Plants (2006)

Gravel Plants (2006)

Framework Houses (1970)

Grain Elevators (1985)
Grain Elevators (1985)

Winding towers (1983)
Winding Towers (1983)

Cooling Towers (1976)
Cooling Towers (1976)

Bonus for photography lovers: the photography of Edward Weston.


Diego Rodriguez, an inspirational member of the IDEO family, is working through 21 design principles he believes in on his blog, Metacool. Go check them out, it’s worth it.

Number six talks about living life in a way which gives you the tools to feed off the constraints of a difficult problem rather than be afraid of them:

Innovation needs to happen at the intersection of desirability, viability, and feasibility.  These three elements make up the legs of a proverbial stool called “it’ll work in the world.”  Too many innovation initiatives focus on only one or two, much to their detriment.  For example, creating something without regard for its feasibility out in the world is not unlike designing a bridge without regard to the existence of gravity: it might work, but the likelihood of it being a reliable, safe, means of transport will be greatly diminished.  And while it might be tempting to “really be creative” by ignoring constraints, a wiser approach is to view constraints as liberating.

The best designs are those which attack a set of constraints head on to create something that can operate within them. That’s why I was so inspired by Ernie Schenk’s book, “The Houdini Solution”, which is full of techniques for thinking inside the box.

For what it’s worth, I think this is such an important principle that it can be separated from the idea of “T-shaped” people, which is wonderful in itself (particularly for how little explanation it needs to be grokked).

All that said, I have to thank Diego for putting me on to the work of Santiago Calatrava who he uses to illustrate his point. The Chords Bridge, pictured above, is a stunning example of elegance which dances on the fine line between beauty, structural integrity (this design is apparently not the most structurally efficient) and of course cost.

This kind of structure can only be built by really understanding the limits of all those dimensions.


Walking around Lisbon, you see plenty of witty and awesome graffiti pieces (particularly in the Alfama and Santos districts). Done well, it adds a great touch of personality to the city and looks fantastic – just look at advertisers and the art world drooling over the work of guys like Banksy

However, the debate over whether it is vandalism or art continues, with some evidence that it encourages crime (the “Broken Windows” idea) and of course the fact that much of it, like the tags scrawled in marker pen, looks awful.

The UK’s Department of Transport has some pretty in-depth research here on why and how to reduce graffiti, with case studies of graffiti on trains in New York, and around the UK and Holland. Last year, the Design Against Crime Research Centre held a seminar to better understand it. Someone even came up with a “Graffiti Report Card” to shame the bad.

Is graffiti art or vandalism? That really depends on whether only the best makes it on to the walls.

Art Building

Into the breach steps Art Building, which takes building or renovation sites and has up and coming young artists put colossal up pieces on the scaffolding.

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It’s nice to see property developers sponsoring this kind of art, and regardless of the merits of the projects themselves (the first is supposed to be a tapeworm), the city is far better off with than without. There are three projects so far:

Vitrine – Joana Vasconcelos
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War/Work – Tiago Batista
Arbuilding work war

Peek to Heaven – Lucas Mila
Artbuilding peek

I love street art, and would love to live in a city where graffiti is part of the culture, and where the good stuff get celebrated. What do you think?

Here’s some more from the streets of Lisbon.

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Yesterday I showed some awesome signage from Lisbon’s Museu Colecção Berardo’s which was engaging, witty and fit perfectly with the character of a modern art museum.

This is the opposite.

Imagine that something horrible has just happened to you, and you depsperately need urgent medical attention. How would you feel if you rushed to the hospital and were directed to the emergency room by a series of signs which looked like this:



The signs are incongruent with the clean, clinical, highly professional feeling that a hospital needs to project to make patients feel safe and respect the authority of the staff. They don’t inspire confidence.

In fact, the hospital is fine and modern. The irony is that directly below these delapidated signs is a smaller, bright red piece of top quality signage in what seems to be the world’s most ubiquitous font: Helvetica.

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The last two posts (about the Cervejaria Trindade and Museu Colecção Berardo) were about how the most utilitarian objects need not pass unnoticed. They can be made to have a charm of their own which helps communicate the personality of their surroundings.

This shows how much damage they can do when poorly thought through.


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Next up is some cool signage at the Museu Colecção Berardo’s in Lisbon’s Belém area. 

As with the Cervejaria this is an example of injecting wit and character into something that usually only gets an afterthought.

What’s better. This (from the Oceanarium, also in Lisbon)?

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Or this:

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It’s clear which one is more likely to engage the audience.

And what about these reinterpretations of the humble toilet wo/man?

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Even the floor numbering gets in on the act, showing you the number and the contents of the floor in a single chunk of typography.

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As Jonathan Miller says, art is about “making the negligible considerable”, which this goes some way to doing. A great set of designs and particularly appropriate for a gallery of modern art, although it would be wonderful if utilitarian details were always this stimulating.

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Continuing the series of good designs noticed in Lisbon (after the Santos Design District yesterday), is the Cervejaria Trindade, essentially a beer hall in a convent. From Frommer’s guide:

Cervejaria Trindade is a combination German beer hall and Portuguese tavern. In operation since 1836, it’s the oldest tavern in Lisbon, owned by the brewers of Sagres beer. It was built on the foundations of the 13th-century Convento dos Frades Tinos, which was destroyed by the 1755 earthquake. Surrounded by walls tiled with Portuguese scenes, you can order tasty little steaks and heaps of crisp french-fried potatoes. Many Portuguese diners prefer the bife na frigideira (steak with mustard sauce and a fried egg, served in a clay frying pan). But the tavern also features shellfish; the house specialties are ameijoas (clams) à Trindade and giant prawns. For dessert, try a slice of queijo da serra (cheese from the mountains) and coffee. (link)

The food was awesome, although it’s worth warning that they describe as “light” a steak sauce that consists entirely of beer and butter.

The place is also known for its azulejos (traditional Portugues decorative tiles), pictured below.

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The decoration, service and generally expected trappings are up there with the best. However, what sets it apart from other places with equal amounts of character and history to tell is its menu, a big leather bound book with oodles of character. It’s a great example of supporting a brand with excellent design in a usually neglected place.

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Want a steak, why not order the:

Rump Steak A La Trindade – From the parts of the rump cut with mastery and art by Brother Butcher, comes this intensely flavourful tender steak. (emphasis mine)

The copywriting’s nod to Brother Butcher, the choice of paper, the script font and dropped cap which nods to old monastic tradition of illustrated manuscripts all help to bring the restaurant’s history back to the fore.

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The seafood menu brings to mind medieval bestiaries.

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And my favourite touch, the illustrations which separate each section of the menu.

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The reason this is interesting is that the menu is often delegated to an almost utilitarian function in even the finest restaurants, forgetting that a good meal is as much about the overall experience and story the place tells as the food (a contentious statement for the foodies amongst you, I’m sure).

The Cervejaria goes out of its way to remind you of its history in a lighthearted way, which works particularly well in a place that wants to appeal to tourists who delight in this kind of cheesy/authentic storytelling. A different, more subtle approach might suit a restaurant with an equally interesting story but a less populist angle (even the most fine food focused restaurants may have an unusual story to tell).

What matters is using every channel available to get the story across. A good design should wear its personality on its sleeve so people can better understand what makes it tick and how it get there. This is what allows people relate to it, make an emotional connection and perhaps identify themselves in it.

One of the highest achievements of a design is for people to feel that they are expressing a part of themselves by using it.

More pictures after the break.

Read the rest of this entry »


The first and most obvious sign of design in Lisbon, so a good one to start with in this series of daily posts on the snippets of good design caught in Lisbon this Easter.

On 6th Dec 2005 a chunk of the Santos area to the West of the city centre was rebranded the Santos Design District giving a united front to the the design stores which had been moving into the old industrial area since the 80s, local marketing and design agencies, and the nearly four thousand creative industry students at the IADE, UAL and ETIC.


The area is packed with design stores stocking classic design furniture (by names like Eames, Prouvé, Gehry and brands like Vitra and Herman Miller) and all the objects and books (Phaidon features heavily) that go with. Several have even joined together to create the SSD Smile Card, a common discount card and online store.

To name a few worth exploring: Paris-Sete (the driver behind the district according to Blue Design, a local design magazine), Domo, Ligne Roset and Steinwall. Start in this area.


So far, the district has helped to put Santos on the map as a hub for design and also organises events every few months, most recently to celebrate its third birthday, when shops stayed open late and offered special discounts. Good design has also trickled into the nightlife (from GoLisbon blog):


Following the new theme of the neighborhood, you’ll find places where the décor is just as interesting as the food. A favorite is Estado Liquido. Better known for it sushi, it also features a sleek minimalist space with some Asian touches, and it also doubles as a bar/lounge. If you’re not a fan of sushi and want to try something more local, head to Cop’3. It’s another tastefully designed space serving innovative versions of traditional Portuguese dishes. You’ll find it in Largo Vitorino Damasio, the same square where the bar Left is located. It’s a hip hangout that Wallpaper* magazine singled out for being “stylish and relaxed,” that’s also a great place for drinks to the sounds of the guest DJs.

This is what the main square looks like:



So what’s next? Gustavo Brito, founder of Paris-Sete, gave a few in his intereview with Blue Design: a “design lab” to incubate the experiments of the 4,000 local students, a “design shuttle bus” linking Lisbon’s art museums, free wi-fi in the area’s public spaces and a permanent space for a “design garage sale” of selected pieces.

It’s great to see a group of like minded individuals putting the infrastructure in place to help a community of designers and creatives thrive. It is not enough to be neighbours if you don’t also get to know each other.

Where else are similar associations happening?

For those of you who don’t know me, I’m normally based in London (any readers in Shepherds Bush?).

Right now I’m travelling around Lisbon so I’ll be reporting back starting Wednesday with a series of daily posts on the design details I’ve been catching in this lovely city.

Stay tuned, and subscribe if you don’t want to miss out!


Don’t discount the good old fashioned materials – sometimes they just need to be put together a little differently.

360 Paper Water Bottle 


First off Brandimage’s smart re-imagining of the one-use bottle. The entire thing is made from sheets of whatever sustainable sheet stock is available, molded and stuck together:

“The package utilizes sustainable sheet stock of bamboo, palm leaves, etc. that is pressed into 2 halves to encapsulate a micro-thin PLA film that provides liquid/O2 barrier. The pressed material provides the form, graphical substrate and/or embellishment surface and structural integrity. It is shipped inverted and “pops open” upon filling through a conventional fill-portal at the base. The barrier material also acts as the means to fuse the 2 halves together. The top is torn off to access the liquid. To reseal, the removed component peels apart to expose a sanitary plug-fit side, and the remaining part gets tethered to the finger loop to eliminate litter. It changes the total experience of drinking water; from the way the container looks, feels and functions to the way it ends its usage.”

This design also removes the need for separate container to hold a six-pack of these bottles together:

“The 360 Paper Water Bottle is a single-serve container, but the windfall of how it is made enables the self-bundling of multiple containments to negate the use of separate “6-pack” carriers. The use of an all-natural structural board with vertical ends drastically reduces the material used in palletizing and shipping, and enables self-merchandising.”

In other words, they are stamped out six at a time and can be folded over into a structurally sound unit. As show in the top right of the picture above, four of these can then be held together with another strip of paper stock to create an easily transportable pallet.


Go to Brandimage’s site for more, there’s a PDF download that will tell all. I hope someone picks this design up and commercialises it, as I’d love to try one of these out.


A physical letter can still hold a hell of a lot of emotional appeal, but it’s a pain to do physical mailouts. Enthusem allows you to send paper mailers as easily as e-mail, which is interesting because it lets you get that emotional impact of paper without the pain of handling it. Moonpig meets marketing, if you will. In their own words, Enthusem is:

“An online service that makes sending postal mail (yea, the printed kind) super simple and seamlessly integrated with online content.”

“The service lets users send direct mailers one-at-a-time (or to a list of recipients) from a Web browser or through a set of web services. In addition, Enthusem mailers can include online attachments. The attachments link the printed communication to online content much like an attachment to an email message.”

“The www.enthusem.com website lets end users send Enthusem mailers while a set of web services let 3rd party applications send direct mail without all the complexities associated with your typical Web-to-print solution. So, for example, using the web services, a developer could create an add-in for Microsoft Outlook that would allow Outlook users to send direct mail in addition to email. “

Just to highlight two of the smart touches.

Number 1: the letters come in a premium, translucent envelope – just to give the receiver that extra temptation to open it:


Number 2: it’s really easy to link it back to the online world. All the person has to do is enter the pickup code below…


…here, on the front page of the site, and the get taken to the attachment (which can essentially be anything on the web)




On a more light hearted note, this is just neat. Go make one at Instructables!

Video below:


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