Learning from language on the street

Concept map showing Wellington as a place to  "do" and " be" , in pictures

You’re likely to be a little surprised at some the language around you. That’s if you stop to pay attention.

Rushing around we notice a fraction of the words and messages directed toward us. It’s little wonder. Some estimates put the number of messages we’re exposed to everyday as high as 5,000.

Mostly we don’t stop to think about this. Not the individual words, nor meanings.

Last week, I got a chance to pause and reflect on the language we’re surrounded by. I was fortunate to attend a workshop at Webstock 2014 led by Liz Danzico called “Use Your Words: Content Strategy to influence behaviour”.

Our workshop leader — who who is part designer, part educator, and hails from New York — guided 20 of us through a day-long learning experience where we paid close attention to the language of Wellington city.

After discussing the way language can shape behaviour in many, varied and nuanced ways, the workshop participants where charged with closely observing and recording words in Wellington.

It was a revelation. There are lots of words! Big, small, subtle and bold. Language is everywhere. It was a joy spending an hour noticing just some of the many signs of the city. (The photos from my hour are available on flickr).

Once we were grouped together and sharing our perspectives on the language we’d found (both implicit and explicit), it was possible to read a narrative into the city that isn’t evident when you rush by. Or look at just individual words.

Each of the four groups who workshopped their ideas (using tools adopted from UX approaches to content strategy) revealed different hidden undercurrents or themes.

I was delighted at the conversation about Wellington that emerged from team Headquarters of the Verb. Not only did we reference creativity and nature, but also participation and giving. You can see the concept map we created above.

Even if we didn’t talk at length about the mechanics of websites, the learning Liz facilitated has application. Two main things remain with me:

  • be alert to hidden, unintended meanings of language
  • take time to see your city, site or user experience from a fresh perspective: turn things on their head (so to speak).

As I’ve long been interested in place-making (particularly as advocated by David Engwicht of Creative Communities), the stretch from observations about the city to the web were entirely credible (if not somewhat unorthodox). Liz referred to the Project for Public Spaces, whose examples reminded me of heated discussions about situationalist tactics from my protest days.

Will I pay more attention to language around me, everyday? Probably not. However, I can see myself being attentive to unintended meanings, associations and language at particular key junctures of web content projects I’m working on. And I will definitely stick to one of Liz’s parting shots: “Get outside your comfort zone”.


Use Your Words: Content Strategy to influence behaviour presentation by Liz Danzico. She’ll also share details of her Webstock talk via an article with video. (I’ll add a link when this is generously shared.)

Designing for Behavior Change (2013) by Steve Wendel