Thank you for not smoking here!

Posted on Sep 30, 2021

The patronizing design of smoke-free spaces

Outside a university library on a Friday afternoon: the pavement is scattered with cigarette butts, covering a row of do-not-smoke signs. They mark the places where smokers could previously throw away their cigarettes in street-level ashtrays. The place is filled with smoking students, waiting for the weekend to begin. Right beside them hangs a half-torn poster saying: “thank you for not smoking here!”

I am here on an assignment from the municipality to research how re-designing public space could minimize cigarette litter. Why are these students polluting their own streets? ”Amsterdam has fucked me over, well I will fuck them back.” One of them says. Another shoots his cig away with his thumb and index finger and smirks. “That’s the feeling of true freedom.” Clearly, neither the signs nor the lack of ashtrays are limiting their cigarette litter and smoking habits. Are they having the opposite effect? Smoking has historically been associated with rebellion. The 1920s had the first female smokers, the 1950s had James Dean, and though they primarily might have served the tobacco industry, the smokers of the hostile 2020s are finally given something to rebel against. Passive aggressive signs and blatantly subtle” design-nudges only trigger a counter reaction.

As I sit down on the pavement, I imagine the brainstorm sessions which led to its redesign: A passionate social-design team discussing “positive behavior change” and “ethical nudging”. Smoking on campus is legally prohibited since 2020, but in a liberal democracy this cannot be some kind of authoritarian measure, instead smokers must believe that they are quitting out of intrinsic motivation. If the ashtrays are removed and smoking is no longer facilitated, smokers would go somewhere else. This coercion would get them to smoke less, and quitters and impressionable freshmen would no longer be triggered by smokers in front of their building. From a cluster of colorful post-its with possible slogans, the designers would pick “Smoke-free generation”, because who doesn’t care about children, and who would want to be a boomer? The posters would be blue to evocate smoke-free fresh air, and feature a friendly message like “thank you for not smoking here!” to trigger feelings of guilt, responsibility and exclusion in the smoker. It is not just a redesign of pavements but of social norms. And if all of that fails, the smoking-is-prohibited signs make the job of removing or fining these smokers easier for the security.

But the rebellious smoker is a designer’s anti-user: acting not on pleasure but on death drive, with every deliberate nudge magnifying their counter-reaction. Yet another students crushes his cigarette end on a no-smoking sign. “You could say that it is my protest against the controlled public space, it awakens a deep sense of resistance in me!” Perhaps he is not only irritated by passive aggressive anti-smoking posters, perhaps he rebels against neoliberal bio-politics, nudges to pursue a fantasy of an optimized self and our obsession with individual responsibility over structural change.


I cannot find an official design rationale behind these posters and signs, but online I do come across a “full service” design studio, Finallyanagency, which developed the animation and pitch which convinces companies to join the campaign. Amidst work for Coca-Cola and Mc Donald’s, their portfolio entry on the smoke-free-generation campaign reads: “Companies can play a big role in the de-normalization of the tobacco industry. Because why would you as a company invest in a deadly industry, or facilitate your employees to smoke?” Their animation features the notorious Corporate Memphis illustration style in different shades of blue. Over a minimal ambient tune, a tinny male voice informs us that any company wants their employees to be fit and full of vitality, and that tobacco negatively influences 14 of the 17 sustainable development goals. He gives us, the viewers, the terrible health stats on smoking and assures us that they want a society in which children are protected from smoke and its temptations. Companies have the key to stopping the deadly tobacco industry - which they emphasize is not a normal industry - and should create a smoke-free working environment for their employees. They end with a dull “join the movement!”

Perhaps the ideal of being a fit employee full of vitality won’t appeal to the average student, but surely these people care about their cigarette’s environmental impact? Don’t they realize that tobacco negatively influences 14 of the 17 sustainable development goals? “Ofcourse I care about the environment, but it makes no sense to appeal to my individual responsibilities when the biggest polluters go free” states the student who promised to fuck Amsterdam back. I cannot disagree with her. Where is the fossil-fuel-free generation? The plastic-free generation? The meat-industry’s-nitrogen-free generation? Won’t anybody think of the children? Tobacco ís a normal industry precisely because it is so corrosive and unsustainable. But the Smoker makes a perfect scapegoat for urban environmental problems. Who cares that a handful of ‘normal industry’ corporations have plunged our planet into a climate crisis when in our direct environment we see smokers - already sinful and unclean - littering cigarettes and adding toxins to the city’s dead soil.

Why would smokers maintain an environment which is hostile to them? Their municipality cannot provide these students with affordable housing, but does ask them to keep the streets clean to make sure that tourists and shoppers enjoy their experience. Instagrammable Amsterdam has no place for the Smoker, these streets are no longer theirs. An urban planning student tells me that the waste bins on the other side of the street are literally designed by amusement park developers. They feature an ashtray, but it is hidden away at hip-height and require a gross and undignified action of pushing a cigarette through a tiny hole, fingers touching layers of ash. Not too long ago, most students threw their cigarettes in the grate-ashtrays on the floor. Now, this student slowly pushes his cigarette in a gap between two bricks. Beside it, a row of cigarette butts stick out: he’s already had a few today. “It’s my neurotic re-connecting to the public space which has been taken away from me. Just give me a good-looking ashtray! That would give me a sense of fulfilment. I would even get off my bike to put my cigarette away.” Replacing actual ashtrays with anti-smoking-signs, such a solution could only come from a design ethos which designs people rather than stuff. With the belief that change arises from individual people’s awareness, behaviour and shame there is no need for design commissions on material problems. The grand project of today’s design is to free mankind sinful thought.

Design cannot convert the Smoker. They do not aspire fitness and vitality, instead they consciously admit to their addiction, demand frequent breaks, diminish overall productivity, are a burden on the health system, get cancer and die. By rejecting the entrepreneurship of the self, the chains of their addiction liberate them from the internalized control of normative society. They are the suicide bombers of mundane everyday life. If it is the municipality’s goal to reduce cigarette littering, they should redesign public space in appreciation of this spirit. Inclusivity is one of the hottest buzzwords in our field. If designers are truly committed to this goal, they should design spaces which are inclusive to the figure of the Smoker, and to anyone else who will not be controlled by the imaginary optimized version of themselves.