Animation Vegetation @ Design and Emotion conference

From the 12th to the 14th of September I (Ben Hagenaars) attended the 8th international conference on Design & Emotion in London. The central theme of the conference was ‘Design Out of Control’. The topic focussed on the challenges and opportunities design is faced with today. On the first day off the conference I presented my case study Animation Vegetation. I am proud to say that my project received the ‘Best Case Study Award’. You can find the presentation below.

Animation Vegetation is a design project to generate more green places in public spaces. As cities are growing everyday, due to the increasing number of people that are living in it, simultaneously accessibility to green spaces is decreasing. Which has a negative effect on the quality of life in build environments. The general idea of the project was to create something that engaged and enabled peoples to ‘green-up’ their local city area. The method deployed to trigger this kind of engagement was the design of a public intervention toolkit. Inspired by bottom-up movements like graffiti artists and guerilla gardeners, a doll out of a biodegradable textile was created. The doll grows in volume by filling it with seeds and soil. Steady watering and sunshine allow the seeds to hatch and find their way trough the mazes of the textile. When fully grown, the idea is to drop the green doll into an urban setting that could use a bit more green. Different weather conditions cause the textile of the doll to degrade and become a part of the city. The doll acts as a graffiti tag on a city wall, making a critical statement about it’s public surrounding.

I tried to encourage people to adopt a doll by handing out toolkits for making one of their own. If they agreed they received an empty doll plus a step by step scenario to communicate the idea of the project. The scenario explained that they had to finish the doll themselves and nourish it until it turned into a green character. When fully grown they had to pick a nice spot for it in the city. The public reaction to the project was amazing; in one-day time all of the 500 unfinished toolkits were handed out. 300 extra toolkits were created so that people on the waiting list could join the project. From that moment on people started making the dolls their own. Some participants started to experiment with different types of vegetation to grow in their character. Some of the characters that were placed in the city were vandalized. And some local elementary schools adopted several characters and used it in their educational programs.

During my presentation I reflected upon the fact that involving various participants in a design project can result in unexpected ways. These kinds of adaptations were out of my control after the project was opened-up to the public. These actions can be seen as informal design interventions executed by the participants. Embracing the idea of being out of control is a relative new concept in the field of product design. In design educational contexts designer are thought to develop finished products or artefacts. In the animation vegetation project I deliberately created an unfinished toolkit to encourage the local community to adopt and adapt this tool.


Sustainable Summer School

From 19 – 25 August 2011 I participated in the Sustainable Summer School organised by REcentre and the Institute without Boundaries. Below is the report I wrote about it.  There is also a video report available here.

The food group of the Sustainable Summer School was a composed mix of people from various
backgrounds ranging from design, to business and agriculture. We focused a week long on food
and the city of Maastricht. Our case started by meeting Stefan Muijtjens, an organic farmer and
his local farm De Tuin van Sint Pieter. For several years he was able to produce a variety of quality
crops. Due to distribution problems, Stefan had a hard time reaching out to the inhabitants of
Maastricht. Therefore he was forced to quit his farm.
When we talked to locals of Maastricht about his initiative, we discovered that most of them were
eager to buy locally grown crops. But availability, time and price were major obstacles for them.
People that were working during the daytime couldn’t access the local farm before its closing time.
Elderly people found it more convenient to buy their food in the supermarket. The experience of
the farm wasn’t compelling enough to persuade students to pay a bit extra for organic and local
produce. So the team had to find a way to bridge this gap between the farmer and the people by
overcoming these issues.
Looking at the historical context of the city we found that the river Meuse played a key role in the
development of this old Roman city. Architectural elements from the past like the bridge over the
river provide a cultural experience that attracts a large number of tourists every year. This is a huge
opportunity for local farmers, like Stefan Muijtjens, to promote and sell local food products.
Out of the observations and the context mapping we created a new brief for our food case:
create a sustainable, organic and locally sourced food system that is resilient and engages citizens
of Maastricht in rewarding experiences.
Through brainstorming, sketching and prototyping, we developed a conceptual food system based
on the idea of a floating farmers market. This would be located on the river Meuse and near the
old bridge, the cultural hub of the city. The system could develop in three different stages: short-,
medium- and long term. In the short term the floating market would start out as a Sunday event.
This could attract locals and tourists on their free time by providing them a cultural food experience.
In the medium term the event could become a Sunday ritual. Side projects like an educational boat
‘Noah’s ark’ and a medicinal boat ‘Farmacy’ could pop up. By connecting the farmers and the city
through the river, the food market could become part of the Maastricht identity. In the long term
the food system could expand from the bridge hub on the river to the local bus network. In this way
the distribution of the locally and organically grown products could become more convenient for the
farmers and for the people of Maastricht.
This food system has economic and sustainable potential. It could enable awareness about the
quality and environmental benefits of organic and local produce. It could reconnect farmers with the
city and it has the potential to attract locals and tourists by providing them a compelling riverside
food experience.

Overview March – December 2011

I summarised my research process from March till now in a poster. The starting point is; How to design for sustainability? and ends with my new research question: How to create a collective scenario of a sustainable future? Based on the poster I also created a new abstract.

Systematic issues such as climate change or resource depletion form massive challenges for our and future generations. Centralised design practises based on linear material flows are part of these problems. A transition towards a design model where resources and knowledge are shared between designers, users and producers, shows a lot more sustainable potential. The role of the (meta)designer in this model lies in engaging and enabling people to be part of this participatory design practise. Therefore I will investigate how designing collective scenarios, executed as a series of (critical)artefacts, of such a networked model could make this possible future more tangible and create a platform for interaction between the different participants. The central question of this research is: How to create a collective scenario of a sustainable future?

Making Things Visual

Last week I followed a thought provoking lecture by Bas Raijmakers at the FAK in Brussels. He is the co-founder of design research agency STBY in Amsterdam & London. He explained his view on what it means to be doing design research. A very interesting topic considering I started my own PhD in design research this year. I have tried to capture his presentation in some sketch-notes.

Bas started by explaining his background. He did a master in Communication Sciences at the University of Amsterdam where he developed his fascination for how people use media & technology. During his Masters he learned about usability research but wanted to go step further. He wanted to experiment with involving the user in the design and research process. This was the starting point for his PhD at the Royal College of Art in London, where he developed his ‘Design Documentaries’ method. This method took the form of a visual storytelling format that brings the everyday life of people into the design process, allowing it to act as a source of inspiration for designers. This method is often used by his design research firm STBY. For example, in a project commissioned by Panasonic called Living Sustainably, STBY researched how people in the US can live a sustainable lifestyle. This isn’t a question they could answer right away. They first had to understand peoples lifestyles and needs. By creating a series of design documentaries, they were able to create videos that communicated a range of intimate insights into their lives and opinions, telling their stories in a way that could both inform and inspire. STBY helped Panasonic to incorporate these insights into their future concept developments and business model development.

Design documentaries start from the idea that understanding is the first step in creating meaningful solutions that could enrich peoples lifestyles. Also, they make things visual, which helps people to understand. Empathy is an important skill in this context, the ability to put yourself in someone else his or her shoes, which really helps to open up to personal experiences that help you understand that persons needs.

Bas focused on the importance of making things visual for designers and artists in a research context. It is a way to express and share their knowledge. It allows not only peers but also people in other disciplines to interpret this knowledge and create new insights. Making an original contribution to knowledge then creates an ongoing debate that pushes interdisciplinary development forward.  Bas pointed out that working in between fields will become increasingly important. Several problems that our society is faced with today, are too complex to be solved within one disciplinary field.

Research through design  is a way of creating new meaning by visual storytelling. This vision raises interesting questions about the role of the designer in society. Should designers limit themselves as the makers of objects, or can they also adopt a new role as the makers of meaning? I think, as Liesbeth Huybrechts pointed out in her Thesis, designers can become makers of hybrid things, creating both objects and meaning.

Cultural Probes

I have created a cultural probe research kit for the Cultivating Communities project. The kit is build around an assignment booklet.  The assignments challenge the students of ‘Juf Miranda’ to create their own sustainable scenario. The students will conduct interviews, gather inspirational materials, create persona’s and make their own storyline. They have about 3 weeks to finish the assignments, afterwards I will try to make a collective scenario out of their story’s. The idea is to gain extra insights into the students living world through this research kit.


Collective drawing

After the first observation session in “het schommelbootje” I’ve tried to summarize my thoughts of that day in a drawing.

When I returned to the school I used this drawing to start a conversation with the students of ‘Juf Miranda’, the group I will be working with this year. I invited them to draw their own thoughts on the drawing I made. This turned out to be a very fun and creative exercise. Some students just used the template and added colour. Others made up their own ideas. Check out the results here

Taking care of nature (Observation of a local school in Alken)

For the cultivating communities project I will develop a sustainable scenario together with local schools in Limburg. The first school I will work with is ‘het schommelbootje ‘in Alken (Belgium). From September 2011 tot July 2012 we will try to co-create an inspiring context and educational toolkit focused on sustainable development. We start out we a research phase and move on to a design phase. In the research phase we will explore the daily environment of the students through several creative observation methods. In the design phase we will develop and test prototypes for the educational toolkit.

The research started with an observation of the school environment. It is located in the village of Alken not far from the city of Hasselt (Belgium). The school building itself is a beautiful renovated farmhouse, which provides an inspiring environment for the project. The observation day started out with a workshop organised by the school. Taking care of nature was the central theme of the workshop. When I arrived at the school the teachers explained the importance of the theme to the students in a playful way. Afterwards they divided the students into smaller groups.

Each group had a different mission, ranging from planting a garden in front of the school to making a small play around the central theme. Each group occupied one of the several interesting spaces of the school. One that struck me the most was the wishing tree in the central playground. Apparently it has a very important emotional function; students can gather around the tree and talk about their wishes and dreams to each other.

At the end of the day each group presented their results. I was very impressed by their creative ability’s. They presented real practical solutions for talking care nature like using less water or putting the lights down to consume less energy. The students and teachers at ‘het schommelbootje’ are true experts of their own experience and I look forward to working with them over the next year.