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Materialising Mental Health: Design Approaches for Creative Engagement with Intangible Experience

  • Center for Democracy & Technology


Can creative methods drawn from design research practice be leveraged to help people think about, express, and discuss their own mental health? Tackling communication hurdles around mental health is a societal challenge which creative methods of inquiry are well placed to address: where verbal expression alone fails, the affordances of multisensory tools and artefacts have potential to provide a language for expression, discussion and peer support, and to create collective pictures of a community's mental health. In this chapter, we introduce a multi-faceted exploration of how mental health issues can be materialised in individual and group contexts. Personalised Potions, Empathy Rock Garden, Emotional Modelling, and Lexicon of Feelings are four 'making' activities developed and facilitated by students at Carnegie Mellon University, Pennsylvania, USA. Each activity takes a unique approach to materialising emotions, using different material qualities and facilitation techniques, enabling varying levels of anonymity, synchronicity, and collaboration, but are united in their ability to create a safe space for externalisation of complex internal emotions. Our approach is centred on exploring participants' making activities and the artefacts emerging: while acts of making may have therapeutic properties, our main interest is in observing the patterns, themes, metaphors, and material mappings which are produced.
Luria, M., Mills, U., Brown, J., Herzog, K., Rodriguez, L., Vitoorakaporn, S., LeFevre, J., Guilfoile, C., Kahle,
N., Dong, K., Nip, J., Dev, A., Glass, K., Jin, Z., Kwon, S., Wolf, A. and Lockton, D. (2021). Materialising
Mental Health: Design Approaches for Creative Engagement with Intangible Experience. In: Lupton, D. and
Leahy, D. (eds.), Creative Approaches to Health Education. London: Routledge.
Materialising Mental Health: Design Approaches for
Creative Engagement with Intangible Experience
Michal Luria1*, Ulu Mills2*, Jennifer Brown3*, Katie Herzog2, Laura Rodriguez2, Supawat
Vitoorakaporn2, Josh LeFevre2, Carlie Guilfoile2, Nowell Kahle4, Kailin Dong2, Jessica Nip2,
Aisha Dev2, Katie Glass4, Zhiye Jin5, Soonho Kwon2, Arden Wolf6, and Dan Lockton2*
Imaginaries Lab, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA, United States
1Human-Computer Interaction Institute; 2School of Design; 3University Advancement; 4Tepper
School of Business; 5Integrated Innovation Institute; 6School of Art, Carnegie Mellon University,
Pittsburgh, PA, United States
*corresponding authors:;;;
Can creative methods drawn from design research practice be leveraged to help people think
about, express, and discuss their own mental health? Tackling communication hurdles around
mental health is a societal challenge which creative methods of inquiry are well placed to
address: where verbal expression alone fails, the affordances of multisensory tools and artefacts
have potential to provide a language for expression, discussion and peer support, and to create
collective pictures of a community’s mental health. In this chapter, we introduce a multi-faceted
exploration of how mental health issues can be materialised in individual and group contexts.
Personalised Potions, Empathy Rock Garden, Emotional Modelling, and Lexicon of Feelings are
four ‘making’ activities developed and facilitated by students at Carnegie Mellon University,
Pennsylvania, USA. Each activity takes a unique approach to materialising emotions, using
different material qualities and facilitation techniques, enabling varying levels of anonymity,
synchronicity, and collaboration, but are united in their ability to create a safe space for
externalisation of complex internal emotions. Our approach is centred on exploring participants’
making activities and the artefacts emerging: while acts of making may have therapeutic
properties, our main interest is in observing the patterns, themes, metaphors, and material
mappings which are produced.
We are living in fraught times. According to research compiled by the Wellcome Trust (UK),
‘one in four people will experience a mental health problem in any given year’ and ‘75% of
people with a mental health problem develop it before the age of 24’ (Wellcome Trust, 2018).
University students, in common with many people in high-pressure environments, can
experience a broad range of mental health issues. At our institution, student mental health is a
major challenge, with numerous working groups and initiatives dedicated to addressing it in
different ways. As a society, we don’t always have adequate ways of talking about mental health.
Our experiences of mental health are our own, largely invisible and phenomenological, and
describing and sharing them can mean using language that may seem imperfect for the task.
Everything becomes a metaphor when the ‘thing’ itself cannot be seen. In interaction design
research, some projects addressing mental health and wellbeing have sought to enable peer
support, mobile-based applications, or investigated how social media use data can be used to
investigate and understand mental health (de Choudhury, 2013), while other work has focused
more on questions of how intangible, invisible inner states might be shared (e.g. the ‘stakeholder
tokens’ of Yoo, 2018).
Although experiencing mental health challenges is universal, people communicate them in
unique ways: some are very open about their personal struggles, and others are reticent.  This
could be part of individual personalities, but perhaps also for a host of other reasons, including
sociocultural, gender, and environmental norms. The sharing of mental health issues itself can be
seen as inappropriate or taboo, depending on cultural norms. In an often-competitive setting such
as a university, this is no less true. Increasing numbers of students around the world report
suffering mental health issues; under intense academic pressure, students may often lack the
opportunity to address their mental health challenges in a constructive way and there is
potentially a need for different approaches We therefore focus primarily on developing methods
for tackling communication hurdles around mental health in an academic environment, but also
explore how these methods might work in a public-facing setting.
Methodological approach
In this chapter, we introduce four exploratory activities which seek to address this materialisation
and sharing of experiences through using physical materials: Personalized Potions, Empathy
Rock Garden, Emotional Modelling, and Lexicon of Feelings. Developed by students for other
students, in a university wellbeing context, the four projects took shape via an eight-week
elective design studio course. Sixteen students from a variety of disciplinary specialisms,
undergraduates and graduates, from the USA and from international backgrounds, discussed and
reflected on their own experiences of mental health, consulted with the university’s Counselling
and Psychological Services, and examined other projects tackling related aspects of this topic
(e.g. Chang, 2018; Frick, 2015; Simpson, 2017). As we illustrate here, the projects were
informally piloted with other students in public areas around campus, and in structured sessions
with individual students. Our initial and primary focus has been working within the university
community, and we report on, and discuss, our observations here. However, throughout the
process we recognised wider opportunities for the role of physical materials in externalising and
coping with mental health issues. Three of the projects were developed further to run a
participatory workshop in a space dedicated to neurodiversity and mental health at the 2019
Mozilla Festival in London, UK, a technology industry community event, with a wider public
audience. Our findings from the pilot studies with students, together with some insights from the
Festival, are synthesised in this chapter, with the intention of demonstrating the potential of these
kinds of creative methods to contribute to applications with broader social benefit.
Theoretical approach
Tversky (2015, p. 99) explores how throughout human history, people have found ways to
externalise thought: from writing to drawing pictures, diagrams, and maps, to making models,
even ‘arrangements of sticks and stones and coffee cups’. These ‘cognitive artifacts’ support
individual thinking and sensemaking, but also sharing, discussing, and thinking with others, and
can include communicating, or materialising the way people think, feel, and understand. In
‘research through design’ and human-computer interaction research, and more widely in what
are being termed innovative social research methods (Lupton, 2018), a variety of creative
approaches are being developed which seek to help in this materialisation. Work on participatory
design and facilitation processes often used in user experience design (commercially) or working
with communities (in social design applications), may seem a long way from a health and
wellbeing context. However, approaches such as data physicalisation (Thudt et al., 2018),
metaphors (Lockton et al., 2019), building models (Fass, 2016, Ricketts and Lockton, 2019),
drawing (Bowden et al., 2015), art therapy (Rosal, 2018), systemic design (Aguirre Ulloa and
Paulsen, 2017, Rygh & Clatworthy, 2019), and synaesthesia research (Lee et al., 2019), all have
something to offer as a way of capturing, expressing, and communicating the qualitative
dimensions of people’s experiences. By doing so, these methods make people’s experiences
palpable and enable discussion and peer support. They can also enable people to share ‘what
works’ for them.
Figure 1: (top) A participant’s Emotional Modelling construction representing their expression of anxiety and a
range of related emotions; (lower two images) The recipe for one participant’s Personalised Potion for ‘any kind of
relationship’, worn with the potion itself on a lanyard, and student participants creating their Personalised Potions.
More photos of the projects and participants’ creations are available in a gallery at
Personalised Potions
Personalised Potions (Figure 1) set out to materialize mental health by asking participants to
express what they feel, but in a playful and indirect way—asking what qualities they believe they
need. We asked participants to think of a challenge they are currently facing in their life, and
then create a “potion” that would help them tackle it. The experience of creating a potion was
guided by facilitators, who encouraged participants to reflect on their current challenges, and to
better understand what are the qualities they will need to deal with their chosen challenge (and
loosely quantify and compare how much of each might be needed: parallel in some ways to the
concept of the ‘psychogram’ introduced by Matt Haig (2008)). After identifying a challenge,
participants were asked to add ingredients into a vial, to make the potion. The facilitator asked
them to create an “activation” phrase for the potion: like any good potion, it doesn’t work
without a phrase or an action to set it off. The purpose of the activation phrase was to identify a
single incremental action that can help move someone closer towards their goal. The activity was
free-form and individualised in subject. Participants could use the activity to address whatever
aspect of their own mental health that they choose, however big or small. Although the personal
challenges participants choose to address though the activity may be personally daunting, the
physicalisation and structured language of the activity is purposely forward-thinking and
positive, giving them an opportunity to express self-compassion, and to pause and reflect on
what they need for their own well-being.
Design process
Several prototypes were created in the development of personalised potions, and the team
iteratively tested with other students in order to learn to evoke the desired outcomes. Some of the
materials we tested for this activity included pebbles, beads, moss, flowers, gravel and string.
One early iteration provided participants with diverse materials, allowing them to interpret
themselves what these materials symbolise. The task proved too difficult, diverting participants’
focus to attempting to link material qualities to abstract qualities (an interesting area of research
in itself, e.g. Aguirre Ulloa and Paulsen (2017)), instead of focusing on self-reflection.
In pilots with students, we also noticed that participants tended to use colourful materials that
were easy to place in a vial, like beads. Thus, in the next iteration, we exchanged diverse
materials to simple coloured sugar. Again, the different colours did not provide an instantly
recognisable metaphor for abstract qualities, and participants mostly chose colours they liked
aesthetically. As a result, we decided to label the sugar with predetermined qualities. When
piloting, participants enjoyed having a relatively small set of qualities to choose from and were
able to focus on their emotions. The final qualities the ingredients represented were: ‘courage’,
‘compassion’, ‘trust’, ‘discipline’, ‘hope’, ‘honesty’ and ‘a secret ingredient’. The latter gave
participants the chance to break out of the structure of the activity by identifying qualities that
might apply to them as individuals. The final prototype therefore allowed them to focus on
reflection, with enough participant input in the process that would make it feel personal. The
additional step of an ‘activation phrase’ also seemed to have contributed to creating a personal
connection. When the session was complete, the remaining levels of ingredients acted as an
aggregate of participant sentiment—a kind of data physicalisation allowing us to observe overall
trends within the community who participated. Notably, in our largest workshop with students,
taking place shortly before the final exam period, ‘discipline’ was the most used ingredient.
Personalised Potions was staged in two locations on campus: in a student dorm, and in an
administrative office. Thus, two diverse groups were encouraged to participate: The first group
of participants were undergraduate students that lived on campus (young adults), and the second
a group of university administrative workers, with a broad range of ages and backgrounds.
We found that both groups of academic participants expressed themselves with the physicality of
the activity in many ways: (1) Some paid close attention to the quantity of each ingredient,
adding precisely the quantity they needed (‘...just a little bit of courage’); (2) some noticed the
order of things, placing the ingredients in the order that they needed the abstract qualities; (3)
others decided to shake the potion at the end to finalise it, while others thought a layered
reminder would be helpful; (4) most participants were glad to be able to take their potion home,
and noted that it would serve as a physical motivational artefact. Overall, we suggest that
translating complex questions, such as ‘What challenge are you currently facing?’, or ‘What is
your biggest concern?’ into physical and playful material helped participants open up, and be
receptive to reflection. The physical aspects of the activity not only contributed a light-hearted
environment, but also allowed participants to manipulate it in different ways to fit their personal
needs. Finally, the material allowed participants to take the results of the activity with them as a
physical reminder of the abstract qualities needed to support their wellbeing.
Some small adjustments were made for the staging at the Mozilla Festival. For one, lanyards
were provided, and labels made more decorative so that participants could wear their potions
while exploring the rest of the event. This form factor worked well alongside the festival name
cards and encouraged other attendees to participate in the workshop. The most used ingredient at
the end of the festival weekend was ‘trust’, which seems to fall in line with the broader theme of
the festival, exploring technology’s role in cultivating interpersonal interactions. Participants
skewed approximately 10 years older than the average university participant, but enthusiasm and
participation patterns were similar to the campus stagings, indicating that the activity was
designed to maturity.
Emotional Modelling
Inspired by artists and designers who have endeavoured to create tools for expressing very
personal and often sensitive information, including Benjamin Koslowski and Brendan Dawes at
al’s States of Mind (2015), our team developed a physical toolkit (Figure 1) that might support
an individual in private self-reflection and the communication of intimate thoughts and feelings
to another (should they choose to do so). The toolkit contains a set of solid objects and
connectors, varying in colour, size and material, that participants use to construct a
representation of their particular emotional experience.
Design Process
We began by exploring both 2-dimensional and 3-dimensional modes of expression. To test the
potential of a 2D approach, we borrowed pieces from a mental modelling toolkit produced
previously (Ricketts and Lockton, 2019), which included pieces of thick card stock cut into
shapes commonly found in natural landscapes (such as trees, mountains and clouds). To test a
3D approach, we provided our participants with a set of craft supplies including clay, pipe
cleaners of various sizes and colours, fluffy balls, wooden skewers, fabric and balloons. For both
2D and 3D activities, we asked each participant to create a visual representation of their
emotional state.
In our discussions with participants following each activity, we found that while the collection of
3D materials afforded a great deal of freedom, many felt overwhelmed by the variety of
materials provided. Conversely, the more limited palette provided by the 2D pieces enabled
participants to focus their efforts and assign meaning to particular qualities of the various
components. Seeing an opportunity to combine the most effective facets of each approach, we
chose to pursue a hybrid of the two methods, producing a 3D tool with a restricted palette of
elements. The final toolkit includes a set of geometric volumes in a monochromatic six-colour
palette and simple material combinations. This included wood, felt, raw 3D-printed plastic, and
weighted 3D-printed plastic which we finished to resemble stone. Within each shape we created
a series of holes to accommodate two different types of connectors (wood and silicone rods)
allowing participants to connect the objects together in a variety of ways.
While testing the final toolkit with 30 students as participants, as well as subsequently with 20
participants at the Mozilla Festival, we found that the limited palette of materials did, in fact,
allow them to more readily assign meaning to specific characteristics, making it easier to
communicate complex thoughts and feelings. This approach, combined with a clearly defined
method of construction, effectively lowered the activity’s barrier to entry. Participants required
less instruction and showed an eagerness to start building much more quickly than in previous
trials. As we had hoped, most participants had little or no trouble explaining their representations
as they were able to clearly express their intent and meaning attributed to each component.
Through this process of creation and discussion, common threads emerged in the ways certain
materials were most often used (echoing the general findings of some other projects around
emotions and materials). For example, many participants were drawn to the faux stone volumes
to describe ‘heavier’ emotions and frequently used the silicone rods to convey emotional
flexibility. However, we were pleasantly surprised by the breadth of potential meanings assigned
to each piece. For instance, while we’d imagined that the felt volumes could prove useful in
illustrating softness and perhaps even passivity, one participant piled a collection of the felt
volumes together, creating what she described as ‘coziness’ and ‘warmth’.
Our findings through this exploration illustrate the power of creative tools in supporting
expression and provide insight as to the balance between freedom and constraint when designing
tools for expression. Given the results of our user testing, we believe that providing participants
with an abstract and streamlined palette of materials afforded them a canvas on which they could
project deeply complex sentiments. Materiality served as an effective metaphor, lending enough
depth to support a nuanced representation without overwhelming the individual with choice. This
provided them with a safe space to project and reflect upon their emotions.
Figure 2: (left) ‘Almatrent’, a participant’s entry in the Lexicon of Feelings, representing the complexity of feeling
calm, grateful, but indifferent; (right two images) Scenes from the Empathy Rock Garden at the Mozilla Festivala
rock expresses ‘I see you and believe in you’, joined by smaller stones placed by other participants, and then also
seen in the context of the wider garden, with other things weighing on people’s mindsincluding ‘Breaking
friendships’ and ‘It’s OK to feel not OK’. More photos of the projects and participants’ creations are available in a
gallery at
Empathy Rock Garden
Empathy Rock Garden (Figure 2) is a space designed for people to share what is ‘weighing on
their mind’ through creating a participatory display. Passers-by were invited to take a rock from
a basket, writing a personal message on it, and placing it in the garden. They were also
encouraged to take and place small rocks in the garden to signal to others that they are not alone
in their emotional state. In the Empathy Rock Garden, communication was anonymous and
solitary to create a low barrier for participation. The intention was to produce a short activity that
would still reap the benefits of self-expression. We intended for the activity to be individual, but
for the results to be collaborative, giving participants a feeling of communal support.
Design process
In our early prototypes, we tested two aspects of the interaction: the ‘garden’, and the interaction
with the rocks. For the garden space, we attempted to section out different parts to represent
categories, such as ‘family’ or ‘work’, that we thought might be particular points of tension in
the lives of students. After piloting, we concluded that this was too prescriptive, and that
participants desired a more open-ended interaction. In our exploration of the rocks, we tested
how to design them in a way that would support our goals: should the rocks be natural or
painted? Stacked or spaced? Facing up or turned over? Through rapid prototyping and testing,
we learned that participants wanted to be able to easily read the messages on the rocks, but also
for the activity to feel private and calm. Based on pilot feedback, we chose unaltered natural
materials, and minimalistic black Sharpies for writing the messages.
We placed our final exhibit in the campus library, a location that would support the silent and
reflective interaction we were aiming for. The Garden was exhibited for two days and resulted in
a table full of rocks with very diverse messages. Due to the private nature of participation, we do
not know how many participants were involved, or of any of their characteristics. The resulting
messages in the Rock Garden were diverse. Some messages expressed concrete things that were
weighing people down (for example, a deadline), and some were more abstract messages. The
messages also ranged between optimistic and very difficult. People also made use of the
physicality of the material. Some participants created proximity relationships between rocks: for
example, placed a small rock on top of a big one, or drew an arrow in the direction of another
rock. Others used small rocks to create shapes on the surface. One notable example was a cross
shape next to a rock that read ‘please save me’.
For interaction, we were able to occasionally observe how people interacted from a distance, and
noted that placing small rocks that symbolised empathy had a lower participation barrier: more
participants placed small rocks, than participants who added new ascribed rocks. Some even
gathered a handful of small rocks and distributed them among the displayed rocks.
This project differered from Personalized Potions, in that it highlighted collective wellbeing
through materialising it in a shared space. On the one hand, participants had an individual
experience in which they were able to silently observe and add their own pieces to the garden.
On the other, the rocks they placed became a small part in a larger exhibit representing the
wellbeing of their community. We believe that this experience was able to balance the
importance of personal expression and the feeling of being part of a supportive community.
Similar to the campus staging, Mozilla Festival participation was anonymous over a two-day
period. However, due to the nature of the space, the garden was placed in an area with moderate
traffic. We occasionally revisited the exhibit to observe participant interactions from a respectful
distance, and noticed that many people felt compelled to read all the messages, and took
photographs of messages that moved them. Some participants took rocks away from the table to
write messages in private before returning them. One unexpected behavior change we observed
was the degree to which participants responded to one another through messages on the rocks
and their placement; after a certain threshold of messages expressing personal challenges, a shift
to messages of encouragement and self-empowerment began to build a noticeable presence in the
garden. We watched as a conversation rooted in consolation and support evolved within the
garden over the course of the festival weekend.
Lexicon of Feelings
We come from different places, languages and contexts and each have our own associations with
the relatively narrow set of words we use to express ourselves. A common struggle in managing
one’s own mental health can be the inability to express a feeling or notion to those around you.
This project (Figure 2) aimed to explore how we can better communicate complex, personal
emotions by creating a new vocabulary through portmanteaus, and ways in which individuals
could use new, materialised tools to augment their ability to express themselves.
Design process
Lexicon of Feelings was an activity in which participants constructed collages: assemblages of
words (and parts of words), shapes, colours, textures, and forms to create a ‘new vocabulary’ to
express their own individual feelings or the depiction of mental health. Grouped together, the
individual ‘lexicons’ contributed to a shared public installation, creating a collection of new
words that are deeply personal and unique, while also enabling participants to see patterns and
drawing parallels with other students in the community. This project has some commonalities
with The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows by John Koenig (2009), a website ‘compendium of
invented words for emotion’, but Lexicon of Feelings added dimensions of materiality and
aesthetics. Furthermore, it was created as an activity for people to carry out themselves, for
personal reflection.
Our participants were 30 students, mainly undergraduates at Carnegie Mellon University. They
worked through five ‘stations’ to create their collage, starting with a blank square of foam-core
board. The experience itself was meant to be individual and self-guided, through which
participants used materials and existing words to construct a new vocabulary which more
accurately represented their experience. We provided participants with materials and step-by-
step instructions to guide their process of creating a new lexicon:
1. Your Feelings In 3 Words
How are you feeling at the moment, today or recently? Write down 3 words that describe
how you are feeling.
2. Mash-Up
Scramble your 3 words to invent a new word — your own feeling-language. Write yours
on the line of the foam board.
3. What does your word feel like? Look like? Sound like?
Feel free to pick the materials provided and explore textures, colours, shapes, forms, etc.
Show us what your word feels like and attach the materials to your foam board.
1. Annotate your ‘feeling definition’ so others can navigate your piece!
2. Pin up your vocabulary.
In practice, many of the participants worked at the same time, alongside each other, and those
that did often drew inspiration from each other.
During the process, we noticed that as participants could see the previous words that others had
created, they were able to draw parallels and relate to a similar emotion. Although each final
word was unique and had a very different visual aesthetic, there were several root words that
appeared more than once, including ‘anxious’, ‘happy’, ‘excited’, and ‘hopeful’. Many of the
participants commented that the process of assembling the board was therapeutic, similar to the
feeling of using colouring books, knitting, or other tasks to calm the mind. Likewise, choosing
words to describe a feeling or state of mind allowed participants to identify and pinpoint a
particular mental state, or a particular feeling ‘in-the-moment’, rather than continuous emotions.
In some cases, the words embodied seeming contradictions, for example, “apantig” (anxious +
peaceful + anticipating). Some participants found it easier than others to think of root words or
use the physical materials to create a complementary visual. Although the materials and
restrictions were the same for everyone, each person created a uniquely personal word and
representation which related back to our hypothesis that existing language was insufficient to
express certain aspects of mental health, and that there could be value in facilitating a more
creative approach to expression.
Reflections and suggestions
The four projects introduced here are only initial explorations: prototypes developed and trialled
informally to understand the possibilities of the space, and to start to illuminate directions for
further research. The participants in the first stage were predominantly students, befitting the
intent to focus on student mental health as a domain, but also introducing specificities of detail
and experience of mental health which might not translate to other populations. However, as
demonstrated by their additional use at the festival, the methods developed showed potential to
be workshopped and explored further in other contexts including public engagement contexts. It
is important to note from an ethical perspective, that while a mental health professional from the
university’s Counselling and Psychological Services advised the students during their project
development, the outcomes were not in any way intended to be considered to be therapy tools,
nor in any way used to evaluate or make assessments of anything about participants’ mental
health themselves. We made this clear to participants along with a recognition that participation
itself might be painful or difficult.
Even with ‘rules’ presented for carrying out the activities, participants found ways to express
themselves outside of them. In some cases, this allowed for poignant results that might not
otherwise have been possible. In others, particularly with unfacilitated interaction such as
Empathy Rock Garden, some unexpected interactions did not necessarily contribute to the
experience, and at worst compromised other participants’ contributions. The tensions between
structure and freedom in how the activities were designed were a constant topic of discussion for
the design team, particularly apparent in Emotional Modelling with the idea of creating a
material- and form-based ‘palette’ for abstract concepts. Staging the projects in the right
environments seemed to matter greatly. The casual, light-hearted nature of the Potion project,
and the solitary reflection of the Rock Garden may not have been possible if staged in a different
place or time. Having enthusiastic facilitators for the Potions, friendly peers for the Lexicon, and
respectful interviewers for the Modelling also helped keep communication flowing.
What is the value of design, and design methods here? In some ways the projects developed
could have arisen from art therapy or educational research methods, but we believe that the
sensitivities in these projects to materials, to visual and tactile components, and also perhaps to
the idea of structure (especially in Emotional Modelling) and prototyping is something which
designers’ experience brought to the methods in particular. All the projects, even where words
were still a major feature, emphasized materiality, and the qualities and associations of materials
(Aguirre Ulloa and Paulsen, 2017) and construction in enabling expression.
In terms of benefits to participants themselves, each project allowed for distinct takeaways,
physical or intangible. Personalised Potions was an opportunity for very individual reflection,
and the artefact that participants received could be a call-to-action to take charge of their mental
health beyond their participation in the intervention: even a kind of strategy for the moment. In
Emotional Modelling, participants received a photo of the model they created, but the models
themselves were dismantled so the components could be re-used. In Lexicon of Feelings, the
finished boards were displayed together, anonymously though perhaps identifiably to other
participants who had taken part at the same time. The artefacts of the Empathy Rock Garden
were meant to be left behind, to act as a way for subsequent participants to reflect collectively
over time.
More generally, the invitation to share (or not), or even the ‘permission’ to reflect on issues or
thoughts in one’s own life, knowing that others are doing so too—and that there is explicitly no
right or wrong way to do it, no scales or quantification or even ‘norms’ defined—could be seen
as other benefits to participants of these kinds of methods. Certainly in the student context, it
seemed as though the fact that these activities were created and run by other students, could be
an important factor. How this kind of constructive peer-creation can be part of mental health
education more widely would be useful to explore.
In the light of other ‘design sociology’ methods (Lupton, 2018), we feel these kinds of
approaches can be a bridge between what might seem initially to be tools for ‘essentialist’
psychological analysis of individuals’ mental states (which they are not) and a form of
constructive social research. Adapted and used in the right way, these methods could be used for
qualitative enquiry into notions and expressions of wellbeing, and how groups construct meaning
together. Equally the notion of research through design, enabling the designed artefacts or
outputs to be a central part of the inquiry, a way of asking questions in another domain, here
demonstrates the potential for these kinds of methods to contribute to applications with wider
social benefit and societal relevance.
Thank you to all who helped with the projects and workshops in different ways, including Dr
Viviana Ferrer-Medina, Jill Chisnell, Jill Simpson, Chris Stygar, Josiah Stadelmeier, Tammar
Zea-Wolfson, Sean Gilroy, Leena Haque, and Lucie Daeye.
Further Reading
Durrant, A. C., Vines, J., Wallace, J., & Yee, J. S. (2017). Research through design: Twenty-first century
makers and materialities. Design Issues 33(3), (pp. 310).
Lockton, D., Brawley, L., Aguirre Ulloa, M., Prindible, M., Forlano, L., Rygh, K., Fass, J., Herzog, K.,
Nissen, B. (2019b, October). Tangible Thinking: Materialising how we imagine and understand
interdisciplinary systems, experiences, and relationships. In Proceedings of RSD8: Relating
Systems Thinking and Design Symposium. Retrieved from:
Lupi, G., & King, K. (2018). Bruises The data we don’t see. Retrieved from:
Rothstein, J. (ed.) (2016). Psychobook: Games, Tests, Questionnaires, Histories. Princeton Architectural
Sanders, L., Stappers, P. J. (2013). Convivial Toolbox: Generative Research for the Front End of Design.
BIS, Amsterdam.
Aguirre Ulloa, M., & Paulsen, A. (2017). Co-designing with relationships in mind: Introducing relational
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Our everyday technologies could have appeared terrifying to our ancestors: instantaneous disembodied communication, access to knowledge, objects with ‘intelligence’ that talk to us (and each other). Black boxes and intangible entities are omnipresent in our homes and lives without our necessarily understanding the hidden flows of data, unknown agendas, imaginary clouds, and mysterious rules that govern them. Have humanity's ways of relating to the unknown throughout history gone away, or have they perhaps transmuted into new forms? In an ongoing project, we have inventoried examples, encounters and reflections on contemporary technology, framed through the perspective of the haunted, spectral and otherworldly. In this paper, we excerpt this collection to illustrate the value and opportunity of an unfamiliar, disquieting perspective in helping to frame the frictions, beliefs and myths that are emerging around interactions with everyday technologies. We posit and demonstrate ‘spooky technology’ as an accessible framework to reflect and respond to our increasingly entangled relationships with technology.
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Editorial The RSD10 symposium was held at the faculty of Industrial Design Engineering, Delft University of Technology, 2nd-6th November 2021. After a successful (yet unforeseen) online version of the RSD 9 symposium, RSD10 was designed as a hybrid conference. How can we facilitate the physical encounters that inspire our work, yet ensure a global easy access for joining the conference, while dealing well with the ongoing uncertainties of the global COVID pandemic at the same time? In hindsight, the theme of RSD10 could not have been a better fit with the conditions in which it had to be organized: “Playing with Tensions: Embracing new complexity, collaboration and contexts in systemic design”. Playing with Tensions Complex systems do not lend themselves for simplification. Systemic designers have no choice but to embrace complexity, and in doing so, embrace opposing concepts and the resulting paradoxes. It is at the interplay of these ideas that they find the most fruitful regions of exploration. The main conference theme explored design and systems thinking practices as mediators to deal fruitfully with tensions. Our human tendency is to relieve the tensions, and in design, to resolve the so-called “pain points.” But tensions reveal paradoxes, the sites of connection, breaks in scale, emergence of complexity. Can we embrace the tension and paradoxes as valuable social feedback in our path to just and sustainable futures? The symposium took off with two days of well-attended workshops on campus and online. One could sense tensions through embodied experiences in one of the workshops, while reframing systemic paradoxes as fruitful design starting points in another. In the tradition of RSD, a Gigamap Exhibition was organized. The exhibition showcased mind-blowing visuals that reveal the tension between our own desire for order and structure and our desire to capture real-life dynamics and contradicting perspectives. Many of us enjoyed the high quality and diversity in the keynotes throughout the symposium. As chair of the SDA, Dr. Silvia Barbero opened in her keynote with a reflection on the start and impressive evolution of the Relating Systems thinking and Design symposia. Prof.Dr. Derk Loorbach showed us how transition research conceptualizes shifts in societal systems and gave us a glimpse into their efforts to foster desired ones. Prof.Dr. Elisa Giaccardi took us along a journey of technologically mediated agency. She advocated for a radical shift in design to deal with this complex web of relationships between things and humans. Indy Johar talked about the need to reimagine our relationship with the world as one based on fundamental interdependence. And finally, Prof.Dr. Klaus Krippendorf systematically unpacked the systemic consequences of design decisions. Together these keynote speakers provided important insights into the role of design in embracing systemic complexity, from the micro-scale of our material contexts to the macro-scale of globally connected societies. And of course, RSD10 would not be an RSD symposium if it did not offer a place to connect around practical case examples and discuss how knowledge could improve practice and how practice could inform and guide research. Proceedings RSD10 has been the first symposium in which contributors were asked to submit a full paper: either a short one that presented work-in-progress, or a long one presenting finished work. With the help of an excellent list of reviewers, this set-up allowed us to shape a symposium that offered stage for high-quality research, providing a platform for critical and fruitful conversations. Short papers were combined around a research approach or methodology, aiming for peer-learning on how to increase the rigour and relevance of our studies. Long papers were combined around commonalities in the phenomena under study, offering state-of-the-art research. The moderation of engaged and knowledgeable chairs and audience lifted the quality of our discussions. In total, these proceedings cover 33 short papers and 19 long papers from all over the world. From India to the United States, and Australia to Italy. In the table of contents, each paper is represented under its RSD 10 symposium track as well as a list of authors ordered alphabetically. The RSD10 proceedings capture the great variety of high-quality papers yet is limited to only textual contributions. We invite any reader to visit the website to browse through slide-decks, video recordings, drawing notes and the exhibition to get the full experience of RSD10 and witness how great minds and insights have been beautifully captured! Word of thanks Let us close off with a word of thanks to our dean and colleagues for supporting us in hosting this conference, the SDA for their trust and guidance, Dr. Peter Jones and Dr. Silvia Barbero for being part of the RSD10 scientific committee, but especially everyone who contributed to the content of the symposium: workshop moderators, presenters, and anyone who participated in the RSD 10 conversation. It is only in this complex web of (friction-full) relationships that we can further our knowledge on systemic design: thanks for being part of it! Dr. JC Diehl, Dr. Nynke Tromp, and Dr. Mieke van der Bijl-Brouwer Editors RSD10
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Worldviews are an important concept, inherent in one way or another in a number of frameworks and approaches related to systemic design, including Transition Design and Causal Layered Analysis, as well as broader cultural, political, philosophical and psychological perspectives. A worldview is, by some definitions, something along the lines of interrelated sets of beliefs and assumptions about the world, a frame of reference in which everything presented to us by our diverse experiences can be placed-a belief system. In this workshop we build on methods around physicalising and externalising ideas, beliefs, and perceptions, from previous RSD workshops, and other creative practices in art, design, and architecture, to invite participants to help develop fragments of a process together, and to explore, collaboratively, how to manifest, understand, and share one's own worldview, and others'.
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Metaphors are important at multiple levels within design and society—from the specifics of interfaces, to wider societal imaginaries of technology and progress. Exploring alternative metaphors can be generative in creative processes, and for reframing problems strategically. In this pictorial we introduce an inspiration card workshop method using juxtaposition (or bisociation) to enable participants to explore novel metaphors for hard-to-visualise phenomena, drawing on a provisional set of inspiration material. We demonstrate the process through illustrating creative workshops in France, Portugal, Chile, and the USA, and reflect on benefits, limitations, and potential development of this format for use within interaction design.
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While the subject of synaesthesia has inspired various practitioners and has been utilized as a design material in different formats, research has not so far presented a way to apply this captivating phenomenon as a source of design material in HCI. The purpose of this paper is to explore the translative property of synaesthesia and introduce a tangible way to use this intangible phenomenon as an interactive design material source in HCI and design. This paper shares a card-based tool that enables practitioners to use the translative property of synaesthesia for the sake of ideation. It further introduces a potential area of where this tool may be utilized for exploring user experiences. This work has implications for the CHI community as it attempts to share a practical way of using the intangible property of synaesthesia to explore potential user experiences.
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This forum highlights conversations at the intersection of design methods and social studies of technology. By highlighting a diversity of perspectives on design interventions and programs, we aim to forge new connections between HCI design and communication, science and technology studies, and media studies scholarship. --- Daniela Rosner, Editor
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Self-reflection is a central goal of personal informatics systems, and constructing visualizations from physical tokens has been found to help people reflect on data. However, so far, constructive physicalization has only been studied in lab environments with provided datasets. Our qualitative study investigates the construction of personal physicalizations in people's domestic environments over 2-4 weeks. It contributes an understanding of (1) the process of creating personal physicalizations, (2) the types of personal insights facilitated, (3) the integration of self-reflection in the physicalization process, and (4) its benefits and challenges for self-reflection. We found that in constructive personal physicalization, data collection, construction and self-reflections are deeply intertwined. This extends previous models of visualization creation and data-driven self-reflection. We outline how benefits such as reflection through manual construction, personalization, and presence in everyday life can be transferred to a wider set of digital and physical systems.
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We need to move from object-oriented thinking towards relational thinking for many reasons. As public services become more complex, their design increasingly focuses on the relationships between people. The role of the traditional service staff is shifting from a ‘provider’ to an ‘enabler’ and ‘facilitator’ of relationships between service users, their peers, family or members of the civil service. Many agree that the future of public services relies on relational services, relational welfare and a relational state. Yet we don’t have a shared vocabulary to describe good relationships nor materials to design for services that support meaningful relationships. We visually perceive the world as fragmented parts rather than seeing the connection amongst the parts. This perception is integrated with cognition, therefore when mapping complex systems, nodes are emphasized over their relations in-between. Categorizing and color-coding types of systemic relations are useful to understand but not sufficient to shape complex social relationships. We propose a multi-sensory relational tool that aids public servants, designers and users in understanding social relationships through the use of material properties as new design materials. Testing this tool revealed that people are enabled, within a short timeframe, to create a shared relational vocabulary and use the tool to co-design new service concepts. However, future research needs to address how to move from theory to practice, hence from concepts to prototyping.
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This paper proposes that the blurred line between designer and researcher can have a positive effect on design processes. The aims of the paper are firstly, to show how design ethnography is an emerging field of design practice in its own right, and secondly, to give some examples of how open ethnographic methods have been used in public-facing field research. Finally, to propose some recommendations related to the design of open design-ethnographic instruments and activities. Design ethnography integrates two distinct understandings of ethnography. The first is observational, designers present people with designed objects and observe how they interact with them (Houde and Hill, 1997). The second is shaping, designers give participants unfinished prototypes or sketches and invite participants to modify them (Baskinger, 2010). Designerly ethnography involves methods more familiar to designers than to ethnographers, and may be directed towards more general categories of inquiry than product development. This idea draws on Ingold's (2013) concept of correspondence with materials as a way of awakening the senses to experience. This paper presents findings from three case studies related to the externalisation of digital experiences. The case studies are positioned as participatory design research involving the creation of self-constructed formative representations. The instruments and methods described include drawing, diagrammatic modelling and physical making. These are seen as externalising instruments whose purpose is to illuminate how people think about their own digital experiences. Findings show that materials have a profound effect on how externalising instruments work, and that a balance between complexity and accessibility is important.
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Drawing Energy describes work undertaken by the Royal College of Art as part of SusLabNWE (2012-15). This drawing-based research project explored people’s perceptions of energy, by asking them to write, draw or illustrate their thoughts and reactions to the question ‘What does energy look like?’ Over 180 members of the public took part in the process.
To meet the complex societal and economic challenges facing healthcare service provision, the public sector is dependent on new partnerships and networked collaboration in order to meet policy and program goals. The medical culture with its deeply institutionalized ways of working combined with siloed expertise makes such collaboration and organizational change especially difficult. A lack of a common goal, a misalignment of working cultures and professional languages, and a lack of a shared understanding can pose obstacles for collaborative activities needed for co-developing healthcare services. Service design and co-design practices are therefore increasingly being called upon to manage collaborative processes and drive service innovation in designing patient-centric care. Tangible co-design communication tools commonly used in service design have shown to effectively support co-design processes through facilitating multimodal communication on topics that are otherwise difficult to articulate. However, such tools have not been commonly adopted by the medical field as the contribution of design to service innovation, and the value of using our bodily senses in design methods has not yet been clearly identified. This chapter aims to contribute to the uptake of tangible tools in healthcare by presenting the design and use of tangible tools and exemplifying tools from practice, through an analytical framework drawing on the use of metaphors and affordances in physical objects.
Cognitive Behavioral Art Therapy explores the intersection of art therapy practices and principles within cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) theories and models. This timely new resource examines CBT theory as it relates to art therapy, and offers an argument for the inclusion of CBT within art therapy-based treatments. An analysis of the historical roots of both CBT and cognitive behavioral art therapy (CBAT) is presented along with current practices and a proposed model of implementation. Also included are case studies to enhance this in-depth exploration of a largely unexamined perspective within the arts therapies.
In this review essay, I introduce and map the field of what I call “design sociology”. I argue that design research methods have relevance to a wide range of sociological research interests, and particularly for applied research that seeks to understand people's engagements with objects, systems and services, better engage publics and other stakeholders, work towards social change, and identify and intervene in futures. I discuss 3 main ways in which design sociology can be conducted: the sociology of design, sociology through design and sociology with design. I explain key terms in design and dominant approaches in social design research—participatory, critical, adversarial, speculative, and ludic design. Examples of how sociologists have already engaged with design research methods are outlined. The essay concludes with suggestions about what the future directions of design sociology might be.