Dialect – Critical Reflection

It would appear that the time to take on the task of reflecting on the last eight months of my life has finally come. I have to take a moment to refocus my mind to begin to conceive of how to do this in a concise way (hint: I’m not a concise person). My personal identity and the way that I fit into the world has changed so much recently that it can be hard to separate my personal progress from my academic pursuit.

Back twenty-eight weeks ago I sat down in our brand new studio and just reflected on where I’d come from and where I was planning to go in the next semester. I was actually hugely disappointed that we never actually made it to the ‘4th year’ studio. It had always been a bit of a guiding light ever since I attended the Open Day way back in 2014. I’d always imagined being in that space working away on my honours and it’s truly scary how fast all of this happened. Now I’m 15 days away from receiving my honours classification and it’s not really all caught up to me yet. Even just being here, doing what I’ve been doing is a huge privilege to me. The people I’ve met and the experiences I’ve had at DJCAD are by far the best I’ve had in my life and that it makes up such a core part of your life moving forward can be exciting and intimidating. Anyway, let’s take a look at what I’ve actually been up to.

Find

At the beginning of the semester, something that was weighing on my mind was human identity. This was because of recent events in my life and the process I’ve been going through since the beginning of third year. Even the fact it was the start of a new semester. I always end up comparing where I’m at now compared to where I was then. I was initially very shy to commit to this idea as I was fearful of the associations people would make and that at its core it’s actually one of the most important things in my life. Looking back this harmed my progress quite heavily as it took me around five weeks to really even begin to commit to the theme of identity, my dissertation topic helped a lot with this, it allowed me to realise that no one was making the associations I was making inside my own head and that the fear was unfounded.

My design work has always been focus on making people’s lives easier. Initially I envisioned that this project would achieve this by giving people tools to use to explore their identity to a fuller extent but as my research piled up I realised I was taking the wrong insights away from what they were actually saying to me. I saw that they were not exploring their identity and I just assumed that they wanted to explore themselves more. Turns out there are many reasons for not spending time being too introspective and that it’s not something for everyone. What I should have been hearing is that people struggle with identity their entire lives and that it causes them practical problems. The symptoms of not being confident in yourself affect many different types of people from many different backgrounds.

I realised the answer had always been staring me in the face throughout this process and my life in general. Therapy. I’ve always believed that the skills taught in therapy should be taught to everyone. Unfortunately, I was rather too many weeks into semester two when this became clear to me. It even took me a week or two to build up the confidence to make a decision so late on in the process. I was apprehensive about ‘wasting’ all the research I spent Semester 1 doing but it was largely still relevant. My project had changed form, but not theme. Being able to return to the always present hierarchy of needs really settled my anxieties and reminded me that I’m working for a position of great strength, experience, and knowledge.

Play

I had toyed with many different ideas over the course of this body of work, both in my mind and in reality. This started with designing a more intuitive way of gathering people’s opinions quickly and visually online, then passed through some objects such as a silent monitor inspired toy that would allow the user to represent themselves visually through their own flag. I created a new form of business card that would deliver different levels of information about you depending how the object was viewed. I thought about clothing that would display your interests or current mood, possibly against your will. Eventually I settled for a while on creating an interactive toolkit that helped people get a better idea of themselves and hopefully allowed them to build their self-esteem and confidence. I think each of these ideas did have enough merit to make a good degree show project.

I really enjoyed working on this idea while it still had legs for me. It brought together what I had already worked on and combined with the research I had performed and I really felt confident that the overall theme of what I was trying to do had enough strength in it to create something really great. Unfortunately, it became clear that I was creating two things, the object/toolkit that would be interacted with by my users but also the facilitation and the workshop style setting that the objects would exist in. I struggled tremendously with this for many weeks before deciding to move on. The fact I got to develop this idea a little further than the others serves as a good midpoint in my year.

It was at this point that I began to turn my attention to the idea of augmenting already existing therapeutic techniques in order to enhance their effectiveness. With the toolkit I was developing there was such a demand on my users for time, effort and attention. They had to create their own value within my product and that’s something that I didn’t like at all. I dove headfirst into trying to alleviate this by essentially treating my users like children, what a fantastic idea… I created a product for my mark I presentation that literally dictated that there were three activities, each taking a known amount of time to complete. I had essentially chunked my users learning process for them and was aiming to give them a reward after each chunk. This was overall pretty horrible but it allowed me to explore the concepts of time, commitment, and reward in a very straightforward manner that I could understand and learn from easily.

It was around this time that I realised that I was definitely reinventing the wheel in multiple areas and that I needed to take a step back and explore what was actually going on around me. I spoke to my therapist about their views on the best way for people to develop therapeutic skills over a short space of time. This allowed me to re frame the context of my product into group therapy. The NHS run CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) groups over eight week blocks with a group of 10 patients and 2 therapists. This is a process that I have been through personally and I have a desire to make that experience better. This is when things became so much clearer for me. I had context, I had facilitation and I had personal experience of what that service was like. It was time to make.

Make

I had decided that I wanted to replace the outdated and visually underdeveloped worksheets that are supplied during these eight week sessions with something that would make the patient feel more valued. The experience of entering a room with 10 strangers with the prospect of opening some of your deepest wounds is already incredibly daunting, taking your allocated seat and being handed worksheets infested with word art and comic sans is not a great first impression at all. This gets worse when all the material has ‘copyright 1996’ at the bottom. The therapy I had experienced was CBT however, I wanted to move away from my own personal experience just enough to be able to see what I was creating in a more objective way. I chose DBT (Dialectical Behavioural Therapy) as I think it’s one of the most promising forms of therapy and that it is still in development. I wanted to create a product that would prototype what the future of therapy could look like.

My form was informed by the worksheets that I currently own. I find them incredibly hard to store. I have two options, place these A4 sheets of paper in various states of bound/unbound, in a drawer somewhere where I never see or think about them until I need them or I can keep them out and visible somewhere in my house. Unfortunately, neither of these storage solutions are appealing. I don’t want them on my desk as I only access the information contained in them perhaps once a month and having therapy workbooks strewn around isn’t a great look. Storing them in a drawer means they get damaged and when I really need them it can take a real effort to find them which makes it harder to access. This led me to drawing comparisons to books as I feel like they’re both accessed in similar ways. I really liked the idea of my object being on a bookshelf, visible and known to me but not to others. I was interested in creating that visual reminder of what you had learned, that randomness of familiarity really appealed to me. Many people struggle to actually engage in therapeutic skills post therapy when they need it and I think this reminder that you actually know how to cope with your thoughts is really helpful.

My thoughts turned to how to differentiate my object from the books surrounding it. I wanted it to draw attention from its owner but no one else. I wanted there to be this intimacy and privacy in the object, a feeling of security and safety. I liked the idea of this object being your own quiet personal cheerleader, quietly reassuring you that you’re strong enough to cope with this from the corner of your room. This led me to choose relaxing colours that would stand out from what colours you would expect to find in a bookcase. I created the material for the outside of my book by spray-painting paper silk with lilac and white paint. The original material was red and I was disappointed with this at first but in the end the red still shows through adding some hints of pink to the existing two colour mix which creates a really lovely tone. I had a lot of anxiety about how the silk would react to having such a heavy amount of paint applied to it but thankfully it retained its ability to flex and didn’t fall apart.

The next point of sheer anxiety was cutting into the material I had just taken hours to create. I’d never bound a book like this before so it was time for a short visit to YouTube to develop a new skill. I practiced with some paper first and I’m very proud of my results here. Once the material was tightly bound to the book the overall effect became really appealing. This boosted my confidence in my ability to create a visually strong product. At the start of the year I had said that I wanted to create a purely physical object. This moment exemplified why I had made that decision; I was out of my comfort zone creating objects that I could be really proud of using skills I’d never learned before.

While I was doing all of this there was a large 3D printer named Clouseau working away for a very long period of time bringing my vision for the internals to life. This skeleton is designed to hold information cards, a notebook and a pen. This is everything that the user needs to get the most out of therapy in one object that they can transport to and from the place they receive therapy easily. I wanted the inside to be distinctly different from the outside to create two states, one of storage and one of usage. Something like this would really help me as the object itself makes sure you don’t lose anything important.

The reason that Clouseau was working alongside my other work was well, the print was taking forever and the first one failed after several hours. I’m lucky I’m creating a therapeutic and relaxing product, it’s really carrying me through these last days of my degree. At the time of writing this my print still isn’t finished so let’s hope everything goes well. If it fails I do have other solutions though, I’ll just be eternally disappointed.

I used sublimation printing for the first time to print my logo onto a piece of material to brand my product, it was much easier than I imagined and I’d like to do it more often. I had been thinking about branding for a long time at this point. Again I was playing with this idea of privacy and security. I certainly didn’t want anything on the spine of the book as I was trying to differentiate it from other books that would be nearby. The branding I ended up with was louder than I originally intending, the original idea was to just have the symbol embossed on the front cover with no text. The reason I changed my mind was that while it was nice on the shelf at home after therapy it hampered that first impression of being given it. I wanted it to feel like you had just received something well developed and valuable so I upped the branding ever so slightly to support this.

Visually I think it’s fantastic. It has a very strong visual identity and stands out in its own right. I really nailed that feeling of being loud in some ways and quiet in others. It has such a strong sense of itself and I just enjoy being around the object. I think the branding suits the environment it exists in and bridges the gap between those two spaces. As someone who is mostly experienced in screen based design, I’m really pleased. I just need to see that the inside works as well as I have designed.

Talk

We had been told from the start of the year to work on something we are passionate about and that would help inform our future careers. I had thought for a long time that I had only met one of these criteria, that I was passionate about identity. It turns out that I ended up creating something that is relevant to who I am and my future too. Therapy has always been a cornerstone of my life and the desire to give something back to this amazing service that has supported me for so long has always been strong. I think there is certainly scope to approach local centres with this prototype and start a dialogue about how the overall experience of therapy can be improved.

If I was able to do this year again I actually wouldn’t change much about the way I went about it. I’d perhaps start resolving slightly earlier though. I’m tempted to say that I need to choose a project with conviction earlier, but if I had done that I wouldn’t have ended up with Dialect. I’m aware that’s a hugely naive and unrealistic idea, “I’ll just keep thinking until I have an even better idea”, but I think there’s a compromise in there between time, resources and quality to be learned from.

If I can get Dialect into just one eight-week therapy block I would consider that a resounding success. As for my future career I still want to be self-employed. I have Open Ears that I took to the Converge Challenge and the Global Health Challenge. I’m currently working on Apex with the Sporting Chance Initiative and I’m sure there’s room for Dialect in there too. I’m the kind of person who will keep chasing success for as long as I’m able to. The alternative is to move into user research as it’s what I enjoy the most, have the most experience in and I am most skilled in but I just enjoy being part of the whole design process too much to let it go. I’m always looking to improve life directly for people through my work and I think Dialect is a great example of where that desire can lead. I am very excited for the future.