Speculative Design Brief Response #6

Getting out of the house – literally and metaphorically

Photo: David Lidstone

Photo: David Lidstone

Photo: David Lidstone

Photo: David Lidstone

The concept of design is often applied to innovative policy, product and services development, and at a smaller scale to creative organizational thinking. At a psychological level of analysis, it is also highly applicable to the processes through which individuals craft their lives on a day-to-day basis. In states of fear and depression there is often a rupture in the capacity to harness a robustly innovative, imaginative and exploratory approach to daily living. Hopelessness, anxiety and concomitant self-isolation lead significant numbers of people to lead lives shut up at home. This literal inability to get out is mirrored by difficulties (all too human) in leaving the metaphorical walls of habit, method and conviction in order to explore new ways of thinking, doing and designing everyday life.

Photo: David Lidstone

Photo: David Lidston


My research (an AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Award at Falmouth University with the participation of Arts for Health Cornwall) explores therapeutic or community crafts groups as resources to support participants whose life circumstances are affecting their health and happiness. I’m interested in what moment-to-moment, experiential dimensions of group crafting (neglected in existing research) add to our understanding of its benefits for wellbeing. I am collecting a substantial body of data through observing/facilitating two crafts groups. One is community-based and the other linked to a general practice. In a great number of instances, such interventions do concretely enable people, in spite of anxiety and low mood, to get out of their houses and access companionship and other social resources.

Photo: David Lidstone

Photo: David Lidston

Beyond this, my observations consistently highlight the way that amateur crafts design and creativity mirror (and develop) the everyday creativity required to make a life into a workable and satisfying project. Crafts creativity is an arena in which old rules for making and living can be broken. It provides multiple possibilities for the invention and elaboration of new ways of planning and doing. It challenges rigid and limited ideas of self and potential that are, in themselves, a form of incarceration. The following is a brief extract from recent field notes:

Photo: Sarah Desmarais

Photo: Sarah Desmarais

A lays out the fabric pieces that she dyed some months ago now. The project for which she produced them is stalled, probably because she has tried to arrive at certainties in her head and on paper rather than through practice and with her hands. The fabrics are a range of variously mysterious and iridescent colours – turquoises, indigo blue, moss green and gold. Set out in horizontal strips, they magically compose a landscape all by themselves. A says she’s amused that she prepared these all so carefully with a particular outcome in mind – the house picture that she was going to do – and that all of a sudden they’re making suggestions, as it were, about how they could make a completely different picture. I make a comment about best-laid plans coming to nought, and how in art as in life, this isn’t always such a bad thing. Looking at the way the textiles and their mottled patterning act and react in this ad hoc composition helpfully reminds her that she needs to design with the fabrics as collaborators, rather than imposing her will upon them – the latter in any case is bound to be disappointing and frustrating. She likes the way that the irregularities in colouring read as landscape textures, and sums this up concisely: ‘The fabrics tell their own stories, don’t they?’ We talk about how she might try things out by chopping up some bits of cloth and moving them around on a ground.   In this textile realm A seems to be starting to enjoy the fact that the materials have their own agenda and that she can join in with them rather than berating herself when they don’t conform to her plans. Here she can be encouraged to dance with matter (‘reading creativity forward’, to use Tim Ingold’s phrase), and potentially to extend this crafty, heuristic and opportunistic attitude to designing with the raw materials of her life.

Existing studies on crafting for health rely predominantly on interview data. Interviews tend to represent crafting as soothing, cosy and distracting; they highlight its capacity to foster rather tidy skills such as decision making and personal organization. The ethnographic approach used here draws attention, conversely, to a range of dynamic, disorganized and gritty virtues that are part of the lived experience of creative making and design as well as effective and satisfying living. These include:

Tolerance for ambiguity and uncertainty (Keat’s ‘negative capability’)

Mess making (a childhood virtue often lost by adulthood)

Playing (including fantasy and enchantment)

Muddling through (pragmatic strategies that work with and harness imperfection)

Breaking the rules (and finding they weren’t that solid or that necessary to start with)

Doing something different (oblique and random strategies)

Just doing it (stubbornness, doggedness)

Doing it ‘my way’ (eccentricity, non-conformity)

Bricolage (do-it-yourself, improvisation, making it up as you go along)

Risk taking (including undoing, destruction and wanton frivolity)

 The ubiquity of these mucky virtues in everyday as well as crafts creativity problematizes rather neat, linear, conformist and normative views of psychological flourishing – those that traditionally underpin the design of mental health initiatives. Dissatisfaction and frustration potentially fuel attempts to envision better forms of life for oneself or the larger social group. They can be harnessed as aspects of creative living. Hegemonic conceptions of wellbeing can thus be enlarged to include feistiness, non-compliance and various forms of quiet activism. Related to this, much is to be gained by problematizing the conventional, medicalized distinction between mental health and illness. This often makes human difficulties more onerous by labelling, pathologizing and stigmatizing them.

Photo: David Lidstone

Photo: David Lidstone

My completed thesis will elucidate an experiential, philosophical and phenomenological – rather than evidence-based – rationale for crafts for health practice. As part of this it will argue for a more dynamic view of wellbeing – one with a place for mess, experimentation, eccentricity and dissent – as a basis for project and policy design.


Sarah Desmarais
Falmouth University


About Lucy Kimbell

Director, Innovation Insights Hub, University of the Arts London. AHRC research fellow, Policy Lab, Cabinet Office. Associate fellow, Said Business School, University of Oxford. Author of Service Innovation Handbook. @lixindex
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2 Responses to Speculative Design Brief Response #6

  1. guyjulier says:

    This is such an interesting response to the brief. Group crafting seems to be a resolutely social design activity in a very literal sense. It shows that there are non-obvious sites for social design. We tend to get rather fixed into pre-existing infrastructures (e.g. healthcare, welfare for the elderly). This is in part, I think, due to the commissioning structures for service design in the public sector and, indeed, how service design itself can often tend to fill out pre-existing infrastructures. This project shows that social design can also productively cut across these, coming through a different route altogether.

    There is a related challenge for HEI research, not least in the way that the impact agenda (i.e. showing what societal benefits a piece of academic research has) can influence us to seek identifiable structures to impact within rather than cut across them in ways that are harder to demonstrate.

  2. jossbailey says:

    I like the idea of ‘dynamic, disorganized and gritty virtues that are part of the lived experience of creative making and design as well as effective and satisfying living.’ This is at odds of course with the industrialised production of life – work, leisure, public services, communities – and in some ways suggests that mental un-health is a natural reaction to the forced habits of living in a silo-ed world. I’ve always believed that a sense of agency starts with one’s own hands…: this has implications beyond the reach of our own ‘social design’ project – into education policy, for example.

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