master of design

Death: A Festival for the Living

This weekend I travelled down to London to be part of a festival at the South Bank Centre. 

"This festival celebrates something we all have in common. Death is a subject we are fascinated by and fearful of; it is a favourite topic of all arts and all societies find rituals to deal with it. But most of us ordinary mortals find discussing it quite tricky - even though the more information we have about it, the easier it is to face. This weekend is not about morbidity, sentimentality or sensationalism. In fact it's a weekend full of delight and humour. It's about hearing the powerful stories and surprising facts from people who have had to sort out practically and emotionally how to face up to the greatest and most challenging of all certainties."

Jude Kelly, OBE, Southbank Centre Artistic Director

Where to begin? I was utterly fascinated by every single person in the audience. I sat in audiences made up of every age, race and character. But why a death festival? Lemn Sissay, Associate Artist at the South Bank Centre, started to answer that question for me by reciting some of his poems. Invisible Kisses  raised enormous applause and was the one that really touched me.  He asked all of us why we don't celebrate crying and where do we go to cry? Jude Kelly set the tone of the weekend by sharing the loss of her son to cot death, her openess was admirable and I really believed her when she talked about why she wanted to curate a festival of death in the first place.

What's the one thing you'll do before you die? People shared their new year's resolutions, pledges and life-long dreams on a giant chalkboard as part of an on-going international project by artist Candy Chang.  This was so simple yet so effective. I loved coming in on the Sunday to see it blank again and watch it filling up over the day. I was amazed by the range of statements on it - everything from 'become a farmer' to 'loose weight'. This is a classic example of a what Snook call "generative design techniques" that are used to connect, innovate, make, tell and share. Generative tools must be useful and usable for all types of people and it doesn't get much simpler than a blackboard. Tools like this provide a design language for everyone, designers as well as non-designers, to provoke imagination, stimulate ideas and stir emotions and Candy Chang is superb at creating them on a large scale.

Sam Winston created a pop-up registry office, commemorating the quarter of a million people who are born and die in the space of 12 hours around the world. I drew circles to represent my loved ones and register their names in writing. The reason this worked so well was the fact that unlike the blackboard it didn't really have any emotions attached to it. I read a whole wall of names, but they were just names with no messages or personal anecdotes and that made it work. I liked that they focused on birth as well as death. Although projects similar to this sometimes feel a little self indulgent this one felt it was in the right place at the right time.

I went along to a death cafe, described as a "good old heart to heart and a nice slice of cake". By a chance twitter meeting I discovered one of the girls who was sitting across wrote a detailed post about the experience ( we were advised the session was confidential but the post does give you a feel for what it was like ) I was intrigued by the funeral director who spends his time taking photographs of funeral shop fronts as they are so out-dated and in-humane. I think the concept of death cafe is brilliant and the idea of a pop up death cafe lends itself well to Start Up Street Stirling.

"Overall, the discussion was disjointed yet eye-opening. Even with my limited experience of death and loss I found it fascinating. Understandably, I don’t think it’s a subject most people want to dwell on all the time and I can imagine people thinking that it’s a strange way to spend an afternoon. However, in a forum such as this and made cheerier with tea and cake, there is no reason why we shouldn’t be more open and progressive about discussing  a universal subject which remains something of a taboo in our society. Death Cafe has plans to branch out from their Hackney home and encourages people to hold their own meetings. So if you ever get the opportunity to attend one of these dark tea parties, I urge you to give it a try. You’ll be almost guaranteed to meet a weird and wonderful selection of people and it’ll certainly give you food for thought."

'Gone but not erased: Digital Death' was led by PhD student Stacey Pitsillides, she talked to us about what happens to our data after we die. She is also involved in Digital Death Days - which I'm interested in too. I must admit I was disappointed in this session as a lot of questions were posed but no answers or alternative solutions were shown. I follow Stacey online and didn't discover anything I didn't know already but I think the questions she is asking are highly relevant. For example, do I need a will for my digital self ?  Will all funeral homes follow the example of Conley Funeral Homes in Ireland who live stream funerals for relatives who can't be there in person?  Of course my data is part of my digital personality so I wonder how my family and ( offline )  friends would know who I love and respect in my online world? In the past when someone died their relatives sort out their home and all their belongings, now the same thing has to happen to our laptops and our i-phones? It's a fascinating area and it looks like the place to be connected to around all this stuff is Digital Beyond . I wonder if Facebook and Twitter are thinking about formulating death policies?


Meghan O'Rourke talked to an audience about her memoir 'The Long Goodbye' which is a profound exploration of the nature of grieving. She wrote the book after her mother died from cancer at 55. I am in awe of her story and her openness. She talked about grief in a way I have never read about or heard before - so real and raw. The reality is that we don't know how to behave when someone dies - no-one shows us or tells us - it is the one experience that unifies us and such an opportunity for connection - is a sympathy card the best we can do? Meghan talked about the work of Kevin Young and shared beautiful snippets of poetry that helped her face her grief. Isn't it curious that our society is somewhat comfortable with mass grieving for people we don't personally know but we find it so difficult to be open with bereaved people we do know.  Meghan introduced me to the concept of anticipatory grief - something that happens when you are told a loved one only as a certain time to live. This also happens when loved ones are diagnosed with long term conditions as their families grieve the person they were before the disease.

Over one million people die by suicide every year, and there are an estimated 15 to 20 million attempted suicides every year worldwide. I went along to "Suicide - not waving or drowning" to listen to a panel of experts talk about the causes of suicide, the effects of suicide spots on local communities and how different cultures and religions view suicide.  Film maker Jez Lewis showed us his film 'Shed your tears and walk away' and I was shocked to learn that the police and the NHS boycotted the showing of the film in the local area. I have read about the idea of suicide becoming infectious in The Tipping Point but watching this video reinforced the fact that the more people you know who have committed suicide the more it becomes an option - it becomes the norm. Statistics really matter when it comes to suicide mainly because they don't reflect the truth - five people on Jez's street had committed suicide yet the statictis didn't show anything abnormal. Also, statistics don't break down suicide by race or ethnicity which is important when 75% of those who commit suicide are men.  The language around suicide is also topical because people find the word 'committed' offensive.

Rosetta Life  presented a series of short films made with people with life-threatening illnesses about the things that matter most ; stories of cancer, self discovery and truth that go to the heart of pallIative care.  They showed a wonderful film of a lady dancing with the hands of a man with a neurological disease. He told the camera "Movement keeps me in relationship” - there was something so powerful about these films around the intimacy of touch. It seems at the end of your life touch becomes a clinical thing but touch is so important. Touch and intimacy in health is an area I want to know more about as I think it could add so much value yet we shy away from it - even when we are healthy! I am looking forward to the book Cassie Robinson is curating,due to be published in Spring of this year, with 14 authors, discussing the practice and experience of intimacy and vulnerability in different aspects of our lives, and how empathy scales in public services. Death is surely one of the most intimate experiences and yet often happens in a clinical situation.  We were shown an incredible film commissioned by Labour peer and political strategist Lord Philip Gould, who died in November 2011. There was a part of me that watched this thinking of the people who could never afford to have a film made or a story written about them before they die - yet so many probably could if they were shown how easy it was using flip cams, wordpress and the like.

This event was most definitely one of a kind. I met some fantastic people such as Dr John Troy from the Centre of Death and Society at The University of Bath , chaps from the service Tell Us Once, ladies from The Samaritans and the folks from Dying Matters. It was great to meet people who were enthusiastic and keen to listen to my ideas and share their stories and experiences.

I can't wait to see what The SouthBank Centre are going to do next in the space and I really hope they step up to the mark in terms of doing something really worthwhile and meaningful. Jude Kelly shared a little of the feedback she had got so far - next time people want to talk about survivors guilt and accidental murder ( of course the latter evoked a reaction ) maybe by then someone will have developed a 'Kill My Facebook' app or death will have become a disease that is curable.

To give you an insight into the scale of the conversation, here are some figures from #deathfest.

"500 tweets generated 829,478 impressions, reaching an audience of 143,340 followers within the past 24 hours"

I can say with absolute confidence the Death Festival has made me think differently and taught me things about the world and myself. Now I feel it is my responsibility to share my experience with all of you and I want you all to ask yourself two questions:

1: What do you want done with your body when you die?

2: Have you told your next of kin?

Asking these questions can open us up to really human and loving conversation.

Snook are working with Cassie Robinson to determine how we go about  making a difference in this space. This weekend's conversations confirmed our thoughts around the massive need for people-centered thinking around end of life services. There are several areas in particular such as the transition between paediatric to adult care, the learning about death in education and the absolute basic need for practical information. There are also issues and problems around the role of intimacy in health and and how services are joined up, after all there is no shared languages or rituals. And of course it isn't all about services or design, but the fundamental human nature of it and how we share that as a culture, letting go and making room for new.

The one theme that cropped up time and time again for me over this weekend was storytelling. The anecdotes tell the truth in suicide - statistics and numbers don't tell the truth because we learn through stories. Every single thing death throws at you there is a story somewhere proving you can do it. There are stories about making or doing - where a 93 year old train driver tells you his life lesson is to fight for what you believe in.

We need to find a relaxed way to talk about the things that unite us. What about the relationship the media has with death? The way the Hebden Bridge suicides were reported was simple not acceptable! Designers might not think of themselves as a storytellers, but in many ways, they are. The success of a designers work is dependent upon how well we tell the story and narrative of our process to the world and this is just one example of where I think the skills of designers link up with this space. Are death services seen as public services? it would appear the answer is no - they are seen has either charitable or money-making with little in between.

Do you know people doing good work in this space? Do you have a story you would like to share? Do you want to join us in looking at death with curiosity? Send me an email at lauren (at) wearesnook (dot) com

My advice to all art school students

All around the UK, Universities are welcoming their first year students through their doors - bright eyed, bushy tailed and facing a lifetime of debt, Mike Press is one of those chaps who sees it has his mission to fill them with passion and self-belief. He asked me to make a little video to give the students one piece of advice. [vimeo http://www.vimeo.com/28827657 w=580&h=435]

Here's what you guys came up with...

What would your advice be?

Graduation is only a concept. In real life every day you graduate.

Four hours on the train, one Snook pie and 30 blog posts later... I want to share my experience of visiting Duncan of Jordanstone last week with all of you dear readers. It all started with Jonathan Baldwin who is one of a kind. If you don't follow him on twitter. Do it. If you don't see the value of design. Ask him. The highlight of my trip was spending time with my old tutors ; Hazel, Mike, Jonathan and Fraser. Thank you for believing in me!

Jonathan invited me to talk to all second year design students about my experience of graduating and what I do now. For me the Fulton building held memories of miserable mornings studying engineering there so it was a poignant moment  to see the  room filled with students from textiles, jewellery, graphic design, product design, interactive media design and interior and environmental design.

Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design

I'm not going to write about what I talked about because what's really valuable is how the students have interpreted what I said. All the posts are here ( in no particular order ) I have never had this amount of detailed feedback so thank you!! I am fascinated by how students from different disciplines interpret Service Design and it's relevance to their craft!

Graduation is only a concept.  In real life every day you graduate.  Graduation is a process that goes on  until the last day of your life.  If you can grasp that, you'll make a difference = Arie Pencovic

Studio Unbound VI

This week Studio Unbound traveled  to Dundee to kick of our sixth session. The show got off to a late start, but we were genuinely excited to be presenting to such a multitude of design disciplines. Sarah talked about networking, mindset and Mypolice...to name a few. I joined in via skype and focused on the difference between under grad and masters level and what my dissertation taught me.

We got a great reception, I was talking to the students on twitter and have captured their feedback and insights here. Sarah naturally focused on Service Design and Systems Thinking, we got a strong sense from the audience that these messages were suitable for all disciplines.

Sarah, being the lovely lass she is, went for coffee with some of the students afterwards and had great conversations about  Service Design as a discipline and a process. It has become an attractive and adaptable process at The University of Dundee , the students recognise it helps their own disciplines move into Social Design and designing co-creatively with people. We left Dundee more determined than ever to make Making Service Sense a reality...the students want it and need it!

We have been totally humbled by the response from the students and it makes us happy to hear them describe Sarah's blog and Redjotter as very accessible and their main source of learning about Service Design.

Many of the audience didn't know where to start to start with twitter, but we think we convinced them showing real examples of how twitter has changed our life! There was a good proportion of students already part of twitter although they admitted they don't use it or know what to say. The ones who did use it said it had made them feel more confident !

We have had some amazing feedback from designer Lorri Smyth about the effect  Studio Unbound has had in the Textiles studio .

  • There have been lots of people joining Twitter who hadn't used it before. Those who are a bit scared are receiving encouragement from others who have joined or have their own blogs already.
  • The other day some girls in my class set up a studio blog to discuss fundraising...we are working on other ways to use the blog ; to promote and network our year.
  • Inspired by the idea of Mypolice I began to wonder how as class rep I could use social media to facilitate better communications between staff and students. I am thinking of lots of ways to engage the class through the blog by writing articles and voting on polls etc to produce some positive action out of all the moans I hear!
  • Meanwhile we are working on our self motivated brief while the tutors are busy busy with the degree show. I proposed a series of peer led skills swap shops to extract and share the skills we have gathered as a class. People seem really up for it. I see the blog playing a part in this too.

You can follow their adventures here.

You can also read some brill feedback from Laura about her perspective as a jeweller on the session.

If you would like us to come and talk to your class or your students do get in touch !

Studio Unbound V

This week I traveled to Dundee to present Studio Unbound to the Masters of Design students,  as well as some Design Ethnography Master students. This is my  fifth Studio Unbound session and this time I invited James Porteous to join me via skype. James is a designer from Glasgow school of Art, studying on the Product Design course, with interests ranging from traditional areas of the subject, through to aspects such as service and interaction design. Outside of this, he works as a photographer, covering sports, news, music for various publications and clients, both online and off. James was in the audience at Studio Unbound II - shortly after attending , he wrote:

"So, I guess you could say I was skeptical of what I was going to learn (Sorry!), but the whole thing was very convincing. The depth of their arguments was engaging, and the discussion after the talk was as useful as the presentation itself. Looking at the numbers of people from the evening who are now embarking on blogging and micro-blogging, it’s plain to see that the event hit the mark."

He now twitters, keeps a blog and has an individual project blog. Sarah and me have been watching from afar and it is so brilliant to see that James has interpreted our talk in his own way and is clearly getting something out of it! In one project blog alone he has written over 10,ooo words which he admits would not have happened if it had not been for his digital platform.

James was brilliant and provided yet another perspective to what the Studio Unbound can achieve. The audience asked some great questions like "Do you have methods for this stuff?". Well, at the moment we have methods set up to run one to one Studio Unbound sessions with students to prepare them in lots of different ways for embracing the digital world. Our next step will be developing tools to capture what we do and evidence to prove it works.

A conclusion that came of out of the discussion was "Never tell anyone you are a student unless you are asked." Yes - you study ethnography but you are still an ethnographer. One student remarked "This can clearly lead to brain overload" and of course she was right! James rightly put it saying "There is so much to be said for switching off "...

Keep up with the Studio Unbound conversation and welcome new comers here.