At the end of 2016, I bumped into an art project that shook up my ideas about how we collaborate with our communities to build inclusive environments.
The project was called Madlove: a designer asylum. It was conceived by artists the Vacuum Cleaner and Hannah Hull who brought together “people with and without mental health experiences, mental health professionals and academics, artists and designers – and everyone else on the spectrum” to dream a new landscape for mental health.
The project resonated with me on many levels. But I particularly loved the innovative way the project leaders:
- supported people to deeply reflect on needs and aspirations
- facilitated the sharing of diverse ideas
- used the arts to convey meaning and build understanding
- created a design that was informed by an acute sensitivity to individual differences.
For example, here’s an outline of the community workshop process:
- Find experts by experience: Search out people to participate in the workshops with diverse first-hand experiences and diverse perspectives. Also welcome their friends and supporters.
- Remove barriers to these people sharing their ideas: Seek to remove barriers both to participation and barriers in mindset; offer flexible options and supports.
- Stimulate imagination: Use real objects, textures to stimulate participants’ senses so that they can think about what supports wellbeing, reduces anxiety, and encourages focus and attention or connection.
- Consider emotional qualities: Explore what conditions will impact and influence emotional states.
- Create a sensory palette: What does good learning and wellbeing look, smell, taste, sound, feel like?
- Decide what personal qualities you need: What people and attributes will you need around you to enable you to thrive?
- Find out what activities and facilities help: Brainstorm all the things people would like to do in the space.
- Build a team to develop the design: Find an illustrator to visualise all these amazing ideas. Collaborate with a designer and an architect to create the design.
When I reflect on the above, I really like the way in which participants are supported to use all their senses to think about the design of a new space. I also like that participants are offered multiple approaches to reflect on what it is they need and what can help. It is much more than an academic exercise or a presentation and discussion. It is an in-depth inquiry into what is needed and provides real guidance for designers around what must be included in a design.
I also really like Step 8, where an illustrator is employed to distill the brainstormed ideas into a graphical representation. These graphics are then used to support the understanding of the architect and the designers and together a prototype model is developed.
Another way an illustrator was usefully employed was in the development of “Day in the Life” graphics. These were developed from interviews with participants and were again used to build the understanding of the designer and architect.
I think the “Day in the Life” idea is something we could also explore with students and whānau.
Finally, it is worth taking a close look at the key for the 3-D model which outlines the specific function of each area. Although the model surpasses our budget constraints in an education context, there is something about the way the designers are able to articulate their rationale for the design that makes me wonder if we could do the same in education.
Example of text from the Madlove key above:
- Topography: The landscape offers natural changes in levels of privacy, from the vibrant hubbub of the valley floor, to the solitary serenity of the hilltops. The decision of whether to join the action or get away from it all can be made at every busier location – it’s always possible to retreat from an active space, but not miss out on what’s going on”.
- Library of good mental health: Quiet study and group learning in a library carved into the hillside. A wide selection of books to support or distract. Each book is recommended by a fellow mad person, with a note on how it helped them.
- Tree houses: Individual ensuite bedrooms that can be adapted and personalised, with views down the valley.
I hope there is something in the Madlove story that captures your imagination. Right now in education we are:
- investing millions of dollars and thousands of hours in building new schools and flexible learning spaces
- talking a lot about how to support student wellbeing
- called to design learning environments that are “acutely sensitive to the individual differences of learners” OECD (2013), Innovative Learning Environments, Educational Research and Innovation, OECD Publishing
- required to strive to “promote the physical, emotional, social, intellectual and spiritual wellbeing of learners”? Draft Code of Ethics, Education Council 2017.
Let’s do the best we can to make sure these new spaces are optimised to support the learning and wellbeing of every student. Working with the diverse perspectives of learners and whānau is a strong place to start.