DS 123: Proceedings of the International Conference on Engineering and Product Design Education (E&PDE 2023)

Year: 2023
Editor: Buck, Lyndon; Grierson, Hilary; Bohemia, Erik
Author: Brook, Emily Elizabeth; Pownall, Max John
Series: E&PDE
Institution: Nottingham Trent University, United Kingdom
Section: The effect that design and engineering have on global co-habitation
DOI number: 10.35199/EPDE.2023.68
ISBN: 978-1-912254-19-4


How can we teach empathy to design students? How might we encourage them to consider people beyond their own perspectives? Can Product Design students be empowered to make a positive change in the life of another? Here we propose a way to start the conversation, using matchsticks. This project challenges universities to beyond the obvious ethical and social issues framed around sustainability, and asks Undergraduate Design Students to engage with a demographic that is typically underrepresented both in society, and in design intervention: prison inmates. In order to encourage a more empathic approach to Design, working in collaboration with HMP Loudham Grange, First Year Product Design Students at Nottingham Trent University were set a 2-week Design Project that challenged them to improve life within the confines of a prison cell. Within Prison systems, knowledge is currency. Those with creative ability, have an asset that can be utilised to improve their personal quality of life in addition to being used as a bargaining tool. This often leads to conflict within the system, as debts and inequality are created by those who can and those who cannot. Matchsticks have become a fundamental part of this system, as the combination of their simple construction power, and the unlimited time to think within a prison environment, enables inmates to come up with creations of beauty and functionality. If knowledge of how to construct with matchsticks could be democratised, agency to create could be given to all those willing to learn, reducing conflict. This project looks at ways this knowledge can be shared throughout the prison and takes a true Human Centred Design approach. Over the course of 2 weeks, student groups were tasked with creating products that improved quality of life within a prison cell, utilising matchsticks, and construction techniques available to inmates. Guided by an expert Prison Officer, students collaborated to generate visual, wordless guides that would enable any inmate to generate their products. Overall the project was a success, with a number of innovative outcomes being produced, and assumptions challenged. This result was confirmed via an end of project questionnaire with students commenting that the experience was immersive, with designing from the perspective of a prison inmate being a “truly different experience as a user”. In addition to encouraging empathy and a human centred design approach, this project gave students the opportunity to reflect on the role of the designer, giving space to contemplate on their own purpose and role within the design industry. Typically university projects are driven towards work like experience and portfolio building, meaning projects are often commercially motivated. This project allowed students the opportunity to work outside of their commercially driven comfort zone, and presents them with a real world opportunity to make a positive impact on the lives of others.

Keywords: Human Centred Design, Design for under-represented perspectives, Empathy, Product Design Education


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