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These Four Groups Are Using Design to Induce Social Change

Originally posted on Work Design Magazine
Photo by Gary Chien

A recap of ideas that emerged from Better World By Design 2016, the annual design conference led by RISD and Brown students.

Last month, Better World By Design (BWxD) hosted its annual conference in Providence, R.I. Established in 2008 by students at Brown University and Rhode Island School of Design, BWxD creates a space for designers, innovators, students, and educators to collaborate and share their ideas on design in the 21st century. This year’s theme was “Interplay.”

Through a series of lectures, workshops, and discussions, participants examined the ways in which we can mobilize the principles of design to produce positive social, economic, environmental, technological, and political change.

Here are just a few of the creative ideas that were discussed over the course of the three-day conference:

It Makes Sense


Participants draw their initial thoughts and feelings on paper. Photo by Jokichi Matsubara.

Imagine you find yourself sitting on the floor. You close your eyes and an object is placed in your hand. Maybe it’s soft, or smooth, or plush. Maybe it’s big and light or small and heavy. Suddenly you’re filled with a memory or emotion, transported to a different time and place. This is the idea behind It Makes Sense, a non-profit group aiming to help people reduce their anxiety through their sense of touch.

Rinat Sherzer, co-founder of It Makes Sense, and Jess Suttner, the group’s creative director, held an experiential workshop Friday afternoon to introduce participants to their idea.

Anxiety, Sherzer explained, is a difficult emotion to experience and treat because it is elusive and intangible. Using tactile objects to access positive memories can be a way to ground oneself and manage emotions in times of stress.

The workshop embodied BWxD’s Friday theme, “Interplay at a Micro Level”, by encouraging participants to interact with small, childhood materials. After some opening introduction exercises, participants were blindfolded and given “textures” — various objects ranging from pom-pom balls to smooth glass pebbles to coarse sand. We were encouraged to spend as much time as we wanted exploring these objects and our emotional reaction that the tactile sensation produced within us.

An individual is handed an object and asked to reflect on his immediate reaction. Photo credit by Jokichi Matsubara.

An individual is handed an object and asked to reflect on his immediate reaction. Photo credit by Jokichi Matsubara.

For many of participants, taking the time to mindfully interact with touch in this way was illuminating. It brought up forgotten memories. For some, it was quite emotional.

Sherzer originally performed this intervention with patients struggling with anxiety in New York City. Finding that all of her patients returned to happy or nostalgic memories, they concluded that this exercise could be a way of accessing lost or forgotten positive memories and remind them of calmer times.

It Makes Sense takes their approach one step further: participants choose an object and write about a memory or feeling that it elicits within them. This story is then sent to illustrators who are partnering with It Makes Sense. The illustrators, who volunteer their time and skills, draw their interpretation of the scene and send it back to the patient. These illustrations help the participant reinforce their positive memory while fostering a unique and intimate connection between two strangers.

Read more at Work Design Magazine
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