More Prototypes Needed
It was early February 2022 and the streets of Bangkok was abuzz with the vibes of Design Week, the annual urban festival that gathers designers across disciplines to show (off) their work around town. I made a promise to myself to use this event as a platform to explore my own craft as a design researcher and this year — my third time participating — was no different. I reached out to my cousin who’s an architect and together we proposed creating a safe and restful pop-up installation for delivery drivers, in keeping with the Week’s pandemic-influenced theme of “Co- with Creation”. As the researcher, I took on the role of the “creative director” almost, and the process was fun and games… until it came time to make the thing.
That shit’s hard.
Before I share my constructive reflections on the not-so-successful parts of the installation, I must say that the event was one heck of a journey. I learnt how to be detail-oriented when building physical things (like making sure a structure can withstand the wind and electrical wires are well-hidden), how a team of specialist builders is critical to making the product look good, how interactivity must not only be afforded but actively invited, how difficult it was to simplify in order to communicate our POV. Most crucially, I now understand how to have a collaborative conversation with an architect, a profession whose default, spatial mode of thinking is a far cry from my own’s as researcher.
With these many epiphanies out of the way, I’d like to show you how I felt our work fell short of expectations. Let’s start with the point-of-view.
Our POV: Taking of Care of the People Who Took Care of Us
Going into this installation, I think we had a fairly strong if a bit idealistic point of view of what we wanted to invoke. Over a brainstorming session, my cousin quickly sketched out our ideas for creating these social distancing-friendly safe spaces for one group of essential workers in particular to rest during their work: Grab food delivery drivers. We titled it “Safe Space, To-Go Please”, a bit tongue-in-cheek but also pun intended since we were designing a modular pop-up space that could hopefully be replicated and scaled. Here are the initial sketches by my cousin:
And here’s the narrative that we plastered on the plaque of our work when it was installed (a long one, bear with us):
How can we better take care of the people who took care of us? Our installation Safe Space, To-Go Please is where architecture and design meet to invite you to pause and ponder that question.
Case-in-point: at the peak of Covid season, the routine of getting three meals a day became coloured with danger. Food delivery drivers kept us fed and thriving — and in so doing, braved the infected world on our behalf. They have their double masks on all day, always on the move, sweating in the heat.
Our collaborative team imagines a more restful future for our drivers: like this modular green space where they could, perhaps, find peace during their busy day. One day, we might find comfort seating areas outside restaurants, or self-cleaning uniforms for better immunity.
In this space, we encourage you to think of others who cared for us when we couldn’t care for ourselves, because delivery drivers are just one of the many essential workers who helped us through the pandemic.
We hope that you’ll take the first step in caring for other kind strangers today: leave a message, lightly water the plants, clean the areas you touched, for the next visitor to enjoy our little safe space.
We were excited to put on a show, to welcome the public to water the plants, to pause and meditate, to talk to their friends about our essential workers, to be open to change in this time of crisis. We’re not sure if any of these happened, and that is what bothered me enough to reflect.
Our Installation: Is It an Outdoors Shower?
While I was very happy with our conceptualization, I was not sure we successfully implemented our POV, even if the aesthetics was on-point and, dare I say, Instagram-able. I got a comment from my Professor about keeping arts practice alive (yay!) and a few friends shared the work on social media. Here’s what we made:
Very quickly after the first day of Design Week, I started noticing where we veered off-track. Firstly, visually, it became clear that the easiest way to tell friends how to find the installation was to “watch out for an outdoors shower” (this is equally valid for day- and night-time visitors) and the irony of the spray bottle (for watering plants) was not lost on me. It was also extremely hot during the day and the space inside the clear “shower curtain” became sauna-esque, to say the least; it was neither restful, nor safe. The air plants dried out quickly between my visits, browning out rather than providing the green shade and foliage that we intended. We wanted to attach a pen for people to leave meaningful messages on the curtains, but decided against it last-minute because 1) Covid risk from surfaces and 2) people could leave not-so-nice messages and 3) the non-permanent ink we wanted to use was easily smudged.
All in all, there were a lot of things that didn’t quite work out as a designed piece. And there would be nothing wrong with this outcome except that we had set sail with an intention to create conversations, interactions, and more.
What Could We Have Done Differently?
This is, naturally, the question on my mind after Design Week, as my cousin’s team worked to take down the installation and the space became a bare patch of pavement once more. I can think of many ways to move our implementation ever closer to our design POV, most of which would fall under the umbrella of prototyping (see my previous reflection prototyping). Here’s a few:
- Create a model. We had originally wanted the installation to fit a chair so that visitors can rest within its green sanctuary, but the real thing turned out to be slightly too small. There were pieces of the structure that took up floor space and playing with the dimensions could’ve helped us adjust the seating accommodations accordingly.
- Get to know the space. The space we requested were outdoors and that came with its own set of challenges, like the wind, heat, and access to electricity. We needed additional weights to safeguard the whole installation from falling over, for instance, and had to figure out the electrical load and timer situation for our lights. The plants being in the tropical heat in a greenhouse-esque setup was, in hindsight, beyond saving, even if someone dropped by every other day or so to water them.
- Tell the story beforehand. True to my “do first, talk later” inclination, I shared little with friends besides the fact that I was participating in Design Week. No one really knew what our POV and installation were, and so we were mired in our assumptions. I wish someone would’ve caught the outdoors shower vibes or comment on how not-safe a space the installation could become.
As I was reflecting on this experience, I realized that I have a lot excuses for why we didn’t do any of these: mostly, it came down to us putting our own funds and time to this mini-collaboration while running our respective small businesses with no help from anyone else on our team. I am not justifying any of the above — we had our priorities and acted accordingly.
This was one of those opportunities where my project didn’t set out to specifically address “pain points” for clients, which I thought would’ve made it easier. It was quite the contrary. The whole journey reminded me to be systematic in my thinking and focused in my intention, even if a project was purely for exploration, because a different set of lessons can come from striving to execute well. Otherwise, I might end up with work that is visually aligned but fell short of our intended POV.
Anyways, one more time, here’s our visionary sketch next to the final product!