Jan Stael Von Holstein
A team of eight UAL students, consisting of a mix of undergraduate and postgraduate designers from a range of disciplines travelled to Norfolk to collaborate for a week with six Youth Council members of the Norfolk and Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust (NSFT). The Youth Council is a group of users of NSFT’s mental health service for children and young people who are active contributors to service development. They are similar in age to the UAL students.
All actors in this encounter came together to see if using design in a workshop situation could help the Youth Council members to visually communicate their lived experience of the mental health service and in so doing gain a clearer understanding of what a better mental health service might look like.
The social ties generated by the encounter
The degree of involvement in the workshop from both sets of participants was equally active and this contributed to a degree of collaborative involvement that was intense. This was perhaps hardly surprising given how open the individuals involved were, which is possibly a consequence of one characteristic all participants had in common:
- both groups consisted of individuals at a moment of transience: the Youth Council in their temporary roles they were maximising benefit from; and the design students similarly making the most of the opportunities their university could offer them during their short time as students.
The success of the encounter illustrates the potential of weak social ties. While strong ties existed amongst a few of the students and similarly amongst members of the Youth Council, that all participants were open to an activity outside their comfort zone and were consequently considering new ideas and new ways of doing things can be credited to the fact that weak ties were in action during the field trip. Whereas strong ties can isolate a group due to the inward focus they produce, weak ties tend to open groups up to outside influences.
By being so open, individuals of both groups were highly vulnerable in this situation yet this encounter proved to be a success for all but one of the participants. This success can be partly attributed to the safe, quiet, familiar and beautiful venue in which it happened, together with the support provided for both sets of participants (the caseworkers and clinicians for the Youth Council, and the two tutors for the students – all of whom were present the whole time). The Youth Council member for whom the encounter did not work became overawed right at the beginning during an oral session before he got a chance to participate in the making workshops.
The role of art and design
The very high level of collaborative intensity in the encounter was handled much better by all participants when the activity they were involved in was non-verbal – when they were physically making something together. When activity was dominated by verbal exchange – when Youth Council members were answering questions put to them by UAL students around a table – the directness of this exchange proved very tough for participants on both sides to cope with.
Youth Council members and UAL design students participated as co-actors in a co-design process to co-produce pieces of three dimensional information design over the first set of studio workshops and then made stop-motion animations over a second set of workshops. We found that in these making situations, though the level of collaboration was intense, they gave rise to a easier, looser, more informal kind of ‘conversational’ exchange that everyone was able to cope with comfortably. It has been said many times before, but this success can most probably be attributed to the way that design (and art) addresses subject matter obliquely. It also helped that the focus was on what was being made (being externalised) which meant that any verbal discussion was a by-product of that activity. The informalising of the verbal meant that a greater amount of emotional information was shared and without the psychological discomfort associated with more formal verbal discussion.
Having made objects to stand for thoughts reflecting on the local mental health service, the fact that these ideas were physical and visual (rather than verbal as is traditionally the case), made the issues at hand so much more tangible to grasp – real – and therefore, actions to alter particular aspects of the mental health service now felt more achievable – like they might happen sooner.
This was an empowering experience for those on both sides of the encounter that brought both parties very close together producing temporary strong ties between them for the four days they spent together. The students helped the Youth Council members to gain skills and confidence in making things through which to tell stories of their lived experience. At the same time, the students gained experience in cross-disciplinary collaboration and became more confident that they could manage this kind of design process: learning how to listen without having a ‘problem’ in mind, and learning how to design without a ‘solution’ in mind.