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Design, identity and the material culture of homes in transition in later life

Emma Gieben-Gamal, Lecturer in Design Cultures at the University of Edinburgh, reflects on her experiences with a Creative Informatics PhD Research Assistant fund grant.

The research project, which sets the backdrop to the specific piece of work supported by the data and the Creative Informatics PhD RA fund, investigates the experience of older adults transitioning into care homes with a particular focus on people’s material belongings and the (everyday) practices that scaffold these. Building on the work of design researchers who have explored care home settings, identity and material culture, it considers how design methods both allow for a deeper understanding of these experiences of transition and how they might be used to develop tools to improve the process of transition with a view to maintaining a strong sense of self and place attachment. Particular attention is paid to the development and application of design research methods that are responsive to the challenges of working with marginalised groups and on topics that are emotionally sensitive. Participatory approaches to research also underpin the project which consists of iterative phases in which data is collected and re-presented for consideration by care home residents, ultimately building to the development of co-design activities. Research has been conducted within two care homes with eight residents, consisting of iterative interviews, visual ethnography and a cultural probe. The research thus far has found that residents respond positively to visual and design methods particularly in relation to more sensitive issues and to support more speculative thinking about alternative scenarios.

A grid of objects commonly found in care home bedrooms, like lamps, plants, tissue boxes, kettles, etc.
Fig. 1 Gieben-Gamal, E. 2022. The care home bedroom: an inventory of commonly occurring things. Drawings by Anaïs Moisy.

The Creative Informatics PhD RA fund has supported the next phase of the project to develop materials from the visual ethnography which consists of a substantial amount of photographic data. A key consideration was the way in which this data could be presented in such a way that protects the anonymity of the participants but at the same time retains traces of the individual subject-object-relations revealed in the research. While there are multiple possibilities for this which extend beyond the scope of this particular funded project, the specific aim here was to create a visual inventory of ‘common’ objects found in the participants rooms. The objective was twofold: firstly to provide an alternative visual representation of a resident’s room in a care home; and secondly to provide a bank of images that could be transformed, through co-design activities, into a set of conversation prompts to support and facilitate the transition from one home to another.

Collaborating with designer and Creative Informatics tutor, Anaïs Moisy, we worked on the inventory of objects I had created from my analysis of all the photographic data, focussing on ‘common’ objects. These were objects that could be found in four or more of the eight participants rooms. This amounted to a total of 97 object types (groups of objects such as clothes or ornaments are counted here as one object type). Together, Anaïs and I selected a representative example from the photographs for each common object type which Anaïs transformed into drawings. Mindful of the still pertinent argument made by Gaver, Dunne and Pacenti back in 1999 about the importance of attending to aesthetic decisions in the creation of cultural probes or other visual materials, considerable care was given to the aesthetic choices we made about the style of these drawings. Multiple iterations were therefore produced until we were happy with the final effect. Like Gaver, Dunne, and Pacenti in the development of their materials, I was concerned to avoid a childish or condescending impression, while at the same time creating something vibrant and appealing. I also wanted to aim for something that, like Gaver, Dunne, and Pacenti’s materials, gave the participants “a personal and informal feeling, allowing them to escape the genres of official forms or of commercial marketing” (Gaver, Dunne, and Pacenti, 1999, p.21). It would have been possible, for example, to have bypassed the collaborative work with a designer and to have instead selected stock images from the internet to represent the common objects I had identified but this would have erased that sense of personal connection and investment that is so key to participatory research and which Gaver, Dunne and Pacenti identify as a key concern.

This was particularly important to me since working with participants in a care home requires an understanding and recognition of their marginalisation in society and how this shapes the research assemblage. Power relations are a significant factor within this and shape the participants’ view of their own expertise and value, and by extension their engagement with the research. While participatory research methods are designed to address these power relations within the research process itself, the cultural probe conducted in an earlier phase of the project demonstrated the potential for design methods to engage the participants in productive and supportive ways that more traditional methods can struggle to achieve and can also serve to overcome – or at least begin to redress – more deeply ingrained positionalities of power. Presenting materials that draw directly from the participants engagement and contribution to the research not only supported, I would argue, a better aesthetic outcome, but also embodied the political and methodological principles underpinning the research.

Returning to the other key objective for the production of these drawings, that is, to find alternative ways to represent resident’s rooms and by extension life in a care home, I was also keen to counter the often negative perceptions of life in a care home and the sense of confinement or stasis that photographs of residents’ rooms can convey. Focussing instead on the objects contained in people’s rooms, creates a space to imagine how these might be organised or engaged with, thereby opening up the possibility of reanimating the space of the resident’s room and focusing on the agency of both the objects and the people. This visual focus on objects or ‘things’ also captures the posthuman principles underpinning the research, that the lives of humans and objects are inextricable. What it is to be a care home resident is thus conceived in terms of an assemblage of things, just as Don Ihde conceived both the mountain climber and the mountain range in terms of the specialised equipment that supports and frames the possibilities for interaction /intra-action (1990), and depicted by Ron Wakkery in his recent talk at Design Informatics (2021). So, just as the specialised climbing equipment brings the mountaineer into being and supports them to experience, understand, map and represent the mountain, so the things contained in a care home resident’s room shapes who they are and their experiences and expectations of that space and the wider home within which it is contained.

But this is not the end of the project. As indicated earlier, now that this bank of images has been produced the next step is to work with the remaining participants to explore how these images can be combined with some of the key findings from the interview data to create support materials for people transitioning to life in a care home. I also hope to collaborate further with Anaïs Moisy, whose sensitivity to the project’s aims and underpinnings as well as her design skills were crucial to the success of the outputs.


Resources & Further Reading




Gaver, Dunne, and Pacenti, 1999, Design: Cultural Probes. Interactions, vol 1, https://interactions.acm.org/archive/view/jan.-feb.-1999/design-cultural-probes1


Ihde, Don. 1990. Technology and the Lifeworld: From Garden Earth, Bloomington: Indiana University Press


Wakkery, R. 2021. Things We Could Design for More Than Human-Centered Worlds. Design Informatics Webinar, University of Edinburgh, 11.02.21 https://www.designinformatics.org/event/di-webinar-ron-wakkary-sfu-school-of-interactive-arts-tech/