Lior Smith about design for happiness and social good

We continue our programme of updates from the class of 2012! Today, a chat with Lior Smith, a BA Design graduate who is now, in her own words, as busy as she could have hoped to be, working in service design, teaching, doing freelance graphics and continuing work on her Goldsmiths thesis project on top of it. Basically, things have been great for Lior since she graduated, and now we’ll let her tell us more about it herself.

Q: What was your final project about?

A: It was about well-being. I researched positive psychology and communicated my findings. I made a toolkit to help people understand themselves better, and how they can be happier. During the project I also dressed up as a superhero around campus for two months, to see if giving makes you happy.

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Q: What exactly did you do as a superhero?

Q: I gave out sweets, started conversations with strangers, and was generally very positive and helpful. Lots of people were having a hard time during third year, and I listened to them and was supportive and encouraging, and generally a positive force. I helped people with their work occasionally…I never missed an opportunity to be giving to others.

A: And how did people react to your unconditional help? Did anybody have a negative response?

Q: Well, there were people who were negative so they weren’t very responsive, but I accepted that sometimes things work and sometimes they don’t. But my success rate was relatively high. I got responses from people telling me that I had made the environment happier, although the point was to make myself happier, not everyone else.

A: So did it make you happier after all?

Q: I learnt that being giving does indeed make me happy, and it makes other people happy too, according to psychology research. However, I don’t think that telling people that giving will make you happy is enough to make them start being more giving, they need to find it out for themselves. That’s why I designed the toolkit. You rate your happiness out of 10 for the day, and list the activities you did, particularly relating to being giving, connecting, taking notice, being active and learning, since those are the 5 ways of well-being according to the New Economics Foundation. At the end of the month or however long you do it for, you work out what the things that made you the most happy were, so you have your own data about your behaviours and happiness level. That way, you can find out what makes YOU happy, not what scientists say will make you happy.

A: Did you study the kit in action?

Q: Yes, I gave it to four people, three girls and a man. They all learnt something about themselves. They even wanted to continue documenting themselves and doing the activities that I set for them, which were based on psychology theory. I mean, the activities were suggested by psychologists, so I re-presented them in an accessible way. I don’t think we should all have to read dense books in order to find out how to make ourselves happier. I think it would be better if useful information that exists in the academic world were communicated to ordinary people in an accessible and engaging way.

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A: So what kind of things did this small sample of people conclude that makes them happier?

Q: Being your ‘super’ self, they all said that. That means, being your best self, as much as you can be. The next step for the project was going to be testing the toolkit on a wider scale, but it took a different direction.

A: So you continued it after graduation?

Q: Oh, yes, I have a studio where I ran some workshops. Many people have the problem of not liking their work because they aren’t using their natural strengths at work. I want to help people have an awareness of what they’re good at, and recognise that those things are worth doing. So the workshop is about ‚superpowers’: what are you good at that makes you feel happy? Everyone has many strengths, but we pick one. 2-10 people are in the workshop at any given time. If they’re with friends, they help each other identify their strengths, then I help them visualise the strength and we make it into a badge out of coloured paper. It’s quite playful, I’m in my superhero costume, and there’s coloured paper and Pritt stick everywhere.

A: What strengths do people discover in themselves at your workshop?

Q: The funniest one was Saw Man – he can cut perfectly straight lines with a saw. There were a few ‘good at drawing’ superpowers. Designers tended to come to my workshops. It’s not really specifically for designers, but I haven’t yet got to the stage where I am making business deals to get the workshop into office buildings for groups of employees. That’s the next step for the project, and I hesitate to take it since I don’t have enough experience, So instead, I am working for a company where I can build my work skills.

A: What kind of work are you doing at the moment?

Q: I am working for Participle, who are a service design agency. It’s a new branch of design which is picking up speed and gaining political interest. The idea is that instead of designing a physical product, we design a service according to need. The way i see it, we have so many physical products already – who needs another chair? We already have enough chairs in the world, so I refuse to design another one. There are so many problems with design for manufacture. Nobody cares where the products end up when they’re finished with, and we have landfill problems. So instead of contributing to the problem, I am trying to find a new way for designers.

Participle address the welfare system in Britain. The project I’m working on is called Circle, it’s for the aging population, which is a growing problem in that as a state we can’t afford the support they need, so there is an opportunity for design. Circle connects older people to each other so they can form networks to help each other. They also connect younger helpers with them to do things like mow the lawn and fix things. There is a problem of loneliness amongst older people. The state tries to fix this with social care, but actually, making friends with local older people is a cheaper, better solution. I’m really interested in making social changes, but not being a politician. Also I love research, I love talking to people and finding out the real problems.

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Q: Do you have any background in psychology/social sciences?

A: No, I started out in Furniture Design. I was unhappy with being asked to design a manbag for men that don’t want manbags – I found it unethical. So I rally against the system! I quit Nottingham Trent where I was studying, and moved to Goldsmiths. And now I’m a visiting lecturer to Nottingham Trent- ironically they want to learn how I design now. I ran a project with second year students about design for well-being. I loved it. I think I’ll be a lecturer alongside my design career, for my whole life. Really I’m just trying to question why we design and what’s the point – that’s what lead to me to the psychology reseach. I joke that I learned the Meaning Of Life during university…The meaning of my life, anyway.

Q: So did you feel more free to do your own thing at Goldsmiths?

A: Oh, yeah. Where else in the world could I have got away with running around as a superhero for two months?

You can keep up to date with Lior’s work by checking out her website at this link.

Photos courtesy of Lior Smith

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