MA-ID-02 graduation show preview: Karen Barrett argues for misery as a vital part of human experience

This year’s MA Interaction Design graduation show (1-4 December) is getting closer and closer, and we’re here to whet your appetite for it by offering a sneak peek at some of the student projects to be exhibited!

Today, we’re talking to Karen Barrett, whose work offers a twist on the dominant neoliberal perspective of our current times, which urges us to pursue constant happiness at all cost. “Instead I propose that misery and suffering are inevitable in the human experience and therefore should be embraced rather than shunned. My project seeks to develop alternative emotional narratives that allow for acceptance and celebration of misery”, Karen says.


How did you get the idea and what were the challenges in developing it?

Due to my placement experience, I developed an interest in ancient knowledge, and particularly in how to usefully apply it in modern life. Having touched on many different sources of ancient knowledge I became aware of the human preoccupation with seeking out happiness. This desire to access and maintain happiness aligned nicely with my previous work. With a background in psychology, I am passionate about engaging design to improve human lived experience. Therefore, a lot of my work and research has centred on happiness. I have examined modern interpretations of happiness and happiness measurement.

Despite the obvious answer of focusing my final project on happiness, I decided that flipping this topic and considering its opposite, misery, could make for a novel and interesting perspective. Hence, understanding individual experiences of misery became the entry point for my design research. A significant challenge in developing this topic is its vastness. Misery is a broad term that has infinite interpretations and applications. I had to carefully consider what constraints I would impose in order to develop this project without loosing the richness and complexity of my chosen subject.

What kind of research are you undertaking for your final project? What processes and tools are you using to reach the finished result?

My project began with desk-based research and interviews. I interviewed William Davies, author of ‘The Happiness Industry’ for instance. As the project developed I moved towards ethnographic research methods through the use of cultural probes and public space interventions. I developed a probe pack, which I send out to people with diverse attitudes to emotional management. For the public space interventions, I set up Misery Zones using signage and tape here on campus and in Lewisham. The reactions given to these spaces informed my next stage of design. I also set up a workshop session with peers.

The results from my cultural probes have been particularly instrumental towards my final result. In addition, I am constantly mapping and prototyping, my desk space is getting very messy! Getting ideas down on paper through sketches and mind maps or putting physical artefacts out in the world is the best way for me to push the design process forward.

How was your experience on the MA in Interaction Design course? What do you think you got from it, and what did you enjoy most while studying here?

My experience on the MA has been eye-opening and challenging, but overwhelmingly positive. I have been exposed to innovative new forms of thinking which have invigorated my approach to design. I have gained confidence in my practice and feel enabled to take on the complexities of my field after these 15 months. For me, the best part about studying in Goldsmiths is the people I have met and worked with. It is a priceless luxury to be surrounded by creative, inspired people who are willing to share their skills and expertise. The level of support and stimulation on hand around the design studios is wonderful and I know I will miss it terribly when I graduate!

What other work/project undertaken during the course was particularly rewarding to you?

It’s difficult to pick one, but my placement experience was probably the most challenging and rewarding experience of the past year. I worked with a child psychotherapist as the designer for two different projects. The first required me to design a means of engaging children who have undergone complex trauma in mindfulness practice. The second was to propose a scalable means of developing an emerging social initiative, Wisdom Connects. Although diverse, both projects offered me the invigorating opportunity to apply my design skills in socially innovative ways. I am really excited by the potential of both projects and continue to be involved in their development.

What is design to you, how would you describe your approach to design?

Design to me is questioning assumed reality and creating better alternatives. I am really excited by design’s power to build and shape the world.

My design work is guided by the desire to improve human lived experience. In terms of specific approach, my work always starts with research. I usually look to books, articles and the Internet in the first instance but then I quickly move on to people. I like to gather a diverse range of insights. Depending on the topic at hand, it can be insightful to gain the perspective of experts and outsiders. I love the opportunity that research affords to catch a glimpse into someone’s experience. To me this is a privilege and one of the most exciting parts of the design process. Sometimes I gather these insights through interviews or sometimes through probes or interventions. Once gathered I usually storyboard, prototype and user test multiple times before settling on a final outcome.

From the 1st to the 4th of December MA Interaction Design students will present their final work in the St James Hatcham Church Gallery. The projects will present propositions and speculative interventions into existing, emerging or possible ‘social’ settings and milieus that are in some way marked by technology, broadly conceived. Here, the students engage with and explore a wide range of concerns and interests ranging from punishment, death and misery, interventions into the UN buffer zone in Cyprus to the preservation of urban bees. The exhibition is a platform for students to document and present their unique approach to interaction design through practice-based research methods.

Read a previous Design blog interview introducing Karen at the start of her studies.

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