By Jacquie Quenneville//
ABSTRACT// The question of how co-design techniques and sustainability can complement each other serves as this journal article’s central research question. Particularly, this article explores a business proposal by designer Jacquie Quenneville and her collaborators, which examines how sustainability can be applied to toys (specifically dolls) by transforming the linear manufacture-to-disposal path into a continuous loop. The theoretical framework of William McDonough’s “Cradle to Cradle” (McDonough, W., & Braungart, M., 2002) informed this project. The working process entailed using co-design techniques with a group of six year olds to inform the project’s direction. Other frameworks were informed by techniques such as card-sort mind mapping, IDEO’s “Deep Dive” methodology, as well as visually rooted surveys for a young user group.
KEYWORDS// Barbie™, Co-design, Children, Sustainability
INTRODUCTION// Every year in late December, children receive thousands of presents. Since November the television has been playing commercials for the latest toy. Children will write to Santa, and will probably unwrap their desired hunk of plastic on Christmas morning. But, in six months or less it will be in the bottom of the toy box and will only see the light of day when it is collected for the trash or the thrift store. Is Old Saint Nick to blame? The big guy in the red suit is innocent. The culprit is the big toy manufactures. Their scheme is no different than car manufacturers. They operate on the principle of planned obsolescence: changing one component, adding one new feature and selling it as new. But unlike the old car manufacturers who are now investing in green technologies, toy companies’ core methodology has not changed since the nineteen-fifties. The problem is that toys are designed for durability, but children grow out of them in just a few years after purchase. The average life cycle for toys is extremely short, and the only network in place to handle this flow of discarded toys is the trash.
THE PROJECT BRIEF// In our third year Design Core Studio, we were challenged with proposing changes to childrens’ toys. We asked ourselves: how could co-design and sustainability transform the ways in which toys are produced and consumed? Researching Do It Yourself (DIY) resources like Instructables.com inspired us to do more with the second R of “Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle”. We discovered how avoiding new materials could be an elegant low impact solution. We investigated the ideas in William McDonough’s book “Cradle to Cradle” such as the impacts of one generation on the next, and how to create systems with loops so that nothing goes to the landfill.
We were also asked to work in conjunction with a group of children for this challenge. We briefly explored what co-designing meant. There are different levels of creative engagement, especially with children, and the greater power you give their voice, the more the user is truly a part of the final result. As discussed in class, participation ranged from taking specific input, to defending the user’s concerns (Chan, 2009). We are by no means experts at co-design, neither are we experts in dealing with young children. We approached understanding how childrens’ minds work with some knowledge based from previous interactions, but also with memories of childhood. By remembering what it meant to be a child, we could put ourselves in their little shoes.
Our co-design sessions were pre-arranged with a class of first-graders from the nearby False Creek Elementary school. Each group of the three university students were teamed up with a group of four first graders. The teams remained consistent through the duration of the project. All consent and photo-release forms for recording our process had been signed by the parents. The consent allowed us to take unlimited pictures and video for process. As well, engaging with the children during our sessions and was an indispensable key element to the success of this project. The other key element was our immediate discussion and reflection of everything observed in each session. The format for assessing the observations were: validation (what was predicted to work as well as what did work), frustrations (what didn’t work, whether planned or not), and discoveries or inspiration (unexpected details that arose, items that enlightened the project).
We wanted to determine right from the beginning what kind of toys the kids favoured. We hoped by establishing this basic information early on in the project, we would have a foundation to build on. In our first session with our all-girl group, we asked them about the toys they had at home, and played a game of toy tag; to not get tagged one crouches and shouts a type of toy. This was helpful and generated more ideas than just asking questions, but from the beginning there was a big pink elephant in the room that we could not ignore. One of the girls had brought a Barbie™ to school and had it with her the whole session. When we asked what toys they liked we got “Barbie™”, when asked what they had at home they said “Barbie™”. The B-word was inescapable, and when we stepped back from our first session, it was inevitable that this project was going to be about Barbie™. We dove into the deep end of the glamour pit. We modeled our research after IDEO’s “Deep Dive” approach (IDEO, 2009). IDEO’s approach is about finding out as much as possible about the subject in a limited amount of time. They emphasize going to the source, and really understanding the subject, so for two weeks we immersed ourselves in the Barbie™ culture. We visited Toys”R”Us, and talked to a Barbie™ collector, and we visited nearly every Barbie™ website.
Our feelings about Barbie™ in the beginning were very mixed. In order to sort out the many social issues, and determine what misconceptions we had about her, the three of us did a mind map exercise with sticky notes. We responded to the question “what do we know about Barbie™?” and wrote out one statement per sticky note. We piled them all together and sorted them into categories and came up with some very clear lines between our own perceptions, and actual facts. Through our research we found the majority of our attitudes towards Barbie™ are products of the society we live in, rather than proven scientific facts. To children, Barbie™ is just another doll to play with.
Problems With Construction
Barbie™ is well known for losing her head in the worst of times. But Mattel would never fix that problem, because Barbie’s™ faults contribute towards the purchase of more than one doll. We had identified a problem: Barbie™ breaks, and there needs to be a service that fixes her. We had a hard time convincing our peers that the resources existed to handle it. Mattel estimates that in the United States over ninety-five percent of girls between the ages of three and eleven own at least one Barbie™, and that the average number of dolls per owner is seven (Shapiro, 1992). Also it is estimated that somewhere in the world a Barbie™ doll is sold every three seconds (Mullins and Pearson, 1999). If girls grow out of Barbie™ by around age ten, then where are all these Barbies™ going? We concluded that thrift stores were an option, but most dolls were probably going to the trash. Despite the statistics and reason supporting our argument, pictures speak louder than words, and we hunted for the elusive “landfill Barbie™ picture” till the last weeks of the project. Remarkably the magic word was “Barbie™ Pile”. Never underestimate the power of changing a keyword in a search engine.
Development of the Space
Our co-design group indicated they no longer played with the toy once it was broken, so our project became about a service where children could come to get their doll fixed. Our group of girls showed us that they liked craft time, and came up with many creative solutions on their own to fix their damaged toys, but some things like popped off legs needed special treatment. We began designing the space where doll fixing would take place. It started as a doll hospital drop off centre. More inspiration came from our next co-design session where the girls drew us what sort of things they would like to find in the Barbie™ hospital. Our greatest realization was that the doll hospital didn’t need to be a stationary space. One girl suggested there could be a bus that teaches people how to fix their own dolls. We did not design a bus, but incorporating their vision, we changed the space to include a Barbie™ “clinic” where girls could fix their own dolls. They could also fashion new accessories for her out of the supplied craft materials.
Intrigued with the modified designer dolls that collectors had, we saw the potential to have these dolls in our store to inspire girls to create their own. Researching the lifestyle of the neighbourhood of False Creek also told us that the busy residents needed sustainable options that were as easy or easier than going to a toy store and buying a new doll. So pre-made designer dolls designed by store employees were also added to the repertoire. At some point, while trying to dismember a doll for research, we encountered the difficulty of the action and realized our hospital concept was faulty. The system could not revolve around doll breakage. We began to design our Cradle-to-Cradle system (McDonough, W., & Braungart, M., 2002) (Fig. 1) We would collect dolls that had outlived their first life from homes and thrift stores and would clean and repair them in our store. Then store employees for the retail line would outfit some dolls, and the rest would be available for customers to makeover in the maker space. All of the materials needed for doll makeovers would be locally sourced, using off-cuts from factories and the local fashion scene. This provided a system for discarded Barbies™ to be brought into, it could integrate the DIY research we had done, and could hopefully extend a girl’s interest in the dolls for a few more years. We were changing the dolls meaning from aspiring to be Barbie™, to aspiring to change Barbie™. However this hands-on approach to everything didn’t necessitate an ultra crafty aesthetic. We examined what was the most desirable aspect about Barbie™ that drew girls to it through a visually rooted survey for our co-design group. This idea was inspired by the great results our peers had with a similar tactic. With the ten questions we gave them four options and asked, “which is best?” They told us “fancy” and “glamour” was important. As a last minute addition, we included some doll brands in the survey, and for fun included one called “Vancouver Girl”. They all showed interest in it, but wanted to see a picture. The name stuck and Vancouver Girl (VG) became a fully realized brand name, complete with plans for three distinct lines of dolls to match a variety of users. VGfab for girls who want to upgrade their doll, or give a doll a makeover. VGirl for parents who want to chose a more sustainable option for a doll, but don’t have the time to commit to a craft session, and lastly VG couture for people who want something outstandingly luxurious. The penultimate in guilt-free glamour, local fashion designers themselves create these dolls.
Limits of the co-design process
It was often felt that the children we were working with were too young to give us real input. Six year olds are at an age in which they want to please, but this means they are very likely to tell you what they think you want to hear. Ninety percent of their responses depended on how the question was asked. It was very important to avoid leading questions, and most of all to give the children time to fully answer. Working with an older age group would have provided us with better input, as they are much more capable of abstract thought, and are better able to express themselves verbally. If we were to work with this age group again, more sessions would be beneficial to get to know them because they can be quiet shy.
Validity of Cradle-to-Cradle
Is our system truly Cradle-to-Cradle (McDonough, W., & Braungart, M., 2002) ? It would be, but only if every user just bought Vancouver Girls and no new Barbies™. Mattel will always have a market for its customers undoubtedly, but we hope to provide an alternative that is not as wasteful. However, just like one piece of paper can only be made into recycled content a finite amount of times, a recycled doll has a finite amount of lives due to material degradation. Yet, all degraded components of the dolls could be fixed from other dolls, so there is minimal waste.
Instilling Sustainability in Children
The current strategy of enforcing sustainability on adults is to make them feel guilty, but making children understand the plight of the planet requires a different approach. By starting with children, and shaping the way they think, one can shape the way they behave in the future. We directed a co-design process with the children, but we also hope we taught them about the importance of being original and creative, because that is what makes each of us special. In a world where children are the future of tomorrow, it is immensely important that they run the world differently than we have been doing.
Chan, Patrick. Design Research and Methods Lecture 2009.
McDonough, W., & Braungart, M. (2002). Cradle to Cradle: Remaking The Way We Make Things. North Point Press.
Mullins, P.R., Pearson, M., Domesticating Barbie™: An Archaeology of Barbie™ Material Culture and Domestic Ideology. International Journal of Historical Archaeology, Vol. 3, No. 4, 1999.
Shapiro, E. (1992). Totally hot, totally cool: long-haired Barbie™ is a hit. New York Times 2009, 22(June): D9
The Art of Innovation: Lessons in Creativity from IDEO, America’s Leading Design Firm. http://www.qualityoflife.org/ich/IDEO/IDEO.cfm. Accessed December 9, 2009.
Figure 1. Jaquie Quenneville, 2009.
Figure 2. Jaquie Quenneville, 2009.