By James Hallam//
ABSTRACT// This essay explores the practice of co-design and its application in the development of persuasive design solutions. Insight is drawn from a project to develop environmentally cautious fashion dolls with a team of six year old girls in Vancouver, BC. This project examines identity, appropriation, and craft practice as tools to re-position the Barbie™ doll.
By providing children with early access to craft culture and skills, they can more successfully negotiate the mass media messages of consumption and conformity while still engaging in the consumer culture that drives them.
KEYWORDS// Co-Design, Craft, Children, Sustainability, Dolls, Barbie™, Toys
INTRODUCTION// Fifty years after her introduction at the New York Toy Fair, Mattel’s Barbie™ doll has had a remarkably durable legacy. Sold to three generations of children, this best selling fashion doll has portrayed over one hundred professions, survived decades of varying fashions, and remained a popular icon of American culture well into the internet age. Barbie™ has been long criticized for her unrealistic body type and its damaging effect on the health of the young girls who would seek to emulate it. Despite these challenges, Barbie™ has endured and now sells at a the rate of a doll every three seconds, or over ten million dolls a year worldwide (Dougherty, 2009). Something aspirational in her still sells to the girls for whom she is marketed to just as fifty years previous. In light of her popularity, Mattel has failed to adapt this plastic toy to the realities of the emerging “green” market.
My design team approached Patty Hill’s first grade class at False Creek Elementary (FCE) to meet with the children who were to help us design a sustainable toy. This project was a co-operative design challenge between my third year Industrial Design class at Emily Carr University and the kids at FCE, who we were told were to be our teammates and collaborators, and not simply consultants. These six-year old children were to direct us to design a toy or game that they would not only enjoy, but would possess the smallest environmental footprint possible. Neither of my teammates, Janice Wu and Jacquie Quenneville, nor I had any prior experience working with children on a design project.
We prepared for our first session at the elementary school by talking to other design students who had worked with children of this age group. Each team of designers was paired with a pre-selected group of kids. We were teamed up with four girls: Kate, Charlotte, Jade and Hannah. For two hours we played games, coloured drawings and talked about toys and what made them special. We grew attached to our new teammates very quickly. After this encounter, we realized the implications of an all-girl co-design team which were un-ignorable – they had talked about many toys, but none more than their fashion dolls.
RESEARCH QUESTION// The primary question in front of us was, “What exactly would make a Barbie™ doll sustainable and still be of interest to our girls?” Sustainability never seemed to be of concern to Mattel, short of a few clumsy gestures of doll reclamation and outfits made of repurposed fabric that had only provoked accusations of greenwashing (Mitchell, 2008). The people who continued to buy Barbie™ did not seem to mind her plastic figure, synthetic clothing and blister-pack shell; she was fashionable, desirable and aspirational. Any solution we proposed had to at least match these qualities, if not exceed them. Sustainable design offered us a number of design solutions, including material reduction, recycling, repurposing, and re-presenting (Walker, 2007). The challenge was in figuring which solution would be the most successful.
Another question that was posed early on was the nature of the end of life of the doll, or how this durable plastic figure became garbage. We speculated whether the girls who discarded Barbie™ simply moved on to something more age-appropriate or fashionable, or whether they had an encounter with the doll that hastened their displeasure with it. The question was raised as to whether the sociological issues of body image, Barbie™’s falsely plastic adult world or her mass-production and consumption could provoke anger, dissociation and rejection. Finally, we posed the question of where the value in the doll was created – it seemed logical that the doll would only become garbage once her perceived value had been lost.
METHODOLOGY// The following processes and methods were employed in order to deconstruct the design problem and arrange information. These mainly took the form of activities, games and other collaborative practices used commonly in co-design, as well as informational mind mapping and surveys.
Scenarios// To test the theory of constructed value, we decided to run scenarios with the children to understand how they told stories with their dolls. We wanted to determine whether these stories helped preserve value in the doll even when it was damaged. After discussing the children’s’ own experiences with broken dolls, we combined their stories and solutions into three scenarios and documented the activity in photos. These photos were later adapted into three short comic strips, we hope to take advantage of the comic form’s ability to “amplify through simplification” (Scott, 1993) and to construct an emotional layer to the narrative.
Card Sort Activity//
While working with the children, the team began a very broad research process, which was followed by numerous discussions as we tried to make sense of everything we had read. Barbie™ has fifty years of documented history, much of which lies largely in the sphere of pop culture and is poorly documented, yet prevalent. As our research discussions progressed, we encountered a tangle of social issues and perceptions – much of which was contradictory and ill-formed. It seemed that introducing the sociological aspects of Barbie™ into our project presented us with a wicked problem and an indeterminate outcome. This had the potential to halt the project as we grappled with an overload of information (Buchanan, 1992).
To address this problem, we asked ourselves, “What do we know about Barbie™?” and wrote short answers on index cards. Each card had space for three answers, allowing each team member to react and elaborate on each other’s observations. After we had exhausted our knowledge, the cards were split so that each idea was on a single sheet of paper and then fastened to a blank wall. We sorted the cards, slowly allowing clusters to develop. Eventually, those clusters were formalized as overlapping topics in an adapted Venn diagram (ours was in the shape of a heart, which seemed appropriate given the subject matter). Though this exercise took hours to complete, it gave us some clarity as to what we actually knew about the world of Barbie™, and convinced us to start looking into craft practice, and its value in constructing meaning.
Craft Practice// Craft seemed to be an essential part of our sustainable approach and was a response to the design problem that Barbie™ presented us with. Craft has fallen out of use during the modern era in favor of industrial efficiency and distribution, but it is again being recognized as an invaluable resource in sustainable design. Craft is a pragmatic approach to local production, personalization, materiality and the skill of the creator (Nay, 2008). We believed that these elements would be a major source of the value we were hoping to embed in our doll solution. To test these theories, we created a number of craft-based prototyping activities, which we hoped would reveal some interesting behaviour from the kids as they worked (Poggenpohl, 2002). These involved the creation of doll outfits and of a “maker-space” while exploring prototypes at doll-scale and at a full human scale.
We were inspired by another team in our class to create a visual survey tool that we could present to the children to get some concrete advice. The survey was composed of twelve questions, and we asked them which of the four options they preferred. All of the questions tried to present options that would give them a choice between a doll experience tied to a large company like Mattel, and to a local brand. To our surprise, the local option was the clear winner, though our co-designers were clear that whatever we created had to be just as glamorous as Barbie™. Most significantly, they placed a high priority on the doll being presented as “new”.
We decided to play off of the children’s interest in local things by creating a name that a six-year old would immediately connect with: VancouverGirl. With such strong competition from Barbie™, Liv and Moxie Girls (the latter being two new fashion doll brands launched in 2009 by very large toy manufacturers), it was vital that we were unambiguous about our local connection. The key brand statements were simple enough to develop after our primary and secondary research on Barbie™ had been conducted:
• We will create a joyful experience between parents and children
• We believe in positive change through creativity
• We will make glamour guilt-free
• We will make waste valuable by reviving toys with imagination
• We will tell new stories with old dolls
It was now possible to develop three lines of dolls under the VancouverGirl brand. These brands would each represent a different approach to developing sustainable dolls from waste stream products and each of these brands would engage with a different audience.
The final products were categorized into a number of distinct yet related lines, each suited to different user needs and target audiences.
Vgirl is the flagship retail line, and intended for consumption by the widest audience. The hallmark sustainable practice of this approach is “cradle-to-cradle” as we converted waste stream materials from consumers and the local fashion industry into viable products, positioned as new (McDonough, 2002). Here, fashion doll bodies are diverted from waste sources and collected from thrift stores and donations to be cleaned and repurposed into VancouverGirl dolls. Outfits and accessories are designed by emerging local fashion designers and created from fabric scraps gathered from the area’s soft goods and fashion industries. Production of the finished pieces is provided by members of charity organizations, like Craftworks. Completed dolls are boxed in sustainable, recycled card packaging, and positioned in store as new.
This line should appeal to anyone who would buy a traditional fashion doll like Barbie™, but gains the added value of locally relevant designs and the sustainable benefits of buying a doll created with hardly any new material. Customers are encouraged to return their dolls to the store for refurbishment, should they ever decide they are no longer wanted, which keeps VancouverGirl in a closed-loop system, and hopefully out of the waste stream.
Vgirl fab// Vgirl fab takes its name from “fabulous fabrication” and provides the craft practice element to the Vgirl line. This line shifts the focus from a product to a service by creating a guided in-store craft and play experience helping girls in giving their own dolls a makeover. This allows them to create a new doll of their own design. Clients can either provide their own materials or draw from the same fabric cuttings as Vgirl. As with the retail line, the finished doll is packaged as new, but this time with the creator’s signature on the box, marking it as an original creation.
Vgirl fab should appeal to the maker audience and to those who are more acclimatized to sustainable issues. It represents the deepest level of involvement with the brand and the doll creation process. This process should encourage the clients to be advocates for VancouverGirl and to share their experiences with others. Sustainable value is created through the same method as Vgirl, but takes a deeper meaning as the clients are able to layer their own personal, social and cultural influences crafting the doll, building a deeper relationship with the object they have created (Suri, 2003). While it is less likely that Vgirl fab dolls will be returned to the store, they are always welcome to come back for another makeover.
VG Couture is the most disruptive line as it pitches the reclaimed dolls as highly aspirational luxury products, evocative original creations hand-made by local fashion designers. The couture dolls are dressed using a high fashion visual language and presented using the luxury brand grammar of conspicuous extravagance balanced against restrained cultivation and conservatism (Dru, 2002). The environmental message is completely subsumed under the glamorous sheen of the presentation, yet the dolls are no less sustainable than any in the Vgirl line.
VG Couture products, while intended to be sold, are at their most effective on display as ambassadors for VancouverGirl and are designed to reach those that are immune to the messaging of the Vgirl lines. In this case, sustainable value is created by elevating what was once garbage to a level of desirability and collection, thus preventing their return to the waste stream. Each doll is an irreplaceable original and builds value through association with the designer-creator, who lends their image and their culture to their creation (Vitta, 1985).
CONCLUSION// Three months after we met our co-designers, my team returned to False Creek Elementary to present our findings, meet the parents of the kids we had worked with, and see what they thought of our collective work. We had boards describing our process and brand, examples of packaging and plenty of pictures to show– yet the highlight of the presentation was a doll in a brilliant red ball gown, her blonde hair dramatically set against a fan of black peacock feathers. This was the creation of Ric Yuenn, a local evening wear designer who volunteered to make one of his signature dresses at fashion doll scale as an example of the VG Couture line. The reaction was immediate as soon as Yuenn’s doll was revealed, the girls swarmed the table, grabbing the doll and excitedly talking to each other about how beautiful she was.
The girls connected so favorably with a doll that had been nearly garbage a few weeks earlier. Their response was an immediate validation of what we had hoped to achieve with this project. Talking with the parents of our co-creators was equally rewarding, as they received our findings warmly and saw the potential of the maker-space in their neighborhood. Many parents admitted that they had either an ethical or a social problem with Barbie™, but told us that they saw what VancouverGirl represented and the potential Vgirl fab held to create a doll that reflected themselves and their child. It was exciting to see how effective a tool craft can be in approaching a sustainable design problem – to make the shift away from industrial design processes to the skilled vernacular of local producers with a deep understanding of their clients. The ability of the Ric Yuenn doll to shape belief in the audience was remarkable as it coaxed them into active participation with the message and acceptance of the used doll as new again (Tyler, 1992).
Mattel likes to represent Barbie™ as being timeless and essentially unchanged since her introduction in 1959 (Barbie™: Inspiration for Girls, 2009). This strikes me as short-sighted and out of touch. The world they position their doll in has changed dramatically in the last fifty years, yet they seem content to limit their creativity to superficial fashion updates which are largely ignorant of the social movements that have progressed around them. No matter what outfit she is wearing, Barbie™ is now an anachronism with little in common with the young girls she is purchased for. This deficit creates an opportunity for new, more culturally relevant dolls. Rather than aspiring to be like Barbie™, girls should now be able to aspire to change Barbie™ as they see fit.
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Figure 1. James Hallam, (2009)
Figure 2. James Hallam, Janice Wu, Jacquie Quenneville (2009)
Figure 3. James Hallam (2009)
Figure 4. Louise St. Pierre (2009)
Figure 5. James Hallam (2009)