Deb Shackleton, a colleague at Emily Carr University recently made the observation that the associative understandings we have of the world around us are a result of our innate tendencies: to socialize, to conceptualize before speaking and to co-evolve with tools.

During the Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver a collaborative project between Emily Carr University and Lululemon Athletica® resulted in a buoyant window display illustrating what University/Industry based partnerships can accomplish. The success of this first project and the excellent performance of Emily Carr co-op students led to a second creative research project entitled Safety Lab. Both projects funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) have investigated the means of merging art and design based practice, and offered insight into the contextual role of artifacts and actions in enforcing and enabling communication between players in the creative economy across boundaries set by disciplines and working contexts.

The Roles of Actions and Artifacts in Idea Generation:

Lululemon lab – Windows Display

Where do ideas come from? The lululemon lab window display campaign served to identify two key factors that have enabled discussion, collaboration, and design decisions to be made: artifacts and actions.

A series of incongruent observations led to the window concept created on the corner of Broadway and Cambie over the three weeks of the Vancouver 2010 Winter Games™: artifacts observed in the working studio space of the Lululemon Lab® concept store (large spools of thread), a visual activity on the Emily Carr website (x10 squares), and a dominant winter conversation of many Canadians (hockey) all played a key role. The display was made up of a large peg wall holding over five hundred spools of industry grade thread (generously donated by Cansew Inc.®) configured to form pixilated images of athletes: speed skaters, a ski jumper, a downhill skier, and a hockey player. Actions – the interchange and re-sorting of the spools to shift the images from one stage to the next – instigated an ongoing discourse between the Emily Carr team and the pedestrians passing by. The viewers became active participants as the story unfolded, guessing the successive outcomes and critiquing the images when they could not be discerned. The project brought together an analogue-interactive display, a sustainable story, and an acknowledgment of the role of process: the time and effort required to achieve any outcome. The artifact of the peg-wall covered in threads, and the actions of the design/art team from Emily Carr University served the purpose of generating anticipation and dialogue with the passersby. The project was a successful illustration of how the relationships between objects and people can play a significant role in the generation of ideas and the subsequent social, communicative spaces that are created.

Figure 1. Pixelated image of skier



Next story: Establishing an Agenda

When the second project, Safety Lab was launched in the fall of 2010 two dialogues were initiated: one centered on a broad directive to investigate the notion of safety, the other was intent on exploring means of creating and supporting collaborative conversations between individuals working in art and in design in both academic and business contexts. The project was made up of three main groups within Emily Carr: A four member research team (Rteam); a Design class (Dteam); and an Art class (Ateam).

Tuuli Mattelmäki in her study of design probes has noted the need within Concept design and design in general to “tolerate things which are indefinite and open” (Mattelmäki 2006). Set with an open-ended research mandate Safety Lab required a flexible and iterative exploration process. The use of the ambiguous to drive insight is not unique to design, it can be found throughout art-based practice. The artifacts and actions of the Fluxus movement with their “strong commitment to everyday experience” (Ahn 2002) are a good example of this. Collaborative Design/Art practices are able to function cooperatively drawing on this commonality. For research entities such as Safety Lab the challenge lies in understanding how this open framework fits into the needs of research partners working within closed time frames. The indefinite is an infrequently used tool in areas of the creative economy whose design mandate is driven by the rigid time constraints of production and demands at the retail level.

Safety Lab’s inclusive stance meant a range of methodologies had to work in tandem; these included practice based work, critical, and generative methods (Sanders and Stappers 2008). A modular blackboard system developed specifically for the project became the nucleus for a range of actions executed by Safety Lab encouraging conversation and interplay of ideas – circumventing preconceived barriers between the disciplines and the different working contexts.

The Roles of Actions and Artifacts in Idea Generation and Collaborative Practice: Safety Lab


“new artifacts always emerge from or develop from familiar ones. Artifacts are language in interaction”  (Krippendorff, 2006)

The 6‘4” blackboards designed for the Safety Lab project resemble the spinal boards used by paramedics – they visually articulate the mandate of the group to explore the notion of safety. The need for cooperation, resilience, and fortitude also implied in their form proved a good starting point to pull out ideas about safety. A system of Velcro® straps and draw cords that link individual units together enable the boards to be configured quickly into small free standing units or large zig-zag screens, dependent on the nature of the creative exploration. The blackboards have acted as agents, mediating actions and conversation and instigating ideas: in the classroom setting, at Share Nights, and through a series of public Semiotic Interventions. They have served as a medium for visual articulation, interweaving language and action to create meaning (Krippendorff, 2006 ).

In the classroom

The Safety Lab boards were intended as an apparatus for individual and shared ideation/action. Initial use in the classroom setting provided a testing ground for this. Tall and vertical, the boards encouraged a full body interaction during ideation and afforded students the opportunity to step back from their work for a perspective not available on small-scale surfaces (sketchbooks, laptops). The use of chalk as a mark-making medium encouraged a willingness to move from one idea to the next at a rapid rate. Lined up around the perimeter of classrooms, the thirty boards became a space for exchange, drawing interest and creating a cross pollination of solutions as students interjected and added notes to one another’s boards. Individual space was delineated by each board but en masse they worked as a shared repository of ideas – a concrete example of the use of repetition as a means for creating idea cohesion.

A Meeting of Minds: Share Night

“Creating a space for dialogue with the audience is … vital to the negotiation of meanings and incorporation of multiple perspectives” (Leavy, 2009).

Safety Lab’s Share Nights brought together the art and design classes, the research team and five of Lululemon’s® designers. The events were an opportunity to explore the synergies of creative individuals working with diverse methodologies and from different action bases.

The strength of Share Night  #1 was its capacity to shift the attendees’ relation to the creative outcomes and ideation from a viewer perspective to a participatory one. The Safety Lab blackboards were linked together in a zig-zag manner across the Motion Capture and Visualization Studio at Emily Carr University. Three multi-unit screens were created. The first served as a backdrop for the cultural probes designed by the Rteam. The second as a repository for generative research: notes ,visual research and storyboarding done by the Dteam. The third and largest screen displayed the ideation process from the Dteam classroom earlier that day and explored the issue of sweat. The research and process displayed on the zig-zag screens were countered and held in tension by a series of interactive wearable artifacts from the Ateam that dealt with danger. At the onset of the event two research themes identified via the Dteam’s generative observe and participate research were introduced to the group: Safe TRANSITION(s), Safe BELONGING(s). This was followed by an explanation of the cultural probes developed by the RTeam, a Post It® Note session that invited participants to place comments on peers work, and finally a discussion forum that addressed boundaries delineating the art and design outcomes, and garment-based design practices from industrial design practices.

The mix of the artifacts and actions of Share Night #1 introduced the industry partner to new methodologies and means of bringing “ the unsaid into the said” (Janine Bouchard, Lululemon Athletica®); or, put another way, allowing the indefinite to move from being a threat to a means of indirectly accessing product based solutions. It allowed the creative community of Safety Lab to (re)evaluate and (re)assess work; to pick, choose, and move on independently, while working on the common theme of safety.

Public/Private Space: Semiotic Interventions

Sets as part of staged events are transient by nature. In public spaces they have long been used as a medium to attract. In late November 2010 the Safety Lab boards were put to use in triptych booth formation. Four booths were placed in locations throughout the Emily Carr Campus setting the scene for a series of creative private/public actions referred to as ‘Semiotic Interventions’.

Drawing on discussions in Share night #1 about scars, birthmarks, stretch marks, tattoos, body modification, graffiti, and the identified themes of Safe TRANSITION(s) and Safe BELONGING(s) interventions were developed by the Rteam including: Body Tracing: unintentional marks, Mark Making: intentional traces. These activities were to collect visual clues connected to the accumulation of signs and marks on the body. In Body Tracing participants were invited to have their bodies traced and then asked to add a mark to their chalked silhouette to indicate an unintentional mark existing on their body that they intentionally tried to cover up. In Mark Making participants were asked to enter into one of the Safety Lab’s booths with a privacy screen strung across the front and draw an image on a part of their body that they felt comfortable with. The participant, using a digital camera located inside the booth, then documented the mark.

Once again the artifact/blackboard played a role in inviting, informing and encouraging the actions of participants. As subject’s bodies were traced, or participants disappeared behind the screen, a social dance formed among the participants, the Rteam instigators, and the spectators – one punctuated by exclamations and a series of narratives revolving around safety and vulnerability. These became as significant as the collected mark notation in providing further ideas for responses moving forward.


As artifacts, the peg wall covered in large spools and the blackboards covered in chalk and Post It® Notes put into play our innate tendency to socialize, our ability to conceptualize, and the close relation we have with the tools we use. Being mutable, they have allowed for a multitude of configurations and actions, and have consequently enabled creative dialogues and narratives for future research. The challenge going forward lies in framing responses so that they continue to pull on the ambiguous while offering poignant, relevant insight applicable to all involved: the key to this is a conscious use of a toolset that draws on the role of actions and artifacts, and which recognizes process as an essential deliverable.


  • Ahn, Sang-Soo., & Helmer Poggenpohl, Sharon. (2002). Between Word and Deed: The ICOGRADA Design Education Manifesto, Seoul 2000. Massachusetts Institute of Technology: Design Issues, 18 (2).
  • Friedman, Ken. (1998).The Fluxus Reader. Great Britain: Academy Editions. John Wiley and Sons.[PR1]
  • Krippendorff, Klaus. (2006).The Semantic Turn: A new foundation for design. Boca Raton: CRC Press. Taylor and Francis Group.
  • Leavy, Patricia. (2009). Method Meets Art: Arts-Based Research Practice. New York: Guilford Publications.
  • Mattelmäki, Tuuli. (2006). Design Probes. Vaajakoski, Finland: University of Art and Design Helsinki. Gummerus Printing.
  • Sanders, Elizabeth B.-[PR2] N., & Stappers,  Pieter Jan. (2008) Co-creation and the new landscapes of design. [PR3] CoDesign. 4(1).

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