I met the Cowans this morning. Professor Philip and Carolyn Cowan were talking about their life’s work, exploring how to support parents.
In the 1970s, the Cowans were new parents themselves – it was then that they realised how difficult family making is and started to ask how it could be more satisfying.
Their longitudinal work with thousands of families shows that they were not the only ones struggling: all couple relationships become more difficult once the first child is born – their graphs of how relationship satisfaction drops off are startling.
What they have also found is that how parents treat each other affects children’s health, happiness and development more strongly than how parents treat their children. In other words if we want to nurture thriving young people we need to pay closest attention to the most intimate relationship of our lives – that with our partner.
As with Participle’s Life work with families, they have found that to do this work families need to be invited in and the nature of the conversation cannot be judgemental. They talk about “the magic of the group” and how peer support really makes a difference. They also advocate therapeutic work.
The Cowans were just about to retire in 2005 when a US state body asked them to focus on the hardest to reach families – those with very low incomes and severe child welfare issues. In the toughest of cases the Cowans have not only seen child abuse decrease, but family income increase – something they put down to the internal dynamics of a family. The stronger the partnership, the more that can be managed.
The Cowans’ work is going to be piloted in the UK thanks to a £2.9 million grant from the Department of Education. The bigger question of course is how this work will survive in the teeth of a system that most highly prizes transactional outcomes, but from such small seeds sturdy things can grow.
A few weeks ago, I and another of Participle’s designers were invited to lead a workshop for a group of second-year Graphic Design students at the college we both graduated from. The workshop was one element of a week-long lecture series focusing on environmentally-aware design, and we used the session to introduce human-centred design methods as a means for untangling the environmental challenges they’d uncovered. These included user profiling, categorising learning, identifying insights, stakeholder mapping, defining the design challenge, journey-mapping and segmentation. It was an exciting opportunity – we were them four years ago.
The session we ran prompted some interesting responses from the students, including this reflection posted on a blog afterwards:
“I don’t believe in user profiling…if a piece of design is strong enough it can appeal to the entire spectrum rather than just a proportion of it”
Of course it’s not going to be for everyone, but this complete unawareness of the value of starting from people’s real, everyday lives in order to create an appropriate, desirable outcome is striking and echoes the naive and arrogant ‘designers know best’ attitudes of the past. A people-centred approach does feel uncomfortable to start with and, if you haven’t done it before, it takes a certain amount of maturity and courage to be able to take a step back from a design project and start from a user’s perspective.
It struck us that there’s a big gap in many young designers’ awareness of the opportunity to use design as a force for social change, in some cases as a result of the particular specialisms and learning methods within a faculty, but more often stemming from a limited view of the scope of design within schools and foundation years. I certainly had no idea that I could use my design skills within the realm of social design and behaviour change until I was in my third year of university.
The potential of design as a method for solving complex social issues is a result of designers’ unique advantage of being able to use both their creative and analytical skills. Imagine the potential of thinkers and doers if they were able to engage with the relational welfare conversation during education.
The inclusion of people-centred approaches in any field of design education is a good thing for the cause for grown-up design, with as much (if not more) emphasis on thinking than making.
Design Development Lead