A Death and Design Workshop

Published on: Author: Naomi Richards Leave a comment
Members of the end of life studies group – and our two visiting scholars!

In November 2021, we held a 2-day workshop at our School of Interdisciplinary Studies in Dumfries, Scotland on the theme of Death and Design. The theme was chosen in honour of our visiting scholar, Professor Bruce Tharp from the University of Michigan’s School of Art and Design. Bruce was awarded a prestigious Fulbright Scholarship to visit both our End of Life Studies Group and the Glasgow School of Art’s Innovation School in order to develop design tools around end of life care planning and considerations. Over the course of two stimulating days, we brought together lecturers, post-docs, PhD candidates and MSc students from our Glasgow research group to talk about how ‘design’ (broadly conceived) featured in all of our respective end of life research, teaching, and professional practice.  

First, we heard from Prof Bruce Tharp on what design is considered to be in the 21st Century. We learned that design has moved on from a ‘hero’ model of design to much more participatory, team-based and inter-disciplinary ‘design thinking’. It can incorporate everything from symbols (logos and signs) and products to more complex interactions (services, user-experience) and systems (including healthcare). Bruce and his partner Stephanie Tharp pioneered the concept of discursive design, which combines critical design, speculative design and design fiction. I now understand discursive design to be the way that provocation of different degrees can reveal people’s values to themselves. Designed artefacts elicit discussion and self-reflection on one’s own values and those of society more generally. These are objects designed to be ‘good to think with’ (to quote Levi Strauss). Some examples we looked at in the end of life field are ‘The Plug’ by Marije de Hass and ‘Sincerely’ by Natsuki Hayashi.

Designer and PhD candidate Ian Walden (supervised by myself, but based at the University of Falmouth) then ran a workshop exploring conversations around old age rational suicide. In small groups we were given a series of conversation prompts culminating in each group coming up with 5 ‘radical and discursive’ ideas for stimulating conversation on the topic. Colleagues came up with some great ideas and these will be reflected on and incorporated within Ian’s thesis.

Overall, we thought it might be useful to create an affective experience of uncertainty in order to prompt thinking around the profound uncertainty older people feel about what their dying might like. We also pontificated about an immersive installation of some kind where you engage in walking and reminiscing with a companion or facilitator to consider the notion of a life lived to ‘completeness’. Having a conversation without the need for eye contact would potentially be less confrontational, more meditative. Approaching end of life topics and conversations slant is often easier than trying to look at them directly or head on[1].

On day two we heard from our other visiting scholar for this semester, Associate Prof Lisbeth Thoresen from the University of Oslo. Lisbeth showed us several clips from a mainstream Norwegian TV documentary about a hospice, broadcast on Norwegian public TV in 2021. Lisbeth did a fantastic job of prompting us to consider how dying was being represented and designed, first by the hospice through the ideology of ‘open awareness’, and second by the documentary film crew who were aiming to reveal the ‘public secret’ of death. Lisbeth effectively turned the documentary into a discursive design artefact, provoking much discussion in the group around values, embodiment, and the explicitness and preciseness of ‘open awareness’ conversations.     

To complete our workshop, we had two facilitated conversations with professionals who are affiliated to our research group. The first conversation was between PhD candidate Tracy Ward and MSc student, Michael Hannah, who are both practising funeral celebrants. They responded to a question about whether they thought of themselves as ‘designers’ and if they perceived any benefits to thinking about their professional work as ‘design’ (as both a noun and a verb). Tracy and Michael both spoke very eloquently about some of the conversations they have with bereaved relatives about what they want the funeral to look like and how the deceased would have wanted to be represented. Discussion of the materiality of the coffin appeared to be a catalyst or provocation for conversations with families and appeared revealing of the identity of the deceased. We discussed other potential visual prompts which could help facilitate conversations with families who may have little experience of funerals and of choosing from all the ceremonial possibilities on offer. 

A hybrid event with some of us attending remotely!

The second facilitated conversation was with end of life doula movement pioneer and educator Merilynne Rush (a long-time research collaborator of Dr Marian Krawczyk) and MSc student and end of life doula Sarah Farr. Both Merilynne and Sarah were reluctant to use the term ‘design’ in relation to their professional practice as they felt it trivialised what they did and jarred, in their minds, with the profundity of their work in helping someone to prepare for dying and death. Bruce stepped in to encourage them to consider how their work could be considered co-design or participatory design as they work with their clients to help them to move from their existing conditions to their preferred conditions. We discussed the role visualisation tasks and some gentle discursive design artefacts might play in helping to facilitate conversations with clients. There are distinctions to be drawn between the concept of a ‘designer death’ and the privileges associated with that, and new understandings of design being the intentional and intersubjective moulding of an end of life experience so that it is in keeping with the life that a person has lived.

This was a fascinating 2 days and we look forward to more design provocations from Bruce throughout his year with our group.


[1] I have my colleague Dr Dave Borthwick to thank for the idea of looking at things slant.

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