V&A Dundee

Designing for Young Minds

Why society’s smallest members deserve a big slice of designers’ attention

Written by: Sally Greig Lockwood

This July sees the second edition of Design Busters book - a free activity book for children, packed with colourful and creative challenges designed to inspire creativity. Meanwhile in the museum, our welcome desk now has a Design Busters station, offering young visitors free activities and materials to design cool cities, future fashions, graphic logos and more.

First launched in April, the book was designed by Dundee illustrator Laura Darling. 10,000 copies were sent to families across Scotland, with help from primary schools, NHS Children’s hospitals, food banks and voluntary groups. Now a further 10,000 books have been printed, and will be shared via libraries, fostering teams, prison visitor centres and play services.

Underpinning the whole project is a very important principle - that from the earliest days, design and creativity are a crucial part of children’s wellbeing. That includes both their ability to participate, and to be considered by designers as an audience whose needs and opinions should be taken seriously.

An illustration from the Design Busters book, featuring a pencil sketch of people on a computer screen
A page from the Design Busters book

Design is fundamental

The ability to participate freely in cultural life and the arts is enshrined in the Article 31 of the UN Rights of the Child; as is member states’ responsibility to “encourage the provision of appropriate and equal opportunities for cultural, artistic, recreational and leisure activity”.

But why is creativity so important for children?

For one, research into neuroscience and play suggests that the opportunity to create - to draw, build, make up stories, play imaginatively - is fundamental to children’s healthy development.

From TV to toys, playgrounds to apps, designers are helping form children’s experiences and the way they understand and interact with the world - both now and in the future.

Recent advances in brain imaging - summarised in Save the Children UK’s Lighting Up Young Brains report - indicate that between birth and age two a child’s brain develops incredibly fast, before becoming more efficient and complex between age three and five.

These earliest years have a profound effect on the way someone will think for the rest of their lives - but crucially, “it’s not only a child’s genes that determine his or her brain development during this period. The experiences and environments… are also critical.”

Designer Gabriella Marcella sitting with three children, assembling structures from wooden toy blocks
Designer Gabriella Marcella, whose 2019 exhibition Rules of Play featured unique wooden structures, inspired by the idea that play helps children understand the world.

A designer’s most demanding - and most important - client

So if young brains are developing at a fantastically and frighteningly rapid pace - with what they encounter now having a lifelong legacy - it stands to reason that those designing for children have a heavy responsibility; to ensure that they understand their tiny clients’ needs (at their many ages and stages) and the impact that their products have.

From TV to toys, playgrounds to apps, designers are helping form children’s experiences and the way they understand and interact with the world - both now and in the future.

The characters Great Big Hoo, Toodleoo, Chickedy and Chick from pre-school programme Twirlywoos
The characters from Twirlywoos, developed with input from an infant development specialist - image credit Ragdoll Productions/CBeebies

What makes good design for an infant or child brain may not be immediately apparent to adult eyes. Although widely branded nonsensical rubbish at the time, Teletubbies represented a radical departure in the design of children’s TV when it launched in the 1990s, and quickly became a runaway success. From colour-schemes to proto-language to repetition and movement, creators Ragdoll Productions designed every element with a deep understanding of their audience’s needs – combined with extensive user-testing. For subsequent pre-school hit Twirlywoos the show’s creators sought to build on their instinctive knowledge with evidence, turning to Professor of Early Childhood Education at the University of Sheffield, Cathy Nutbrown, a leading expert on infant learning and schemas.

So great things can happen when design and academia collide, with children at the centre. Why doesn’t it happen more?

A child-centred design approach

In her essay Exploring a Child-Centred Design Approach, Karen Feder of Denmark’s Designskolen Kolding, identifies as a barrier the ‘inaccessible knowledge’ held in academia, resulting in an all-too-common lack of collaboration between sectors -

‘Academic research in the area of designing play for children is extensive and growing; the challenge is… the ability of industry to identify and locate the relevant knowledge’ - this, Feder argues, ‘leads to ‘an entire industry without access to the knowledge relevant for them to support their production of high-quality products and experiences for children.’

A young boy playing with coloured geometric shapes
Putting children at the heart of the design process - and testing extensively with them - can lead to better solutions

It’s a challenge that Designing for Children’s Rights seek to tackle through bringing together a wide spectrum of expertise. The global non-profit group includes designers, psychologists, neuroscientists, health care specialists, educators and children’s rights experts.

Together they have created an evolving set of guidelines - which aim to ‘refine a new standard for both design and business to direct the development towards products and services that have ethics and children’s best interests at their core.’

We aim to both positively impact the practice of designers themselves and the work they create with and for families.

Tracey Smith, Young People and Families Producer

Getting it right - designing with and for children

At V&A Dundee, the Learning programme connects families with practicing designers, via workshops, talks, demos and resources. "This approach widens access to creative experiences," explains Young People and Families Producer Tracey Smith, "but we also aim to both positively impact the practice of designers themselves and the work they create with and for families."

The Toy Testers workshop series offers a chance for under-5s and their grown-ups to get hands-on with developing designs - and allows designers to observe first-hand products being used in play, and to build co-design into their practice.

Great things can happen when design and academia collide, with children at the centre. Why doesn’t it happen more?

One example of a successful union of academic knowledge and a child-centred design approach is Edinburgh-based Skoog, who develop music-based assistive technology.

The company grew from a University research project, aiming to address the fact that no musical instruments existed that were specifically designed for children with physical or learning disabilities.

"Skoog is grounded in participatory design," explains co-founder Ben Schogler. "The original NESTA project that gave birth to Skoog focused on working with schools, teachers, music teachers, music therapists, physiotherapists, parents, carers - and most importantly the children themselves."

To get their products right, the Skoog designers needed to understand children's requirements and abilities, and include them at every stage of the development process. "This dialogue with end users" says Ben "enabled us to build new features and functionality that were a direct response to their needs, as well as developing a range of resources to support products effectively."

Even the name was a result of this process; "the kids said 'that’s the one', and Skoog has been Skoog ever since!"

Two young children wearing headphones test music boxes, whilst a designer chats to them
Young participants put Skoog music products through their paces at a V&A Dundee Toy Testers workshop

Working together to prioritise children

In recent years, Dundee has become a hub for cross-discipline innovation, with a host of projects putting children and families at the heart of design-led activities.

Kindred Clothing, run by Dundee charity Front Lounge, is a programme specifically for young parents - crucially with childcare an integrated part of the project - that teaches key skills in garment production and fashion photography. Their many projects have included a dress displayed in the museum.

National charity Teapot Trust uses art therapy and creative interventions to help children with chronic and long-term conditions explore and express their feelings; it works regularly at Ninewells hospital, and last year partnered with V&A Dundee on a Christmas tree decoration design project.

Meanwhile, Art at the Start, embedded within DCA, explores the impact of engaging with the arts on infant’s well-being, development and attachment relationships.

Designing for life

Meanwhile, now in the hands of thousands of children - and on the way to may more - the Design Busters book is both a product that has been designed with their needs at the forefront, and one that enables their creativity.

How do you achieve that? "Listening to and valuing children and families as collaborators," is most important, says Tracey Smith, "ensuring they’re at the heart of the design process."

Design can enrich everyone’s lives - but when the opportunities start early, the benefits can last a lifetime.

Main image credit - Erika Stevenson