V&A Dundee

Head space; designing clubs for mental wellbeing

Can club design promote better mental health? A series of workshops by Clubber2Clubber, in collaboration with artists Saskia Singer, Ruth Lonsdale and Linsey McIntosh, explored what club spaces could look like if they were designed with clubbers' wellbeing in mind.

Written by: Chester Cornford

After the music, it could be argued that design is the second most important tenet of club culture. From fashion to flyers, record art to club spaces themselves, design is everywhere. As we see in the Night Fever exhibition, design is subject to trends and developments responding to, and sometimes shaping, the music.

Good design is important to good health. Indeed, designers are involved more and more in the world of healthcare. When building and creating new homes, schools, hospitals, museums, good design is factored in to support and promote wellness. As designer Samantha Dempsey wrote for Scientific American, design “can craft experiences that function with humans, not in spite of them.” Designers have led the way in innovative responses to people’s wellbeing - from medical devices that help people to live in their own homes, to intuitive graphic design that encourages people to seek out mental health support.

Considering this, in collaboration with V&A Dundee, we began to think about how design in club culture can benefit wellbeing; and can the process of design engage people in club culture?

A group of workshop participants researching club culture at the Night Fever exhibition
Workshop participants explored themes of design and club culture before creating their own responses

Determining the impact of club culture

Club culture can have both a positive and negative impact on our wellbeing. Considering Hettler’s (1976) renown Six Dimensions of Wellness model, we can see how club culture can influence these areas. Hettler argued that by improving ourselves and our communities through these six areas, we can achieve wellness and help to reach our full potential. Deficits in these areas is damaging to our health and limits our achievements.

They are -

  • Our physical wellbeing – having healthy bodies, and nurturing them;
  • Our emotional wellbeing – being aware and accepting of our emotions;
  • Our occupational wellbeing – having meaningful activity to do, and the means to do it;
  • Our spiritual wellbeing – having purpose, our values and meanings in our existence (with or without organised religion);
  • Our intellectual wellbeing – engaging in activity that stimulates creativity and mental activity; and
  • Our social wellbeing – being part of a community, engaging with others, and giving something back to our communities.

Creativity, identity, euphoria

We realise the positive ways in which club culture can affect these aspects of wellbeing. The most obvious may be how club culture can facilitate social wellbeing, through social connectivity in the clubs themselves, and also via online interaction through forums, Facebook groups or radio chat-rooms (the NTS radio chat room is one such example, particularly as remote interaction replaced meeting face-to-face in lockdown ).

It can provide an outlet for musicians and DJs to graphic designers and performers, providing work, income, a platform and space to be creative. Many dedicate their lives to club culture, finding and building their identities within it. It be cathartic, providing joy, to the point of tearful euphoria (as my friend Adam - experiencing pure happiness at the hands of seminal Chicago house pioneer Larry Heard at Dimensions - can testify).

It can more generally provide us with entertainment and engagement, providing stimulation and happiness. You only need to attend a few parties in Scotland to see the pure hedonism that occurs in clubs to see the emotional impact.

Club culture is even expanding into the world of physical fitness - take Panorama Barre, a DJ and fitness instructor from Barrow-on-Furness, who has been merging mixing club records with exercise classes to create a “space for club-goers and tune-lovers to connect with their wellbeing and feel strong and confident in their bodies.”

A hand holds up a model of a club made of cardboard and polystyrene
What would a club, designed to meet an individual's wants and needs, look like?

The downsides - harm, risk and exclusion

But we also know that aspects of club culture can be detrimental to our wellbeing. We held a panel talk as Clubber2Clubber for Soma Skool, an industry event by Soma Records. We explored the pervasive presence of the alcohol industry in clubs, and how partying and overindulgence can have long lasting impacts on club-goers. Health researchers recognise this risk, and clubs are known to be places where people engage in health risk behaviours (Bordeau et al. 2017). Many clubbers, DJs and artists have also spoken out on the damage caused to their social circles, to their friendships and relationships, as substance use and partying took over their lives.

There can also be intentional harm perpetrated by individuals within club spaces - predominantly men; take the recent highlight on spiking in clubs - a longstanding problem.

While the majority of club users do not experience physical harm (Miller et al. 2015), many who enter nightclubs experience other forms of harm. The vast majority of these people are women, LGBTIQA+ people - trans people specifically - and black and ethnic minority people. Clubs reflect society, and racism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia are commonplace, at times institutionalised.

And while it can facilitate social connection, it can also be inaccessible for people for a variety of reasons, from disability to finances to the prevalence of alcohol. One individual messaged Clubber2Clubber to tell us about times they had been knocked back by clubs for being perceived to be drunk due to a neurological condition.

These experiences of harm and the detriment on well-being show that clubs are not always the safe haven for marginalised people they were intended to be.

Workshop participants stand in a row, showing the club models they have created
A range of local groups took part in workshops, from seasoned clubbers to those who had never experienced a club

Creating safer spaces and communities

There are many forward-thinking players and actors who challenge these issues. One organisation Clubber2Clubber have worked with is Crew, who lead the way on promoting harm reduction and therapy and help for people with club drug issues.

Recently, promoters have been organised more women only parties, an extension of clubs and club nights that centralise and prioritise the experience of women, LGBTQIA+ people and black and ethnic minorities. Some of the artists who have struggled with the impact clubbing has had on their life have also found salvation through mutual support and shared experiences, which gave them the courage to attend therapy and seek help.

Developing a new model - the workshops

From the New York City discos to industrial warehouses, evolving poster design to club fashions, we see how the design changes with - and due to - the music. But design can also shape and respond to the behaviours and demands of the consumer. How do we harness that?

Clubber2Clubber proposed the idea of model-making as a way to gain insight into the perspective of potential club users and how club design may respond to them, making spaces that positively impact their wellbeing. Our aim was two-fold, firstly to gain understanding of these perspectives; and secondly, to positively impact wellbeing directly by engaging with club culture - through creativity, group work, and discussion around the subject of club design.

Beginning with a tour of the Night Fever exhibition, participants from Scottish Refugee Council, Wellbeing Works, Dundee & Angus College, Dundee University Spectrum Society and LGBT Youth Scotland all took part in workshops. We set three questions to begin to think about club design - how would our club feel? What would we do in our club? And what design features might be important to achieve this?

A list of words on the theme of club culture, including 'glamorous', 'nurturing', 'repetition' and 'escape'.
Words generated in response to the theme of club culture

We developed a wordbank of ideas, and set off to make our models using a variety of materials. Throughout this, we discussed our shared and unique experiences of clubs. For some, it was a nostalgic and cathartic experience – detailing how clubs have changed over time. For others, it was new and fresh. Some had never been to clubs; they found them intimidating, or places that didn’t cater to what they liked. A common theme was safety. People wanted to feel safe, but many didn’t always. People valued the sense of escapism from clubs, but they also felt pressure – to dress a certain way, to get drunk.

There was a range of different focuses for activity across the clubs. While many stayed true to centralising dance music through intricate dancefloors and DJ booths, some focused on fostering connections with people - some through “flirting areas” for people to meet people for a “moonie” (a Dundonian word we heard for the first time for kissing on the dancefloor). Others developed spaces to eat and drink or to read and relax. These showed a development - or breakaway - from the focus of nightclubs as spaces for dance music.

Two people wearing facemasks taking part in a workshop to create club models
Hands with black nail varnish move paper and card on a table
Three people sit at a table creating cardboard models
A woman sticks colourful paper shapes on her club model
  • Participants explored how club culture made them feel before working on personalised designs

  • The designs reflected a wide variety of experiences and interests

  • Workshop participants came from a range of groups, including DUSA's Spectrum Society, Dundee and Angus College, Scottish Refugee Council and LGBT Youth Scotland

  • Common themes for the club designs included creativity, safety and social connection.

Overcoming barriers to club culture

During the discussions we debated whether design could solve all the issues - and we acknowledged that tackling some of the issues that made people not want to attend clubs could not be achieved through design alone. Some recalled how they had received advice from parents when they started clubbing – to watch their drinks, to make sure friends got home. Indeed, challenging issues around safety must involve challenging the perpetrators of harm as its focus – but it was invigorating to see how people who maybe felt unwelcomed and unsafe in clubs were able to articulate and design a space that would feel welcoming to them.

Certainly, club culture can learn from this creative process, and find new ways to engage and build relationships with people who it may not have reached before. In doing so, it can help to build club culture’s positive influence on the wellbeing of our communities.

A cardboard model of a club with a multicoloured dancefloor and suspended ceiling
A hand holding a blue, pink and white club model featuring different rooms
A multi-levelled club model with a black floor and red, yellow and green stripes
A club model featuring a red paper dancefloor with a mint plastic tunnel
  • Participants designed highly creative and personalised club spaces

  • Some club designs featured dedicated spaces for chilling out and socialising

  • Real and imagined club spaces informed the designs

  • The workshops were also an opportunity for participants to share ideas and discuss their different experiences of clubs

New perspectives and potential

Encouragingly, participants felt their perspective of clubs had changed. Some saw themselves as members of club culture, others did not. All valued the chance to be heard and to have their perspectives realised in a group setting through the process of model making. The opportunity to meet new people was relished, and the model making process was a catalyst for fuelling discussion about what club culture means to different people. Participants felt valued, more confident, met new people, and importantly, had fun.

As club culture grows, it permeates off the dancefloor - our workshops showed one such avenue in which the benefits of club culture can reach new people, positively impacting their wellbeing and supporting people to realise their potential.

A special thank you to Linsey McIntosh, Ruth Lonsdale, and Saskia Singer for facilitating the workshops and providing the creative knowhow, and to Peter at V&A Dundee for his knowledge and guidance, and for helping to put these workshops together.

References

Bourdeau, B., Miller, B. A., Voas, R. B., Johnson, M. B., & Byrnes, H. F. (2017). Social Drinking Groups and Risk Experience in Nightclubs: Latent Class Analysis. Health, risk & society, 19(5-6), 316–335. https://doi.org/10.1080/13698575.2017.1393048

Hettler, B. (1976). The Six Dimensions of Wellness, National Wellness Institute.

Miller, P., Droste, N., Martino, F., Palmer, D., Tindall, J., Gillham, K., & Wiggers, J. (2015). Illicit drug use and experience of harm in the night-time economy, Journal of Substance Use, 20:4, 274-281, DOI: 10.3109/14659891.2014.911974

Thornton, S. (1995). Club cultures: Music, Media, and Subcultural Capital. Cambridge: Polity Press.