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Design Update discusses child-centred design

    Design Update discusses child-centred approaches to design with Cristiana Caira of White Arkitekter and Seyhan Çiçekof VitrA’s Innovation Centre, focusing on healthcare and education environments and finding out how the VitrA Design Studio has developed a range specific to key stages of child development.

    Watch the interview here


    Design Update Cristiana, what is the current situation with child-centred approaches to design in Sweden?

    Cristiana Caira In January this year the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child became local Swedish law, and this is going to bring more focus to the needs and rights of children and young people. Children may have no voting rights but they represent a large part of our communities – in Sweden it can be 20 –30 per cent and in developing countries up to 50–60 per cent. Children are very much affected by the choices we designers make about how we plan our cities and schools, transportation and parks.

    DU Seyhan, how does that compare with Turkey?

    Seyhan ÇiçekAwareness of child-focused design has been increasing in Turkey in recent years, especially in educational and pre-school contexts as a result of changes in the educational landscape.

    When we’re designing with children in mind, of course there are some international standards that we apply but I would say that standards alone aren’t enough to ensure the most suitable design for children.

    DU The new VitrA Sento Kids range is aimed specifically at younger children transitioning into educational environments. What was the research process, and how does the collection address specific needs?

    SC We describe the collection as ‘better solutions for beginners’. It’s aimed at children in the three- to six-year-old ranges, as they start to attend nurseries and schools. It’s the age bracket where children are beginning to be away from their parents for longer periods during the day, and when they have to learn to manage their toilet needs by themselves.

    We knew we wanted to make the design colourful and attractive but when we started our research we realised there was very little existing data around the subject. So we went to kindergartens to engage with children, and we developed prototypes for the children to interact with – making it into a game. We observed how children of different ages and heights interacted with different designs, looking at things like whether they could place their feet fully on the floor because that’s really important for bowel movement. We observed that the children tended to hold one side of the pan because they want to feel safe. That’s when we decided to introduce grab handles into the design, and an extra colour-coded grip in the seat to make it easier and more hygienic to lift. It's really important for building self-confidence that children feel comfortable and safe when starting to use sanitaryware on their own.

    DU Cristiana, you’ve also recently completed a pioneering project – a hospital designed specifically around the needs of younger children and teenagers. Could you tell us about your project, and some of the research behind it?

    CC Yes, the project is the Queen Silvia Children’s Hospital in Gothenburg. It's a big hospital – 33,000m2 – and a centre of specialist care for children and young people. One of the most important design considerations was that this is a hospital building for children – and parents – in a high-stress situation. There is fear and uncertainty, and also physical pain involved. It was crucial to acknowledge how important the wellbeing of the parents is, because if they feel well and can sleep they can better support their children.

    Another design consideration was creating spaces for calmness and a home-like feeling, so that families and children can recover while feeling safe and relaxed. We created alternative settings where playfulness is encouraged, because that’s how children learn and playing also helps recovery. This has been translated into a balance of environments, with some calm spaces where we use daylight, greenery and natural materials, and some spaces that stimulate play with a lot of colour and artwork. Views of the forest just outside of the hospital also help to create a serene environment in specific areas, and we used a lot of wood in the hospital interiors – quite an innovation in a hospital environment.

    DU How did you engage some of the younger children during your consultation process?

    CC With children under two it’s really more about dialogue with the parents. But with children old enough to communicate in words we created dialogue around drawing and painting in response to questions like: ‘What is a dream hospital for you?’ and ‘How would you like this new hospital to look?’ Drawings say so much more about the child’s perspective than a normal interview because children have the ability, when they draw, to really focus on detail and the things that are important to them.

    DU From what both of you have said, colour is an important aspect in designing for children. Seyhan, how did you approach the issue of colour in the design of Sento Kids?

    SC We used strong colour contrasts to attract the attention of children, with colourful pedestals, taps and toilet seats. But for the elements with direct water contact like washbasins and toilets we used white for a cleaner and more hygienic appearance – a sort of colour coding that relates to the way children interact with the products. We also intentionally didn’t use colour as a gender differentiator. That was important to us.

    DU Cristiana, how did you approach colour at Queen Silvia Children's Hospital?

    CC In the indoor environment, we don't use colour everywhere but in specific spaces such as dayroom areas for playful activity. There are play spaces throughout the building, so the children know ‘this is a place where I can move around, move furniture, express myself and play’. When it came to the choice of colours it was interesting to discover that the children we interviewed in our workshops, of all ages, were actually focused on pastel colours that reminded them of flowers and nature, the sky and insects. So we used a broad range of pastel shades that are quite natural.

    As well as using colour as a signal for playfulness we used it in wayfinding, with a dominant colour for each floor and specialised unit so that even children who don't yet read can find their way. We also used artworks to help with orientation, even for small children. So the use of colour isn’t just about playfulness, but also function and wayfinding and feeling at home in the environment.

    DU I also wanted to ask you about education environments for children, and about White Arkitekter’s thinking on school design in relation to the new Swedish legislative context of child-friendly design…

    CC What the legislation highlights is that children learn and interact in different ways – they are individuals. So the best and most sustainable school layout is one that meets the different needs of children in a combination of types and sizes of room. In this way children can learn in the way best for them as individuals, with some children in a variety of smaller group settings while children who work better in larger groups can have access to that type of learning. The most child-friendly school design is based on a mixture of different and varied spaces, and that principle also applies to the outdoor environment.

    DU Finally, what impact do you think Covid-19 will have on design?

    SC The importance of personal and environmental hygiene has certainly been highlighted, especially the importance of careful hand washing. Maybe soon we’ll see hand hygiene stations appearing in the streets and in the entrances of buildings.

    I also think that smart technologies and touchless products will become more widespread, especially in public areas. I think the concept of wellness will gain importance all over the world – as we all know, the impact of coronavirus isn’t limited to physical harm, but is related to our feelings. As designers, I think we’ll need to touch the feelings of users much more after this.

    DU And Cristiana?

    CC When it comes to design, as Seyhan says, there will be more attention to hygiene – and on the way we plan buildings and cities and design products in relation to that. But the most important reflection I have is about the importance of child-focused spaces. If we had planned more child-friendly schools in the first place, I think many more children would have been able to go to school during Covid.

    When it comes to urban settings, we’ve seen the value of access to green areas close to our houses and apartments, and how important it is to be able to cycle instead of using crowded buses or metros. So sustainable transportation and outdoor spaces in high-density urban settings will be key.

    Cristiana Caira is a Partner at White Arkitekter in Gothenburg, Sweden and Professor of Design for Health at Chalmers University of Technology. Seyhan Çiçek is Senior R&D Engineer (Ergonomics and User Research) at VitrA’s Innovation Centre in Bozüyük, Turkey.

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