Lucy and I were talking about our process the other day and how we usually present our work in our portfolio when it’s all shiny and polished. We thought it would be interesting to share the ‘behind the scenes’ story of each project. Every project is so unique, with it’s own challenges, discoveries and triumphs, it only seems right to shed light on how we got to the finished result.
So we start here with our first project of the year. Well, 2016 certainly got off to a speedy start for Creative Data. Having been commissioned by Bristol Health Partners just before Christmas to create a public engagement exhibition for them by the 18th of January, we had to get ourselves off the starting blocks pretty smartish.
The Design Brief
Bristol Health Partners is a strategic collaboration between the city’s three NHS trusts, three clinical commissioning groups, two universities and its local authority. They describe their mission as improving “the health of those who live in and around Bristol and to improve the delivery of the services on which they rely, and to act as a mechanism for change in our health and care community and our city region.”
They have identified ‘using data better’ as one of their priorities and wanted to create a public conversation about the topic. That’s where Creative Data came in. We designed a participatory exhibition that encourages people to share their everyday experiences and by doing so reveal new challenges and opportunities that can help improve quality of life in Bristol.
This was a fast and furious project – we had two weeks to design and produce the materials for the exhibition, £1000 to spend on materials, and just one day to install it. Well, it ended up being about 3 days in the end, but more on that later.
Firstly though, it’s always great to have creative constraints on a project, whether it’s time, budget, space or, in this case, all three. These boundaries force you to focus and make design decisions in the knowledge that there are limitations. The downside of course is that there is no time to test or prototype, which can lead to difficulties when doing something new.
Our venue for this exhibition is the Engine Shed near Bristol’s Temple Meads station. Situated in Brunel‘s original station building this amazing space is now home to innovative enterprise in the city, with a co-working space for start-up businesses. They say their mission is “to stimulate long term economic growth by supporting business, inspiring young people to get involved and to showcase to the public and potential inward investors the exciting opportunities that exist here.”
It’s a great space to work in, with its historical stone facade contrasting with the newly refurbished, sleek, contemporary interiors. The first challenge the site presented was that it’s not a public thoroughfare, which means we needed tempt people passing by in the street. We decided that we had to start the exhibition outside the building to grab attention. We wanted to take people on a journey both through the narrative of the subject and through the space.
Lucy and I knew that we wanted to play around with the idea of a ‘data trail’ as a way to connect people with the invisible stream of data we’re creating all day everyday with our smart phones and digital devices.
We came up with the idea of creating a physical trail that people could interact with, adding their own stories and experiences. While data can often seem rather black and white, it is the small actions of everyday life that add colour and meaning. With that idea in mind, we decided to invite visitors to share their data/experiences to ‘colour’ a monochrome trail.
We decided to divide the trail into different thematic sections each reflecting on an area of everyday life that connected to an aspect of health and wellbeing. We designed a series of colourful icons that could be used to answer questions about experiences associated with each of the themes.
In each sections visitors would be able to contribute by hanging a colourful icon, from boxes around the skeleton structure, to the data line. They would also be able to add more detail by writing on the icons before they hung them on the line.
After getting the go-ahead on the designs we moved into full production mode.
First thing’s first though. To create this journey through data and healthcare, with only one day for installation, we needed help. Thankfully we got it in the form of three amazing local volunteers – Eduardo (above), Lucy and Chloe. We couldn’t have asked for more enthusiastic people.
They showed up with big smiles and were ready to do what was needed. There is not enough gratitude in the world for people who just get stuck in to help on a very tight deadline. Lucy and I could not have done it without them. John Kellas was also very generous with his time, helping out whenever he could.
Above, you can see Eduardo getting the frames for the exhibition text ready. One of the things about doing an installation in two weeks is that you need to use ‘ready mades’ wherever possible. That’s where Ikea comes in handy, a lot of the time.
To create our physical ‘data trail’ we used Ikea coat stands, paving stones as weights, an awful lot of rope and Lucy’s amazing structural engineering talents. The trail starts outside the building, miraculously passes through a window, winds up the stairs and ends up zig zagging through the building’s foyer.
The laser cutting
To symbolise the themes of everyday life we wanted visitors to consider we chose visual icons that represented each theme – Mobility, Work, Food, Leisure, Sleep. Again, to save time we used ready-mades – buying vector drawn symbols from Shutterstock. My idea was to have these icons laser cut in card so we could hang them on our data trail.
Pre-bought icons and outsourcing the laser cutting seemed like the way forward. And it was, mostly. I just hadn’t factored in quite how long it would take to layout 120 icons on five different sheets and draw cutting lines around them all. Well, now I know. It takes a long time!
The best thing about this part of the story is that we met Neil from Bristol Design Forge. Laser cutting isn’t the cheapest production technique, and we needed 600 icons cutting in 5 different colours. Thankfully, in return for featuring the Forge within the exhibition, Neil agreed to sponsor some of the cost of the laser cutting.
This really saved the day and we are so so happy with the final results. Above, you can see John and Lucy sorting out the icons into their themes before they go up on the line. Below, you can see what they had to sort through and the gorgeous work that Neil did on the different colours.
Thankfully, due to our simple design structure and to our brilliant volunteers, we did get the main structure up in the space in one day. However there were a few crucial details that needed more time. Laying out text for an exhibition is a time consuming business and, in fact, oddly enough it takes even longer to write something as concisely as possible.
One of my criticisms of our work in this exhibition is that there’s probably too much text, which can be off putting to visitors wanting to participate. On this point I refer you to the French philosopher Blaise Pascal, who once wrote, wittily and accurately, at the end of a letter “I have made this longer than usual because I have not had time to make it shorter.”
We put up the exhibition on Friday 15th, the text posters were printed by the very helpful Hobs Reprographics on Monday 18th and put up in the space the same day. The weekend in between was spent madly typing and editing.
At the end of the day on Friday 15th, Lucy and I decided that our genius plan of weighting down the coat stands with round paving stones was only partially working. We realised that if by chance someone stumbled and fell on the line, the whole thing might come tumbling down. Not good!
Lorraine from Engine Shed very kindly offered up her Saturday morning to allow us to come back into the space and create a reinforcing superstructure that attached the whole ‘data trail’ to the building’s interior structure. After that we felt much happier with our creation.
Here’s Lucy, very elegantly hanging up some of the icons on the line outside. This was before the wind and the rain got to them. Yes, in our rush to get it all done on time, it can definitely be said that we hadn’t fully considered the effects of the winter weather on the outside section of the installation.
I had a plan, which, of course, I thought rather ingenious. I would waterproof all the icons outside with a clear spray lacquer. This, ingenious plan, I can tell you hear and now was not a success. Not at all. Not only was the spray lacquer extremely toxic, but it also didn’t do much waterproofing I’m afraid to say.
After the first weekend we could already see the cardboard suffering from exposure to wind and rain and the structure was being battered. So we resorted to plastic laminating. This was a previously abandoned solution, for aesthetic reasons, but needs must and thankfully the Engine Shed was able to lend us their laminator. John Kellas bravely accepted the challenge of laminating all 120 icons for the Mobility section, and we are enomously grateful to him for doing that.
Here’s a photo of what it looked like before the lamination process begun. I love this pic of the train icon hanging outside Brunel’s original railway station. Very poetic. I love it even more now because the train was lost to the wind after the first weekend. Sadness.
Printing on Tyvek
After another week in the elements, it was clear that the outside structure needed further TLC. Lucy and I popped down to Bristol earlier this week to make some crucial amendments. We secured the stands to the fence so they wouldn’t be blown over by the winds and we swapped the outdoor paper posters for new ones printed on Tyvek, which was suggested by Hobs Reprographics and suitable waterproof solution. We currently wait with baited breath to see if it works.
Another benefit of our return to Bristol this week was seeing how the participatory elements of our design are working. It was wonderful to see how the postcard had turned out. They are there so that visitors can make their recommendations to Bristol Health Partners about how to ‘use data better’ in Bristol healthcare. It was also a delight to see the colourful icons gradually going up on the line.
Each time someone adds an icon to the trail, they are contributing a piece of data to the overall story of health in this city. By sharing our everyday experiences we will reveal new challenges and opportunities that can help improve quality of life in Bristol.
I will leave you with this very cheerful yellow tree icon, which was put up by someone in the sleep & rest section of the trail. The exhibition continues in the Engine Shed until February 26th. Bristol Health Partners are hosting an event on February 22nd called: Health, data and the public good: Practical examples and planning for the future .
We encourage you to get involved!