Combining my uncommon perspective of being both a user and a designer with my research and experiments has led me to create commercial products to help people cope with the symptoms of common mental illnesses. Through my chosen study of industrial design, I am now able to address stigmas. I want to avoid sterility and medicalization in my designs in order to avoid the association of mental illness with sickness and sadness. Instead, I'm focusing on the integration and celebration of these products into daily use.
Light Therapy has been shown to be effective in treating some facing Seasonal Affective Disorder, chronic depression and other mood disorders (Rabin, Roni Caryn, "Light Therapy for Depression"). Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD, is a type of depression that normally begins in the fall and continues into the winter because of a decrease in exposure to sunlight. SAD lamps and light therapy boxes are used as a way to give off bright artificial light that mimics natural outdoor light.
Even though light therapy is effective in relieving symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder and other mood disorders, SAD lamps are not engaging or comforting. They tend to be boxy-looking, medical, and sterile. Because the one I own is not a beautiful object, I tend to hide it when I am not using it so visitors don't see it. It becomes a product associated with shame. In order to be effective, the user must sit about 16 to 24 inches from the light box for about 20 minutes. It's easy to become disinterested or bored during that time. Why shouldn't this daily routine be an enjoyable experience that the user looks forward to everyday instead of being a 20 minute task the user must complete?
Most recent prototype
Prototype on display at Rebecca's final Thesis Exhibition
Foam shape explorations
User testing and research
User testing and research
User testing and research
Wooden prototype for vacuum forming
Vacuum forming a prototype
Early prototype of light therapy pillow
Interviewing Dr. Ali Mattu, cognitive behavioral therapist at Columbia University
My design objective was to create a SAD lamp that is interactive and comforting, while still being effective as light therapy. I drew inspiration from comfort objects or transitional objects, because my second experiment showed that people are drawn to cozy and comfy environments and products. I've found from interviews that people are more drawn to objects that feel warm, soft, squeezable and cuddly. I tested different shapes and materials to see which ones would encourage touching, squeezing and hugging. I was inspired by the characters of "Barbapapa," a 1970 French-American children's picture book. Each character is a different amorphous blob shape. I user tested four different shapes made of upholstery foam. People were most drawn to the avocado-like shape, but suggested to make the pillow thicker than the 4 inch thick upholstery foam and to scale up the size. Based upon that feedback, I created a prototype focused on the final form and function of the light.
I was faced with the challenge of finding a material that could be translucent and soft at the same time. Balloons and inflatables came to mind as an option. I experimented with LED inflatable beach balls covered in a soft, translucent fabric cover. I have been working with Jet Creations Inc., a custom inflatables company based in Virginia, on the most current prototype. The inflatable pillow has a sleeve in the center to allow for placement of the rechargeable LED lights. I imagine the user waking up in the morning to a glowing pillow in their arms or resting in their bed. I want to continue to iterate on this design after my thesis. For example, I would like to incorporate an alarm clock into the pillow to wake the user at the same time every day in order to reset the user's circadian rhythm. Regular sleep schedules are very important to avoid exacerbation of certain mental illnesses and create stability. I would like to prototype haptics that make the pillow react back to the user, therein making it less passive. My vision is for the user to stimulate the brightness of the light using hugs and squeezing. This digital to physical interface will make the product more interactive.
Most designers think that they can solve problems with products they design, but mental illness is not a problem to be solved; design cannot fix people when complex biological, chemical and intimately personal factors are involved. If anything, most current design risks amplifying the existing social constructs of stigmatization, discrimination and oppression that face people with mental illness.
I hope the products I design will create a wider cultural sense of what mental illness is; a common problem that afflicts 1 in 5 people in the United States. According to recent statistics from the National Institute of Mental Health, that is 46,600,000 people in 2017 alone in the United States. A greater awareness of mental health in the general population is essential to help those with mental illness. How can designers help a group without understanding them?
In my thesis, I focused on the most common mental illnesses; anxiety disorders (generalized anxiety disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, and panic disorder) and mood disorders (depression, bipolar disorder, and seasonal depression). There are very few products that exist to help people with either anxiety or mood disorders cope with their symptoms. The products that do exist are sterile and medicalized. I'm not only creating products, but I am creating a methodology of design to cope with mental health. People with mental illness do not have to be fixed or solved. We just want to be understood and recognized.