Designing for Need, Not Form and Function

By Mangum, Cynthia | Human Ecology, Winter 2000 | Go to article overview

Designing for Need, Not Form and Function


Mangum, Cynthia, Human Ecology


Students in two classes--human behavior and interior design--collaborated to design and build learning and play areas for child care facilities. They based their designs on the developmental needs of preschool children. This approach to learning focuses on the process of design and its social relevance.

When children tram the cornell Nursery School entered the college's design workshop studio last fall, they were awe-struck by the colorful and inventive furniture and thought-provoking games and activities they found. Designed and constructed exclusively for young children by the students of Professors Paul Eshelman and Gary Evans, the learning and play activity centers transformed the studio into not only mini-playgrounds but also a real-world testing ground. As the children played, the students saw for themselves exactly what worked and what didn't in the designs they'd jointly researched, developed, and created during the semester.

The student project was the result of a collaboration between Eshelman and Evans, both faculty in the Department of Design and Environmental Analysis, that began in earnest five years ago. At that time they were approached by Shared Journeys, a New York City-based nonprofit organization dedicated to the care and needs of people suffering from Alzheimer's disease and those who care for them: The organization's founders, Joe Duggan and Eric Clay '81, sought Eshelman's and Evans' respective expertise in interior design and environmental psychology to help them realize their goal of building a residential facility where Alzheimer's patients and their caregivers could live together in an environment sensitive to their special needs. The professors had already been discussing the possibility of forging a teaching partnership, and now they had a purpose--a client with a specific need.

A client or someone in need of the knowledge students are learning is central to Evans' philosophy of education and to Eshelman's philosophy of design. Evans believes that students are more highly motivated to learn by intrinsic rather than extrinsic forces and that a client such as Shared Journeys can provide that intrinsic motivation. With years of design experience, Eshelman believes that design can and should be innovative rather than driven by production.

"Design has traditionally been based on technological advances in materials and in aesthetic exploration, through which designers explore different styles and forms," Eshelman says. "A more socially relevant type of design is based on innovation that grows out of gaining an understanding of users' needs and letting that understanding evolve into different forms that you never would have arrived at had you not paid attention to those needs."

Students in Evans' class Environmental and Social Behavior study issues of human behavior relative to the environment across the life span, and during the first year of the collaboration both they and students in Eshelman's design studio course researched Alzheimer's disease and the behaviors the disease generates in its victims. Evans' students served as the primary information gatherers, and they researched and prepared the developmental guidelines that Eshelman's students followed in developing their designs. As a team, they successfully created bathrooms, kitchens, and corridors tailored to the specific needs of people suffering from Alzheimer's.

After the first year's success, Shared Journeys continued their involvement with the Evans-Eshelman collaboration, but expanded their role from client to facilitator finding clients with a need and linking them with Eshelman and Evans and their students. Over the next three years the process of collaboration was refined and the roles of all involved more clearly defined.

Eshelman and Evans, recognizing that their students were not used to working in team environments, worked to foster team spirit in their classes and focus on the process of creation rather than on the product. …

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