As part of my investigative research I explored the notion that ‘design is fundamentally about people’ (Gill Wildman, 2007). To explore this notion in more detail I undertook a number of experiments; some lengthy and structured, others short and unstructured. To capture my insights I used both photography and videos as documentation tools.

Research:

  1. Aberdeen: Drawing Elderly Memories
  2. Edinburgh: Red Balloons
  3. St. Andrews: Experience Prototyping: “Free Typing Service”
  4. Cultural Probes
  5. Typewriting Emails
  6. Collecting Inspiration
  7. The Envelope Project
  8. Research Evaluation

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1. Aberdeen: Drawing Elderly Memories

To explore what the traditional postal service and other communication methods were/are like for the older generation I took a trip to Aberdeen in November 2007 and met a group of seven 60-70 year old ladies. Welcomed into their home, I carried out research methods of extreme user interviews, rapid ethnography, historical analysis, drawing the experience, character profiles and social network mapping.

During the afternoon, the ladies showed me many letters, telegrams and postcards they had brought along and over tea and cakes relayed their memories and opinions of post offices, letter writing, mobile phones and even chewing gum!

The session was wonderfully insightful and enabled me to better understand traditional communication methods and also to empathise with the ways they saw new technological devices.

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Drawing Memories.

On a return trip to Aberdeen I met with the ladies again to have one-to-one discussions with each of them and ask them to put pen to paper. The physical act of drawing remembered objects sparked conversations about posting letters, handwriting, pens and pencils.

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2. Edinburgh: Red Balloons

In September 2007, I took a trip to Edinburgh’s Princes Park and to encourage traditional communication between the public, I handed out a number of red balloons to people I met, asking them to tie them to their favourite thing.

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3. Experience Prototyping.
With an aim to immerse myself and members of the public into my project, I set up a ‘free-typing service’ on a blustery day in St. Andrews. Prior to the day the service was advertised digitally online, and physically on notes pinned up in the surrounding area.

I situated myself next to a post box to improve the likelihood of participants posting their letters off there and then. I provided stamped envelopes and examples of previously written letters to encourage participation and inside each posted letter was a stamped postcard, asking the receiver to post feedback.

It was a great success and I had a wonderful feeling being the messenger between friends and families (one lady even asked me to type a letter to her cat). It is significant to note that I attracted the attention of more elderly people than youngsters.

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4. Cultural Probes.

Cultural probes were designed to give me an insight into various individual lifestyles, thoughts and opinions. I strived to enrich the participants relationship with both the postal service and the human word by creating packs made from brown parcel paper, string, nib and ink, and a typewriter.

“A beautiful and well thought out parcel” (Rory Hamilton. Livework).

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Participants were selected carefully in order to encompass different age groups, backgrounds and cultures. By sending the probes to countries such as America and Norway has enabled me to gain a first hand insight into the aesthetics of their own postal systems. Furthermore, the fact the participants posted them back to me heightened my enthusiasm for ‘Douceurs’ every time I arrived home to find a parcel waiting for me.

An introduction to the pack was presented in the form of a scroll, written using nib and ink, and sealed with sealant wax. This let the participant know the title of my project and understand the invaluable impact their contribution may have on my thinking and research.

A list of statements followed such as ‘I have written a love letter…’ and ‘I have snapped a pencil in half…’, which the participant was to ask to indicated if true. The introduction letter also wished the individual luck. Based on the tradition of writing and reading by candle light, a tiny light bulb was also part of the package, providing a source of light to enhance the participants thinking.

Each letter was personally addressed and included a small hand-made book, created using old writing paper and a typewriter. A stamped addressed post card was also included; wishing the user many happy returns of the day and asking them to describe their most vivid memory of writing.

The results were interesting, and the feedback both positive and enlightening. Initial reactions voiced the pleasure of receiving such a personal hand made package. The participants were asked to take photographs for their books, in such a way that the titles told a story, about their nearest postbox, things that come through their letter box, the last text they sent, their front door, where they keep letters, their diary, their calendar, their use of post-its and where they keep their secrets. The following images are an example of results obtained. All results can be viewed in full here on the project blog.

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5. Typewriting Emails.

From the beginning of the Douceurs project I made a decision to use a typewriter for composing emails. This made me truly think about what I was writing as my mistakes were visible and the noise and action of the typewriter made me more conscious of what my emails said.

Composing emails in this manner is time consuming and has changed the way I myself use email communication, resulting in more detailed and expressive content. Receivers all highlighted how they felt the emails were much more personal. This was enhanced by the unique quality of each printed character, therefore my mood could be determined, as the reader knows how quick or slow I am typing, for example. A letter composed by a typewriter records all errors and syntax …I have literally become a typist which has led me to being more attentive to my use of language, and as an intuitive response to the medium I found myself avoiding slang and abbreviations. It was interesting to see how quickly people responded to these emails, compared to response to the mundane and bland electronic emails we all receive every day. Below is my first ever typed email; a letter to my mum.

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6. Collecting Inspiration.

Collecting data and sources have been a strong guide and source of inspiration from the outset of ‘Douceurs’. The images gathered have such charm and depth, folded and refolded, and passed through generations. The gathering of such findings also resulted in opportunities to experience first hand the emotions and stories that photographs and hand-writing provokes. This in itself highlights the reality that society does not print photographs anymore, we do not write memories and sayings on the reverse side for the next viewer to see. What a delight to rummage through an old trunk brimming with memories.

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7. The Envelope Project

From the beginning of my research, I committed myself to posting a self addressed envelope everyday for 6 months. In doing this I set out the following rules for myself:

  • All envelopes must contain something and feature something on the inside.
  • There are no restrictions.
  • The daily envelope must be completed and posted before midnight.
  • All days missed must be documented.
  • The envelopes must be delivered personally.
  • They can be posted at any postbox in any town.
  • All envelopes must be dated.
  • The project will be recorded in a sketchbook.
  • Do not open envelope until project is over.

With underlying themes of obsession, repetition,time and post, this experiment hugely assisted the development of ‘Douceurs’. Receiving a letter everyday was a happy experience and enabled me to closely analyse my own relationship with post boxes and the post man, all whilst keeping my thoughts focused on the project everyday.

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8. Research Thoughts

Bringing all of the above research experiments together is imperative to create conclusions and move on. I believe that our present day methods of communication truly lack the historical and romantic values of previous decades. Talking to people, and having conversations about the essence of ‘Douceurs’ has been a fundamental tool in truly understanding peoples perceptions and views of the postal service.

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