Inhabiting the Transition Space

We recently ran a project with the 2nd year BA (Hons) Spatial Design at the London College of Communication (University of the Arts London) where, in collaboration with South West Trains in Wimbledon station, students were asked to re-examine the way people inhabit a transition space.

As part of the project, students were introduced to research methods instigated by the Course leader, Valerie Mace. Valerie developed methods and techniques that facilitate the documentation of atmospheric qualities in spaces, the intangible world of sensory perceptions and subjective experiences. The objective was to enable designers to conduct sensory driven transformation into a wide range of spaces. The original research project was published in a paper called ‘Sensing the Urban Interior’ and presented at the [in]arch conference at Universitas Indonesia in Depok (Jakarta) in 2014.

This project started with a question:
How can we regenerate spaces by manipulating their atmospheric qualities?


The project explored the sensory relationships between the intimate space of the body and the interior of a transition space, the ubiquitous train station. Every morning, Monday to Friday, our cities experience an influx of people commuting towards their center to work and reversing their journey to go back home in the evening. This creates a social phenomenon whereby the experience many people have of the city’s urban interiors is transient. This experience is also impersonal as the design of the spaces that facilitate this daily commute is often constrained to performing specific functions such as moving people from A to B, with limited opportunities for people to interact with their surroundings and even less so with each other. So the train station is an interior commuters experience and inhabit on a daily basis yet very little of the design takes into account the way the space affects people, either psychologically or emotionally. Therefore, the objective of the project was to understand how these environments impact on people’s everyday life by exploring and identifying the processes in which sensory experiences are managed and controlled, in order to develop a human centred phenomenological approach to the design process and in doing so, offer innovative solutions that will alter the way people perceive, experience and inhabit these interiors.

So the project invited students to rethink the relationship between body and space in the context of a transition space, provide sensory driven transformations that alter the atmospheric qualities of the interior in a positive way and create a sense of place, thus making the experience of individual and collective journeys a more enjoyable one.

The brief
We used Wimbledon train station as the project site. Students were divided in small study groups and assigned to a specific schedule of visits agreed by the station management. Upon arrival, students met with staff to be briefed on health and safety requirements. Wimbledon station is a small but essential commuting zone in South-West London, with trains to Clapham Junction, Waterloo and London Bridge. It also offers direct access to the London Underground District Line. The interior of the station is designed for a very specific purpose, that of moving between platforms and entry/exit points, waiting for and boarding trains. The singularity of the interior means that people experience enforced boredom and are made to wait for trains in environmentally uncomfortable conditions. Spaces selected for the project are the main ticket hall and platform 9.


The task was to redesign the space or elements of the space (an intervention) to change and enhance people’s perceptions and experience of the station and of commuting, without obstructing the interior’s primary function and the constrains associated with safety and security within the station’s interior and platforms. For example, staff needs to retain total visibility from one end of the platform to the other and at peak times, the station accommodates a large volume of people moving in different directions. Students also needed to observe South West Trains branding requirements, such as their colour range.

As part of this project students were required to document existing spatial atmospheric conditions within the station in order to establish a set of desired spatial atmospheric conditions that will become the basis for a sensory design intervention. By using the site for primary research, they were able to explore ways to make people feel more positive about their experience and provide opportunities for them to engage with their surroundings. They could, for example, choose to soften the experience through a series of subtle changes, address the issue of waiting and the negative affect of delays, or aim to provide a friendlier environment. Whichever their approach, they needed to keep people moving at all times (no bottlenecks or overcrowding in any single area) and observe safety issues. In other words, this wasn’t a decorating exercise and students needed to provide a solution that considers all aspects of the site.


The project was structured into 4 stages:

Stage 1: Discover – Students were required to use phenomenological led design research methods to reveal existing spatial atmospheric conditions through the documentation of the interior architecture, materials and their relationships, actual and perceived temperature, objects, movement and time, thresholds and transitions, scale and distances in relation to the body, the light and corresponding shadows.

Stage 2: Define – Students were required to map, analyse and visualise existing spatial atmospheric conditions to understand how the design of the space affects people within it. Then they were able to propose a set of desired spatial atmospheric conditions that formed the basis of the development of design solutions.

Stage 3: Develop – Students generated design proposals using their research, analysis and initial design developments. They visualised and communicated their design proposals through drawings, prototypes and storyboards. They were encouraged to develop their own interpretation of what the design intervention could be although they were required to integrate at least one sensory attribute within its design that wasn’t visual. So the design would be something people can sense and experience in more ways than by just looking at it. It could also be in one place or made of a series of related elements across the site. The proposed design needed to alter the way people feel about being in the station and provide opportunities for alternative behavioural and emotional situations.

Stage 4: Deliver – Students were required to fully map, visualise and realise their design proposal for the project. As well as mapping drawings and diagrams depicting the changes in spatial atmospheric conditions, they needed to demonstrate the positive effect of the changes on behaviour and emotions, and evaluate how their design created a sense of place.


At the end of this stage students showcased their work to a review panel while some of the presentations were filmed and included in a short film of the project.

Why do we need primary research in spatial design?

Primary research is a process of documenting and understanding spaces, people and situations from their original source and through personal experiences. Unlike secondary research, which uses other people’s research found in books, magazines and websites as supporting evidence, primary research is about being there and experiencing the space and its occupants for yourself. It’s about immersing yourself in its atmosphere, observing how people behave and interact, finding out about how they feel, learning about the complexity and idiosyncrasies of the environment.

Various methods are available. They are carefully selected depending on the focus of the documentation and the purpose of the design. Irrespective of the method however, it is important for the designer to develop the ability ask questions: who? what? when? why? and how? So when conducting primary research, the designer becomes a curious investigator, looking for clues on site, documenting the space, mapping its environment, listening to people, making connections and noticing things that others would overlook.

Sketch by Natalia Ivanova, BA Spatial Design student year 1 

Techniques vary depending on the focus of the investigation. On the BA Spatial Design, students are first introduced to primary research techniques through a series of workshops. One of them encourages students to consider place making and identity through the study of London riverscape and cityscape. In order to do this, we take them on a boat trip, from Embankment to Greenwich, and ask them to identify and capture the uniqueness of the urban landscape and the elements that imbue the cityscape with a distinctive sense of place. The objective is to capture these characteristics through a series of drawings while travelling form East to West and back.

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Sketches by BA Spatial Design students year 1

Another workshop requires students to consider the different types of users in Spitalfield market, record and reflect on people’s movement, levels of interaction within the space. We also take students to the South Bank and ask them to consider the interior of the Royal Festival Hall as a curated spatial environment and, using drawings and mapping techniques, explore and documents this multi-layered and multi-experiential interior and its organisation.

Sketches by BA Spatial Design students year 1

Developing a sound knowledge of a space and its characteristics is important but insufficient on its own because spaces are designed for and used by people. Therefore, students are also introduced to interview and survey techniques as a mean to find useful and relevant information directly from the people who are using the space. Beyond the survey, we also borrow from other disciplines such as service design, a practice that focusses on designing for people and often also with people. So, as part of their primary research, students are introduced to co-design techniques such as storytelling and character profile.

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Sketchbook by Natalia Ivanova, BA Spatial Design student year 1 

Another important aspect of primary research taught on the course are techniques used to document, capture even, the more elusive attributes of space, its atmosphere and our sensory perceptions. Atmosphere is intangible and our perceptions are often subjective yet they are essential components of space. The atmosphere of a space affects the way we feel and consequently, our emotions and sense of belonging. In order to construct atmosphere and manipulate sensory perceptions, it is important to understand them and so, to develop the ability to document them.

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Sketches from various BA Spatial Design students year 1

Students on the BA Spatial Design are taught a rich palette of methods and tools that enable them to fully immerse themselves in the environment they are designing in, understand the context they are working with, connect with the people they are designing for and develop a sustainable and inclusive approach to spatial design. No matter what kind of space they are designing, effective primary research enables spatial designers to create positive and meaningful experiences for people, foster a sense of belonging, human attachment and scenarios that will enable occupants to imbue the space with meaning. The way spaces are designed affect the way we interact, behave, work, play, learn; the way we feel, the way we live and even our health. As Iain Borden, Professor of Architecture and Urban Culture at the Bartlett School of Architecture, University College London, underlined at the 2011 Royal Academy Forum “Spaces of Memory”, “we make space and space makes us” (Bartlett UCL, 2011, 1:15 [Video file]) and so it is essential for students of spatial design to develop into perceptive, mindful and thoughtful designers, and this is why primary research is so important.

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 Primary research intervention by Kajsa Lilja, BA Spatial Design year 1 student

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Primary research intervention by Wenjing Luo, BA Spatial Design year 1 student

Silvia speaking at Narrative in Practice 2013: Creative Symposium

Silvia Grimaldi wioll be Speaking at

Narrative in Practice 2013: Creative Symposium
2 November – 9.00 to 5.30
St Luke’s Community Centre, 90 Central Street, London, EC1V 8AJ

Narrative quote:

“Narrative plays a central role in the way we interpret and communicate our experience of the world and our interactions with it. Narratives help us organise events and make sense of time, empathise with others and move us on an emotional level. Because of this, using an object is not only an experience, it is an interaction and it is narrative in nature.”


About the talk:

I met Narrative through Surprise. I was working on a project for my master’s thesis, looking at how surprise could be used within product design on a level that went deeper than novelty, to create interesting or meaningful experiences through the objects. While working on the project and writing about it after I realised that creating surprises within the user’s experience of the object inherently creates a temporal aspect, a before and after. There is a state of expectation before the surprise, and by definition the surprise needs to change this state to a different one.

This led me to be more interested in ideas around interpretation of objects over time, and designing the experience of an object as opposed to the object itself. Narrative seemed like a useful tool in order to help organise these experiences over time as well as give meaning and richness to these object experiences.

My PhD Designing Narrative Product Interactions looks at how narratives can be used to enhance both the design process and the user experience of object. In particular it takes films as a starting point and analyses which elements from the film, such as characters, structure, meaning, emotional reactions, etc., could be used by designers within product experiences.

The final aim of my PhD is to come up with a series of guidelines to help designers think of the product experience in a narrative way and to design tools for designers to use within the design process which can help to create highly tellable objects. Highly tellable objects should lead to user experiences with high narrativity, which will be more prone to being experienced, interpreted, remembered and retold with gusto.

Invitation downloadable here Invitation Narrative in Practice 2013  and more information on the website


Design and Emotion 2012 – Out of Control

Silvia Grimaldi just presented a paper at the 8th International Design and Emotion Conference – Out of Control which took place last week at Central Saint Martins College. The paper is entitled Cinematic Narratives of Product Interaction Experiences and it is based on the work Silvia did in the first year of her PhD entitled Designing Narrative Product Interactions, supervised at University of the Arts by Tricia Austin and Alison Prendiville. The paper was peer reviewed and will be published in the proceedings. It also went down very well! More info on the conference here


I just got back (to real life, it was in London) from the 8th International Design and Emotion Conference which was conveniently held at Central Saint Martins. What a great week! I thought I should write something about it but it is hard to figure out where to start.

So I’ll start from the general and move to the specific. The conference, as always, was very inspiring, intense, informative, (can’t find any other adjectives starting with “i”). And lots of fun! There is always a great atmosphere at Design and Emotion and it seems to be devoid of the grey men with large egos who like to sit through a whole presentation and then make a completely unconnected remark that shows they know about something (sorry, I’m not bitter!). It was though full of very interesting people, good feedback, interesting criticisms, fascinating and inspiring projects. And the organising committee was split at the end of conference drinks between DJs and dancing on the table, so that pretty much covers it for the friendly aspect. If really did feel like we were part of a shared community.

I’ve been digesting my notes in the last few days and have found that a lot of the presentations have somehow shaped the way I am thinking about my PhD and, incidentally, about this KTP hospital research project I’m doing as well. So while cycling to work this morning I had what I thought was a good insight (it might not be tomorrow, but I’ll hold that thought so far). This is my hypothesis reformulated:

Not only is using a product an experience, it is an interaction and it is narrative in nature.

Which leads on to my research question:

How do we design these narrative interactions?

I know it’s a rehashing of the same ideas, but I think it places it within a context which allows me to make an original contribution to the debate about product experience.

In terms of specific presentations there was a lot to take in and digest; I was very lucky to have been placed in a group about narrative, and was very taken by the other papers presented in the group. In particular, I was glad to find the work of Thomas Markussen and Eva Knutz, who wrote on Designing Narrative Games for Serious Contexts and their paper (and past papers) are in my to read soon pile. The session was chaired by Pieter Desmet and there were some very interesting remarks and feedback from the audience. In particular Marcus Willcocks asked me about why I am situating the project within the domestic sphere, and was not satisfied by my answer that it is because I am interested in furniture, and cited public space furniture. Which really is fair enough, it was a bad answer. This made me reflect about this choice, and then I realised/remembered that part of the intention of positioning the PhD within the domestic realm was to limit it in terms of setting, very much how a film is set in a particular setting. Unfortunately this realisation happened  after the Q&A session was over and I could not get a hold of Marcus again but I would like to continue this discussion at a later date.

There has been a lot of talk about the keynotes and I am actually going to skip the keynotes altogether as I don’t find them as insightful as the paper presentations, maybe because it is easier to find their thoughts in the public domain already. One only remark I will make is that I was intrigued by Michael Apter’s view of design and designers. Michael Apter is a personality theory psychologist who is the father of and came to speak about Reversal Theory, and he opened his talk by saying that he doesn’t know much about design, but he is a generalist, and “design is even more inspiringly general”. I am a firm believer in the role of generalists in mediating discourse between different disciplines and am a proponent of concept-based interdisciplinary research (and learning) so I very much appreciate this re-evaluation of the generalist’s role but also the idea that designers are flexible enough to apply disparate kinds of knowledge to their work.

There were a lot of inspiring paper presentations, and I will only name a few that struck me or that I was able to write down on my giant note sheet (pictured). Julia Keyte (Objects in Purgatory: how we live with uncherished gifts) was one of the first presentations I saw and she had a very interesting paper on unwanted gifts, using a lot of storytelling methods to find out about these unwanted objects. Unfortunately I missed the session on Process Methodology Tools and Methods: narratives and stories, this is also on my to read soon list. Steven Fokkinga’s paper on Meaningful Mix or Tricky Conflict? A categorization of mixed emotional experiences and their usefulness for design won the best paper award and it is easy to see why. I was particularly inspired by his notation methods to represent user experience and will definitely talk to him before he goes back to Delft about how I could adapt something similar for my film and experience analysis. The session on Process Methodology Tools and Methods: Experiences provided a good literature review on experience design and finally Nynke Tromp spoke about her experiments on the effectiveness of behaviour-changing interventions which are not as relevant for PhD but very useful for my teaching and KTP research bid.

So about decompression. I’ve been doing the usual exchanging of contacts, Linkedin, twitter following, etc. I have a number of new people I hope I can contact for feedback who understand what (and why) I am doing. I have a stack of papers to read and even more reaching out to the references. I’ve defined the project more, partially set it in a context, and I had some good ideas about how to document and analyse the product interactions in relation to narrative and the narrative films in relation to product interactions. Overall I think it’s been a great step forward in my thinking and it was good to have an inspiring time and space to do this in – in a supportive environment. Couldn’t ask for more really from 3 days.