My design program's senior capstone project invited risk. "You'll never get a chance like this again," our professors told us, "so make the most of it." I took them seriously. I proposed an interactive exhibit based on my wife's and my loss of our first child four years earlier, along with my first- and second-hand research into grief. My exhibit targeted grief adjacents—individuals who may not have lost a loved one themselves, but who wished to support someone who had—presenting concise tools for communicating with grief survivors and a dedicated conversation space.
As a generation, my peers struggle to talk about grief—their own or anyone else's. My studies into longitudinal behavioral research showed American young people more vulnerable to devastating emotional effects at the loss of a loved one, and less likely to seek support from those around them than previous generations. In my own experience of loss, many friends and family members who wished to help actually caused greater harm, and many others simply avoided us. I designed my exhibit to better support grieving individuals by educating and empowering their community to initiate in helpful ways.
Based on my initial demographics, I selected a familiar site to young professionals in Seattle: a bar. If they were going to endure difficult conversations, I reasoned, they should feel more comfortable in a venue designed for conversation and holding a drink. Another option I considered was bringing the exhibit to its target viewers in hospitals; given my limited timeframe and the red tape involved, I took my advisors' suggestion and found a venue with less bureaucracy.
Using principles of wabi-sabi and metaphors of grief's brokenness as aesthetic principles, my exhibit frames were built from my neighbor's broken fence and UW Recycling's discarded wooden shipping pallets. Over my four months of research I synthesized the work of various professionals and survivors' personal accounts to develop TULIPS, my tools for conversation: Trauma, Unique, Listen, It's Not About You, Proximity, and Support. Each letter of the acronym got its own display, and they appeared inside the tongue-in-cheek card each participant chose at the beginning of their visit.
In my attempt to provoke personal conversations, I wrote the content in a casual, first-person voice, combining my own stories with others' in an attempt to represent the experience of an individual surviving the loss of a loved one. Additionally each display featured an interactive experience, inviting participants to contribute their own story to the environment, enriching both their relationship to the exhibit and future viewers' perception.
The pilot proved successful. An ethnically, religiously, and gender-diverse audience attended and shared conversations provoked by the displays. "I hear it in my own voice," one participant remarked. Another said, "I see it from both sides now, as someone who's lost and tried to help other people through theirs."
In future exhibitions, I hope for more space to create distance between each display, giving some breathing room for participants as they move to the next kiosk. I intend to produce a "What next?" interaction at the end of the exhibit, directing participants to a dedicated discussion area. Ideally a conversation facilitator will help participants engage each other, using materials I hope to design for that purpose including simple card-based prompts.