We, a group of four design thinking students, were faced with the challenge to design something that addresses the prompt, “Site of Power, Space for Change, Place of Resistance.” Our group immediately took interest in comparing the care of the Japanese Tea Hut and Garden, a space designed for reflection hidden near Paradise Pond that was recently taken down due to safety concerns, to the care of the Botanical Garden. We took a day trip out to the two gardens, comparing the aesthetics of each of the sites. We noticed how well kept the Botanical Garden was, both in the area surrounding it and the cleanliness of the interior. We saw workers trimming and watering the plants, making sure each plant got the attention it deserved. We observed people sitting on the benches doing homework, grandparents excitedly watching their grandchild practice walking, and a couple identify various plants. On the other hand, when we visited the Japanese Tea Hut, we saw almost no one, despite it being a nice day. Students walked by on the way to the Quad, only looking up to see what we were doing. People ran by on the trail, and families walked their dogs along the river. Yet, none of these users stopped to take a look at the Japanese Garden- and it became pretty clear why. When we visited, we counted at least twelve cigarette butts and numerous bottles, giving us some of an idea of how the space is currently used. There was also no place to sit, and all of the plants were overgrown and dead. While the space was secluded and offered good views, there was little about it that was inviting. After our visit, knew that focusing our project on the tea hut would reveal compelling power dynamics to base our second deep dive on.
When starting the project, our group wanted to gather as much information as we could from the different stakeholders invested in the tea hut space. In order to see how students used the space in the past versus what they’d like to see in the future, we interviewed current students and observed how the tea hut was used daily. We asked questions such as “What four adjectives or words do you associate with the tea hut space,” “Can you tell us about a time that you visited the tea hut,” and “What makes you feel comfortable outside?” From these questions and others, we noticed themes in the answers we collected. Lots of students expressed frustration with the administration for their lack of care, as seen in the tea hut, the community garden, the absence of trash cans, and other aesthetic issues. Students wished for places to eat and sit outside as well as secluded areas where they could study, reflect, knit, or partake in anything else they wanted to. Finally, students noted how the space didn’t seem to have any connection with Japanese culture or the Japanese tea ceremony even though that was the space’s original intent.
After our student interviews, we thought it would be important to hear from the opposite side: administration, faculty and facilities. We reached out to Roger Mosier, Jay Lucey, Jamie Hubbard, and Dano Wiesboard. Jay, Jamie and Dano all agreed to interviews. Roger, head of facilities, preferred to respond via email, but after sending him our questions we never received a response. Despite our setback, our other three meetings proved to be useful. Jamie, a professor in the East Asian Studies department, very clearly expressed his frustration with not only the administration but also with the Botanic Gardens, blaming them for the lack of care surrounding the tea hut. He also talked about the cultural significance of taking down the tea hut, stating that ‘if this was an English tea garden instead of a Japanese tea hut, it would certainly still be taken care of.’ Jamie very clearly demonstrated the tension between the administration, the faculty and the students. Jamie’s interview was also the most interesting simply because we didn’t expect faculty to be as upset with the administration as we were. While we could understood students were upset because they felt like the administration wasn’t listening to the needs of the students, we didn’t think that professors would have the same reaction. Our interview with Jamie helped us expand and redefine who we thought were key stakeholders in the space.
We spent the most amount of time on this project empathizing with the many users of the site. While this gave us a very thorough understanding of how people interacted with the space, it left us less time to do the other parts of the design process. In the future, we would like to work on incorporating the empathize stage into different parts of the design process by interviewing key stakeholders during the empathy stage and then in the later stages so that we can keep their opinions fresh in our mind while we design.
At the end of the empathy stage and the beginning of the define stage, we took to post-its, creating a “say, think, do, feel” chart to organize our observations and find themes. We found that many people liked the seclusion of the space, wanted a balance of comfort and peace, felt the tea hut space “wasn’t very Japanese-y,” wished for an outdoor space to engage in different activities, and were concerned about the safety of the space. A large portion of our time was spent debriefing all of our interviews and trying to pinpoint our ideal user. From alumnae donating tea huts to grandparents taking their grandchildren for a nature walk, our scope of people invested in the tea hut space was large. Through observations and interviews, we knew the people that used the space most were students, religious studies faculty, and families walking along the trail. We also knew that the administration called the shots in regards to the use of the tea hut space.
We wanted to capture the imbalance of power between the people using the space and the people in control of the space in our POV, but we weren’t sure how. We made a power map to see how all of our stakeholders interacted, seeing who had more power in certain situations. Besides the power map, we also looked at safety data from Campus Police to get a more accurate picture of the tea house and its surrounding factors. The data surprised us; we were expecting to see high levels of unsafe behavior at the tea hut, since that was the given reason that the structure was taken down. Instead, we saw crime rates decreasing over the years, and that many of the reported incidents weren’t even caused by Smith students, those who used the space most frequently.
We decided to move forward designing for students, as they are the largest group involved and would be using the space most often. While we wish that we could’ve designed for Japanese, Japanese-American students, Asian students as a whole, we felt that our interviews didn’t give us enough information as to what this specific group of students would like to see in place of the tea hut. We were stuck for some time on our POV. Originally, our POV was very cookie cutter and didn’t capture any of the tension between the administration and students. Instead, it focused on creating an ideal space for reflection for people. We knew that it was too broad and didn’t have any tension, but we didn’t know how to fix it. We called in Zaza for help. She helped us sort through our data and gave us new ways of phrasing our POV. In our final POV, we tried to intertwine the idea of creating a reflective space with the tension between the administration’s constant watching of students and the students’ wish to be alone. We decided on the POV, “An unheard serenity seeker looking to get away needs a place to reflect that is fostered by the administration but devoid of its surveillance and interferences.”
We then took to ideating, thinking of different solutions that could address the tension between the administration’s wants and needs and the students’ wants and needs. We had spent so much time empathizing and defining that we left ourselves with little time to ideate. Due to scheduling difficulties and time constraints, we didn’t get to explore the ideating portion of our project as well as we would have liked to. Nonetheless, we made the most of a sticky situation and took to ideating online since it was the only place where we could all work and see other members’ contributions. Before ideating, we turned our POV into a question, “How might we help constantly watched students find peace and reflection?” We came up with various ideas like interactive art exhibits, rock gardens, an outdoor book library, an app to guide reflection while walking, and a bedsheet hanging on a tree. We entertained some wild ideas such as a “40 foot wooden pole,” “small pond” and “spray paint”. A key theme that we saw in our ideas was that we wanted students to interact with the space and we wanted the space to help students feel comfortable since these were key findings in our interviewing/observing stage.
One of our last ideas was to create some sort of portable maker-space cart with a mix of natural and man-made objects. We thought people could use it to create their own ideal reflective spaces. We came to a consensus that this best fit our POV and was also a good combination of our other ideas.
“Nature’s Play Box” is a box of different materials that can be used to give you the type of reflective space you want. Comprised of milk crates, twigs, stones, balloons, rubber bands, dowels, sheets, and clothespins, the play box allows any member of the Smith community a chance to relax through creating something like art, structures, or anything else that can come to your imagination. After all, the process of creating something is a form of reflection. The box reminds users to restore the space to its natural origin when they’re done reflecting. We believe that the box is a great way to unify the student body and the administration by giving students the chance to create something of their own and by giving the administration power to choose what goes in the box. We also believe that this is merely a temporary fix for the tea hut space. Once a proposal is made to restore the Japanese tea hut, the play box will disappear from the site, but it may appear in other sites of need on campus, showing the administration where students would like to have their own relaxation spaces.
For the final part of our project, we tested out our prototype with several people. We aren’t actually sure how many people used the prototype. Although we asked for user feedback on our instruction sheet, we didn’t receive any. On the other hand, each time we visited the site, it looked different because people didn’t clean up their creation. Therefore, we know that the play box had been used.
We received both positive and negative feedback during this process. After interacting with Nature’s Play Box, some users thought that it was meant to be used by children. Other users appreciated the child-like quality and felt a sense of creativity overcome them.
While observing how people used this space (from afar) we noticed a lot of younger children gravitating to the playbox. This observation coupled with the feedback we had received from our users was very helpful.
In future iterations of this project we might think about using larger objects that adults could tinker around with as well. We might also create better signage for people to fully understand the purpose of this space. As a dynamic team with varied interests, we were able to recruit a diverse set of users. However, to better understand the general opinion of Nature’s Play Box, it might be useful to have a larger pool of testers in the future. This would help us more fully assess the benefits of a space such as this one.
Our team worked well together as a group. We each brought something different to the table, and by combining our skills we were able to create something better than the sum of our individual perspectives. In this project, Amanda fell into the role of organizer, and made sure we were on track and got everything done, Matt brought energy and wild ideas to the group, Laura communicated with users and between teammates, and Natasha was the glue that kept us all together. An especially great moment of teamwork was in creating our POV: we each wrote different POVs on sticky notes, and then voted on our favorites. These were combined into one POV, which was edited again and again to get to our final statement. Without the contribution of each of our team members to the POV, it would have been incomplete and made much less sense for the tea house space.