In Conversation

Tasman Munro

Object Space is a window gallery located on William Street in Darlinghurst. On display, until 24 March, is the exhibition Play Up: Exploring objects through humour therapy in dementia care facilitated by Tasman Munro and Jean-Paul Bell.

This project involved the making of objects to support humour therapy in dementia care and was a collaboration between Tasman Munro, a social designer interested in creating objects that bring life to communities and Jean-Paul Bell, a humourmanitarian with a long history in the arts and health industry. The Play Up program was developed in conjunction with the Art's Health Institute.

CEO and Artistic Director, Lisa Cahill spoke to social designer Tasman Munro to find out more.

Lisa Cahill: What is a social designer?
Tasman Munro: A Social Designer is someone who works collaboratively with communities to design systems, tools, or spaces that promote social growth. In the early days a Social Designer was someone who worked to fulfil basic human need - things like health, shelter, equality and education. They might have worked on a water filtration device for use in disaster relief. Today we also have another type of Social Designer, one who looks to promote change by shaping the social systems within a community, collaborating to create new ways of being alongside the physical products or environments that support them to flourish.

Lisa Cahill: How did you become a social designer?
Tasman Munro: I was in my final year of an Industrial Design degree and realised I didn't want to be responsible for pumping out millions of plastic salad spinners. I almost dropped out but found an article about the 'Design for the Other 90%' exhibition in New York. It showed me that I could use my design skills for good. After Uni I scored a job with Christian Tietz, a Designer at Healthabitat who was a great mentor. I started working on projects looking to improve the quality of housing in remote communities.

Lisa Cahill: Who are the social designers that you find inspiring?
Tasman Munro: Groups who have inspired me are Architecture for Humanity, Project H, The Helen Hamlyn Centre, Healthabitat, The Australian Centre for Social Innovation and The Young Foundation. Social Design writers I've drawn on are Victor Papenek, Sylvia and Victor Margolin, Tim Brown, Kees Dorst, Nigel Whiteley and Bruce Mau. Play Up! was designed with and for dementia sufferers.

Lisa Cahill: What was the design process for Play Up!?
Tasman Munro: The project was initiated by Jean-Paul Bell who had pioneered the Play Up program, exploring the use of humour to stimulate memory and reduce agitation in dementia care. Jean-Paul saw the opportunity to create a range of props to assist Play Up performers in role play and stimulating interaction. We began by hosting a multi-generational performance night where people ranging from 6 to 92 years old shared music, art, magic and storytelling. Play Up performers gathered along with makers, children and people with dementia to explore the themes of aging and memory. The next day we started a two day makers workshop where we hacked old toys, phones, bikes and other bits and bobs. We wanted to make objects that were interactive and used materials that were familiar to an older generation.

Lisa Cahill: I understand you are currently working at Designing Out Crime at UTS. What is this project?
Tasman Munro: Designing Out Crime is a research centre that's focused on developing the field of Social Design. A lot of it's early work focused on Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design, which is an approach that looks to create more socially vibrant places that are less conducive to crime, rather than putting up more security cameras and barbed wire. But the centre has grown to work on a whole range of social projects. I've been working with a team focused on the justice sector. We've been designing learning spaces in prison, improving the systems and spaces for people appearing in court via video, redesigned a parole centre to feel less punitive and include family visit areas. The aim of the work is to use design to advocate for social justice within these complex institutions.

In a world where we have more stuff than we need and massive problems as a result, social design seems to be an incredibly important discipline.

Lisa Cahill: How can designers make a difference?
Tasman Munro: Think more about why we design. 

If we design because we have a passion to make things, it's important to nurture that passion but question whether you need to mass produce those creations to fulfil that desire.

I encourage designers to explore some deeper intentions behind design -- using the practice to shape society in meaningful ways, to understand the world, to foster human connection. These things are not only more interesting but will naturally lead to more sustainable practices.

Lisa Cahill: Do you think this is an area we should encourage young people thinking about a career in design to consider?
Tasman Munro: If they're drawn to it, absolutely. It's a quickly growing area of Design so thankfully it's easier to find work in Social Design today. Personally I find it more interesting than straight up product design, you are challenged to work in complex situations, you sit with communities and try to make sense of the world, you are pushed to think deeply and are lucky enough to share intimate moments of connection with the communities you work with. The one piece of advice I'd offer designers entering Social Design is don't forget you're a designer. The practice can involve deep research, system planning, Organisational Development and Social Work. These are all valuable contributions but make sure you stay connected to your core practice. Whether it's Industrial Design, Graphics, Architecture or Fashion, these are the unique skill you bring to a situation. But more importantly they are the practices that sustain you, it's easy to loose interest if you're not able to keep working, thinking and making as a designer.

Play Up: Exploring objects through humour therapy in dementia care facilitated by Tasman Munro and Jean-Paul Bellis on display until 24 March 2018. Object Space is in the window of ADC offices and available to view 24 hours a day. 


Explore the Object Space gallery webpage here


Image: Tasman Munro and Jean Paul Bell, Play Up, 2014. Image courtesy of the artists.