Design is not just about the aesthetics of well-designed manufactured things, rather it can be a process that aids people to live a better life.

There are ways in which design studios may not only value add to objects, but function as agents for social change. Inkahoots is such a design practice, and in their latest project, they have as their clients, elderly affordable housing tenants. Typically the tenants have moved from large homes to the smaller yet well-appointed one bedroom apartments of Brisbane Housing Company’s Caggara House in Mt. Gravatt.

Caggara House itself (designed by Arkhefield Architects) demonstrates an innovative affordable housing model, providing high-quality homes for older public housing tenants who find their current homes too big or too difficult to maintain. (These larger homes can then be made available for families in need). For the tenants in the newly built Caggara House, making friends and developing social networks is important, and despite appreciating their accommodation, the tenants repeatedly mentioned valuing chance encounters at Caggara, but finding it difficult to get together as a group.

In order to make group meetings easier to organise, Inkahoots was invited to design an installation. In response to the brief, they created a process by which tenants could organise their own social events. The designers call it, “a combination of supergraphic, interactive web-based installation, and relational artwork focused on the process of bringing people together.” Inkahoots’ workshop consultations (in collaboration with Christian Duell from White Light) explored the participants’ personal housing history and aspirations, and from these consultations, Social Buttons came into being.

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Photo credit: Inkahoots. Social Buttons designed to encourage social interaction.

The three buttons are bright, illuminated hemispheres situated on the wall, right next to the lift, on the ground floor entrance, and adjacent to the common room. In the first button the tenant chooses What they want to do, this triggers a list of relevant Where options in the second button, which when selected triggers an option for When in the third final button. For example, a picnic in a local park on a week day.

These straightforward interactions are sent to an online database, and at the end of each month the most chosen event sequence is texted to tenants’ phones, then any required support and transport is provided by the housing organisation, but it is always the tenants who decide what the event will be.

This permanent interactive installation is primarily designed to encourage social interaction, however Inkahoots suggest that it also aims to “destigmatise the relationship between seniors and technology.’’ It might also be attractive to visiting grandchildren as the design encourages playful interactions with the technology which may enable cross generational friendships to flourish.

What is so distinctive about this work is the manipulation of the buttons is secondary to the desire for improved communication between residents. In an age of passwords, logins, downloads and websites, Inkahoots have used design as an act of compassion: a pathway to self-determination for the aged. They recognise living is not just a business, and designers should be concerned with making life better for people, not products and profits.

Dr Charles Zuber

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