Sophie Hague, a 2022 Student Design Award winner, explains how design helped to identify the learning techniques that worked for her. In this blog, she discusses the impact of the Student Design Awards and how the recognition helped her on the career ladder as a user experience designer.
My relationship with education has been intermittent since I was 11 years old. School was not a place I particularly enjoyed attending – not because I didn’t like learning, but because I never really felt comfortable in a typical learning environment. Classrooms tended to be overstimulating and overcrowded, information was difficult to retain, and the pace of development felt too fast for me to keep up with. But I always found solace in my design and technology classes.
The freedom of creativity was extremely comforting because we were learning in a hands-on environment; essentially, we were learning by experimentation. This is more commonly known as experiential learning, and this is something I have always stuck by. There was no linearised way of learning and no format. It felt holistic. And, as a 22-year-old, this is still how I continue to learn, at my own pace and through my own means.
Consequently, my relationship with education improved as did my knowledge of design; because design helped me identify my own learning techniques. As it turned out, I actually loved learning. The subject also helped me identify that I had to understand how I learn before anything else. In a way, as I grew older, I designed my own system of learning that was subconsciously catered towards my personal needs. From the age of 11, I always knew I wanted to be a designer – I just didn’t know what type.
Press play to start
I believe this was a large part of why I chose the RSA Student Design Award brief that I did. It was at Sheffield Hallam University that I was introduced to the Student Design Awards as part of my final-year module. We were given a selection of briefs that we could take part in and one particular brief that caught my interest was ‘Press play’. This was sponsored by the Lego Group and asked: “How might we support all families, carers and communities to play and learn more creatively at home?”
The prompt resonated with me for two reasons – the first being my own experience with learning as a child, and the second being the influences I had at home. I grew up in a family that was dominated by careers involving education and child welfare, so I instantly knew I had a pool of knowledge and experience from which I could draw. Creating ways of learning for children that explored stepping outside of the classroom was something that resonated with me, as experiential learning can help form a person’s own interests, skills and passion.
I was also conscious that I did not want to associate using technology with being sedentary; so finding ways of increasing movement while learning was an avenue I knew I needed to explore. I’m a big believer that we can use technology to aid our lives, not take over. Throughout the brief, I became very passionate about my project, so much so I spent the majority of my time on it. I knew that this was the kind of work I wanted to do as a designer – something that would make a difference, that felt meaningful.
The brief allowed me to explore who I wanted to be, not only as a designer but also as a person. It changed my perception of what design is, what it can be and what I can make it. It also affirmed my passion for inclusive and equitable education, which is something I will always advocate for. The RSA embodied everything I wanted to be when I became a designer, and the question of what kind of creative I wanted to be was no longer something I would shy away from. I liked graphic design but what I had come to learn was that above all else I loved ideation, creating and pioneering.
The brief allowed me to explore who I wanted to be, not only as a designer but also as a person. It changed my perception of what design is, what it can be and what I can make it.
It also provided a gateway into user experience (UX) design. For those unfamiliar with UX design, it is a form of design that is more research and psychology-based, it involves a more human-centric approach than traditional design. Even though my own experiences are what inspired me to choose this brief, I knew that it was important to look beyond my own echo chambers and take a deeper dive into underrepresented demographics.
Consequently, I proposed an app named ‘Look!’ which encourages children to learn British Sign Language vocabulary through outdoor exploratory play, involving object detection technology. What led me to this idea was having originally studied child language acquisition at A-level. I found it fascinating how children grow from babbling, entering the holophrastic stage, to eventually stringing together mini-sentences and, consequently, acquiring a vocabulary set. However, after looking at the barriers to child language acquisition I wanted to take it one step further and look at different forms of communication in children. One form in particular that stood out was Makaton.
Makaton is a type of communication that uses speech, signs and symbols. It is primarily used to help hearing people with learning or communication difficulties. Over the course of my research, I found that visual mediums such as flashcards for learning Makaton were limited and sometimes difficult to understand, especially for children. As my research developed so did my understanding of the difference between Makaton and British Sign Language (BSL).
After discovering that 90% of deaf children are born to hearing parents with little experience of how to communicate with a deaf person, I knew that there needed to be an intervention that involved both the child and the parent learning BSL together. It was also extremely important to consult the parents of the deaf children community on my ideas because I wanted to design alongside the user, not only for the user.
This was the start of my idea for ‘Look!’, an application that uses object detection technology to support language learning for deaf children, supporting parents and families in teaching essential British Sign Language words and phrases. The app aims to promote sign language learning while also encouraging outdoor exploratory play.
Designing her niche
This whole process of creating ‘Look!’ was a substantial reason why I wanted to carry on with my education into a postgraduate degree. I knew I wasn’t finished with learning because I had finally found my niche as a designer. For the past four years I have been trying to pin down what type of designer I was in a medium such as print, animation, typography or advertising, and I never really wanted to affiliate myself with one type of design, I loved them all.
But, in reality, I was far more interested in design processes, such as human-centric design, speculative design and participatory design, than the medium because those processes are where my ideas are born. And it was because of Look! and the RSA that I was able to go to the University of Leeds and continue my education in digital design futures. Without the grant money from the award, this opportunity wouldn’t have been accessible.
It was at the University of Leeds where I worked on projects such as creating cognitive behavioural therapy spaces in virtual reality. I used extended reality to improve medication adherence and used augmented reality to improve cardiopulmonary resuscitation training. My CPR filter was then picked up by the Yorkshire Ambulance Service, which you can view on their Instagram page @yorksambulance.
I want to educate, provoke thought, signal change, spark emotion, create empathy, pioneer and innovate. I want to be a part of social change. And, because of the RSA, I am now more aware than ever that I can.
I continued my passion for inclusive education through many different projects, and it was because of my masters that I was given the opportunity to explore the possibility of a PhD scholarship in design for disability. This is exactly what I mean when I say the RSA has opened doors I never thought imaginable. My relationship with education was intermittent at a young age, but, as a 22-year-old, I want to create ways that enable education to become more adaptive to individual needs and therefore create a more experiential learning environment.
Before I was aware of the RSA I was feeling uncertain as to what my future would look like. I was unclear of my goals post-degree; whether I had what it takes to be a graphic designer or whether it was right for me. I knew I wanted to do something meaningful that had heart, but finding my niche was proving to be seemingly difficult because I still hadn’t felt that spark that I wanted to feel.
This was until I was introduced to the Student Design Awards. They offered clarification that there are people out there doing the work that I want to do. I want to educate, I want to provoke thought, I want to signal change, spark emotion, create empathy, pioneer and innovate. I want to be a part of social change. And, because of the RSA, I am now more aware than ever that I can.
A year and a half after winning the award, I have now started my new career as a UX/UI designer and I have so many plans for the future, all of which I am excited for. I have mentored young design students, attended an RSA roundtable talk with Google DeepMind on AI in education and also spoke at the 2023 Student Design Awards as an alumna.
Look! is an app that holds a very special place in my heart. One day I do hope to turn it into a reality, but I know when the time is right I will. And, because of the RSA, I know I will have the support to do so.
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