From 2013 to 2016 I worked at the Royal College of Art’s Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design as Research Associate for the Family Rituals 2.0 project. This multidisciplinary research investigated the value of rituals in families regularly separated due to work travel, and the possibilities for digital technologies to explore this space.
The work was in close collaboration with David Chatting (Newcastle University), with David Kirk (Newcastle University) as principal investigator and Jo-Anne Bichard (Royal College of Art) as co-investigator. The project was funded by the EPSRC. Through design-led ethnographic work we identified existing daily rituals and created five bespoke ritual machines that enabled or reinterpreted these rituals during periods of separation. Each machine lived with each family for a period of time, allowing us to find out about the role of technologies and rituals in family life.
Design Led Ethnographic Work
Family Rituals 2.0 investigated the evolving nature of daily rituals in families that experience regular separation due to work travel. The initial stage of the project comprised design-led ethnographic case studies with five families, that informed the design process of our Ritual Machines, developed at a later stage in the project. For this initial stage, we created a pack of cultural probes that included a digital question box, maps in which participants created to describe their domestics geographies, journals and cameras, which allowed us to gather a collection glimpses into their lives at home and while separated. Together with interviews, these probes helped us get to know each of our families, their rituals, their aesthetic preferences, and their attitude towards trying out some intervention such as our ritual machines.
The collected ethnographic information gathered during interviews and probes informed and inspired the design process of our five bespoke Ritual Machines, created for each of our families. For each Ritual Machine, we identified a significant domestic ritual that we tried to expand or interpret, thus creating conversations about the families’ attitudes towards home, work, separation and family life. Playful and provocative, the machines are not solutions to the ‘problem’ of separation. We conceived them as conversational artefacts that give material form to themes that were already existing albeit dormant, while extending conversations about rituals and the role of technologies in the lives of mobile workers and their families.
Ritual Machine 1: Drinking Together Whilst Apart
This machine was designed for a family in Edinburgh: a couple and their young son. Our ethnographic work revealed shared pleasures together and frustrations when separated. A shared pleasure was the couple’s enjoyment of “having a drink” together, at the end of the day, when their son is finally asleep and all the chores have been done. This Ritual Machine has a beer bottle opener that is connected to the Internet. On opening a bottle of beer while on a work trip, the Ritual Machine pours a glass of wine at home, thus interpreting a ritual that usually takes place when both participants are together at home. The Machine poses questions about whether activities people enjoy together can be kept when separated, and if the spontaneous nature of this family custom can be maintained.
Ritual Machine 2: Anticipation of Time Together
This machine counts down to a significant event. The couple in this family live in London but are regularly separated due to work trips. They often take a holiday together and look forward to these trips of reuniting. The anticipation of being together again and going on holiday, became the focus for the design of this Ritual Machine. Our ethnographic work revealed our participants’ preferences for minimalistic and monochromatic decor, which the design of this Ritual Machine needed to meet. Inspired by this insight and by the aesthetics and kinetic tension in flip boards from airports and train stations, where there is a build-up of expectation induced by the mechanical movement of the letters, this Ritual Machine alludes to the sense of excitement associated with travel. The anticipation for the mechanical cascading of the dots is analogue to the anticipation of the next trip or time together.
Ritual Machine 3: Connecting Through Housework
This Ritual Machine was created for a family, a couple with two teenage children, who spend blocks of between two or three months of the year separated. The father, an academic, has two homes: one in the UK, where he works (his ‘work-home’) and one in Sweden, (his ‘home-home’). One of the significant rituals we identified in our ethnographic work, was the father’s involvement in domestic chores, which intensifies while he is in Sweden, but that is very much missed while he is in the UK. Although they have regular Skype breakfasts, during which they discuss home logistics, his interaction with the house maintenance is only virtual while he is away.
This Ritual Machine, a robot vacuum cleaner, transforms the father’s movements when he is in the UK into the movements of the robot vacuum cleaner in Sweden. Through the activities of the robot: his family in Sweden can recognise some of his routines while he is away, while representing his contribution in the house cleaning. This machine raised questions about the possibilities for artefacts to stand for those who are absent, and the effects of the possible disruption of separation and reunion patterns that already form an important part of the family’s dynamic.
Ritual Machine 4
Ritual Machine 4 was created for a female lorry driver, her husband and their six children. When driving her lorry, Lisa often finds cards and notes that the children have sneaked in her bag. These are welcome little mementoes from home that she cherishes, as she is on the road most of the week. In a harsh work environment, she has found ways to express her style through homely touches to the lorry cab, often in pink, her favourite colour. Like many drivers, one aspect of her work that she dislikes is being stuck in traffic jams. Even though Lisa is on the road most of the week, connecting to home on a regular basis is important and she likes to know of the daily home activities like homework, bedtime, etc.
This Ritual Machine hangs inside the cabin of Lisa’ lorry. It contains a speaker that works in conjunction with a jam jar, left at the kitchen at home, where the family can leave voice messages for Lisa to play in her truck cabin. The design and aesthetics of this machine aim to reflect her femininity through her love of pink and gingham, in a predominantly male work environment.
Ritual Machine 5: Where Are You?
Our fifth family is a couple with their 8 year-old son and their dog, living in Cornwall. Both parents travel regularly by car for work, although the father tends to stay away overnight more regularly. The couple moved away from London after their son was born, in search of a healthier lifestyle. One aspect we immediately responded to during the ethnographic phase was their love of their geography and outdoors, and the way in which their son communicated with his parents when they were away. One interesting game they developed consisted of the father taking a soft toy with him on his trips and sending photos to his son of the teddy in various landmarks.
Ritual Machine 5 consists of an electronic telescope for the son that can be pointed in any direction, showing an interactive map following his parents’ travels. With a paper map, he can mark his parent’s locations as they move.