Project Background

Drawing Energy is a drawing-based research study exploring people’s perceptions of energy, an often intangible concept that is ever-present in our daily lives. It was conducted as part of SusLabNWE, a collaborative European design and engineering project that looked to reduce domestic energy use in north-west Europe. SusLabNWE was supported by Interreg IVB and ran between 2012 and 2015. It was based across the UK, Germany, Sweden and the Netherlands, with a total of 11 different partner institutions, as follows:

  • Technische Universiteit Delft
  • City Ports Academy
  • Woonbron
  • Royal College of Art
  • Imperial College London
  • Institute for Sustainability
  • Wuppertal Institut für Klima, Umwelt, Energie
  • Hochschule Ruhr-West
  • InnovationCity Ruhr
  • Chalmers tekniska högskola
  • Johanneburg Science Park

About the Royal College of Art

Within the Royal College of Art, SusLabNWE presented an opportunity for collaboration between two departments:
1) The Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design is the Royal College of Art’s largest and longest running research centre and undertakes design research that contributes to improving people’s lives. The Centre employs a range of people-centred design approaches, carrying out ethnographic research and co-creation workshops to ensure that people’s needs and desires are at the centre of any design process. The centre’s main focus is socially inclusive design.

2) SustainRCA is the Royal College of Art’s youngest research centre. Founded in 2010, it addresses social and environmental issues across all areas of art and design and explores the complexity of these challenges in contemporary society. SustainRCA investigates how new connections between businesses, governments and people can lead to lasting change to support and strengthen ecologies in their fullest.

The SusLabNWE project was an opportunity for the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design and SustainRCA to bring together their distinct philosophies and research approaches to explore the emerging territory of inclusive and environmental design. In the context of this research, this meant understanding the ways in which people use and think about energy in contemporary British society and how energy itself might be represented in new ways in order to help people to engage with it in more personally-relevant and environmentally conscious ways.

About this website

This website, and the book, document a drawing research study conducted by the Royal College of Art as part of the SusLabNWE project. As we will discuss later on (see The Research Process), we found that many people find it difficult to understand the energy they use because it is invisible.

We do not explicitly see the warmth our heating creates or the power in our electrical appliances. Instead, we experience the benefits of energy, whilst we do not necessarily know how many kilowatt-hours have been used in the process. Our energy bills come in a numerical format but this does not necessarily help us understand how much energy we have used, its value or the impacts, direct or indirect, of our energy use.

Energy moves stealthily and silently in and around our homes, so to approach this issue head-on, we asked people to draw (or write, if they preferred) what they think energy ‘looks like’. We conducted this study with visitors to the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design’s Life Examined exhibition at the Royal College of Art in September 2013; with students participating in the UK ArtScience Prize at The Silk Mill, Derby in April 2014; and with visitors to the Victoria and Albert Museum Digital Design Weekend in September 2014.

What emerged was a collection of 180 visualisations of energy from the British public. This book features a selection of the pieces produced by the ArtScience Prize students and visitors to the V&A’s Digital Design Weekend. While we have not been able to feature all the images produced, the text does refer to the collection as a whole and to some images that are not included, to examine the full spectrum of the work produced.

The text seeks to explore what the drawings reveal about what people think, feel, know and imagine about energy in the UK today. Rather than ask people to focus specifically on energy as a power source, it also looks at the broader conceptualisations that people hold about the subject of energy.