The Research Process

This section presents the background to the drawing study, framing it within the broader context of the European SusLabNWE project. It explains the research process that led us to the development of Drawing Energy, and details the context and results of the study.

Researching Energy

The Drawing Energy study builds on research methods developed at the Royal College of Art over the last two decades. Our energy research began by conducting a series of ethnographic interviews in 2013 with people – mostly Londoners – in their own homes, to explore their ideas around energy, what it means to them and how it features in their daily life.

While the principal focus of the SusLabNWE project was on energy in the utility sense, the word ‘energy’, with numerous definitions in English (Merriam-Webster, 2015), is a concept that resists easy visualisation and is not synonymous with any singular or distinct visual icon. We therefore decided to expand the frame of reference for our research to encompass fully all the meanings the term holds and explore its significance for our interviewees. The research process itself was people-centred, with the designers and researchers seeing householders as collaborators and contributors, not just ‘test subjects’ (Gheerawo et al, 2011). This was important: it is beneficial to work with real people as nothing can really replace the value of this process (Warburton, 2003). This moves projects from being perhaps an ego-centric expression of design expertise, to having social relevance and value for the end user.

Projects from the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design employ a diverse range of design research methods to identify and include people’s needs and perspectives. These include questionnaires, expert consultation, user diaries, interviews, observation in situ, testing with prototypes, and research ‘kits’ requiring a range of responses from photographic to emotive. New design ethnography methods have resulted, such as ‘Design Provocations’ where props, sketches or prototypes are shown to people to provoke response (Eikhaug et al, 2010).

Working closely with small groups of users encourages empathic bonding between designer and user, creating a space where they can both act as equals to address the issue in hand. This can then aid understanding of lifestyle and aspirational factors that are all too often overlooked, moving beyond ergonomic problem solving into an area of creative thinking and user-facilitated innovation (Coleman, 1997).

Describing Energy

From our interviews with householders, we quickly found that people’s personal definitions and associations with energy were in fact much broader than heat or electricity. One participant, Diana (who sadly passed away during the project, and to whom this book is dedicated), described energy as a kind of smoke or fog, and suggested it was like God – all around us, intangible, powerful and ethereal. Another person told us that to describe energy to a child he would say it is ‘[a] force. Something that creates change, or motion, or action.’ While another person told us that she works hard to save energy at home, not primarily for financial or environmental reasons, but because she believes that valuing resources is part of her religion.

Early on in the research we found that people’s mental models (Johnson-Laird, 1983; Gentner & Stevens, 1983) and notions of energy were very diverse (as confirmed by some other research, e.g. Rupp, 2013). We also consistently found that the invisibility of energy was a significant attribute for the people we spoke to. One person said to us:

‘I think I worked out that through gas and electricity every year, the average house gets the equivalent of a bit over three tons of coal delivered completely silently and without any mess. And go back a hundred years ago and everyone would have a really good quantitative understanding of how much energy they used because they had to physically shovel the stuff. So, that made me stop and think.’

This participant was seeking to understand his own energy use by relating it to an equivalent physical mass, but also by comparing his family’s present day experience to a now distant historical context. What this suggests is that the changes in technology and infrastructure that have removed the physical labour and the visual presence of energy from our homes and daily lives, are also a shift that has made it difficult for people to understand or monitor their levels of energy consumption.

Drawing Energy

The initial research interviews revealed that the energy’s invisibility was a defining characteristic, and one that might be closely connected to understanding our own environmental impact through energy use. This was by no means a new finding (e.g. Burgess & Nye, 2008) – and ‘keeping energy use visible’ is central to the thinking behind home energy monitors (Hargreaves et al, 2013) – but it is one that has often been addressed in design through leaping straight to new interface designs (Froehlich et al, 2010) without exploring the issue further in terms of the meanings, social and ecological factors of everyday lived experience (Mazé & Redström, 2008; Strengers, 2011; Hamilton & Hinshelwood, 2014) and the stories around these (Mourik & Rotmann, 2013; Lockton et al, 2014).

To investigate the questions that energy’s invisibility might present, we decided to undertake a drawing study to explore energy in new ways, and to use the drawing process to uncover the associations people make with this immaterial entity. We developed a visual research method, which social scientists might term a ‘participatory visual method’ (see for example, Gubrium and Harper, 2013; Mitchell, 2011) in which we asked people to respond, through drawing or writing on paper, to the question: What does energy look like?

As Gray et al. (2010) suggest, ‘[w]ords become more challenging to visualise as they become less literal’, and energy, as a form of dynamism, power, force or activity, might be considered ‘an idea that isn’t anchored to an object in reality’ (Brown, 2014). We reasoned that this method could help us to explore people’s mental models and perceptions of energy, and of the infrastructures or meanings connected to it. Participatory drawing research has been used before to explore people’s understandings of abstract or invisible concepts, for example Bibace and Walsh (1979) and Nemeroff (1995) explored notions of germs and illness, while Qualter (1995) and Devine-Wright et al (2009, 2010) have explicitly looked at conceptions of electricity generation and the National Grid.

Our study was conducted with visitors to the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design’s Life Examined exhibition at the Royal College of Art in September 2013 and replicated with students participating in the UK ArtScience Prize at the Silk Mill, Derby in April 2014. A final workshop took place with visitors to the V&A’s Digital Design Weekend in September 2014. These three parts of the study were conducted in the UK, two in London and one in Derby. In each instance the participants spent as long or as little time as they liked creating their drawing. Where participants chose to do so, we engaged in conversations about the drawings produced, the subject matter, the materials and the act of drawing.

We were pleasantly surprised by the enthusiasm people displayed for the study and for the drawing process and their desire to discuss their ideas with us. At the V&A, participants added labels to their drawings telling us something about themselves, and some of these are recorded in the captions alongside the drawings in the book. However, we did not ask people to complete surveys or questionnaires as a part of the study, so our analysis is purely based on our interpretation of the
images produced.

As John Berger (1972) observed in Ways of Seeing, ‘[i]mages were first made to conjure up the appearances of something that was absent’ and in time ‘… the specific vision of the image-maker was also recognised as part of the record.’ With this in mind, asking people to draw the invisible offered a very human-centred means of investigating energy and people’s thoughts and ideas about it.