Creating Climate Art as a Participatory Design Research Method

By: Sara Laura Wilson, Research Assistant

Designing for sustainable behavior change is more than a technological challenge; it’s a human one. Each of us brings a complex tapestry of attitudes, beliefs, and associations to our interactions with designed products and services, which invariably color our receptivity. For instance, a hopeful or hopeless attitude towards climate change greatly influences our engagement in sustainable behaviors. When interacting with products or services designed for sustainable behavior change, we are not merely responding to the design elements in isolation – we are also engaging with our deeply entrenched associations with the broader issues of climate change.

To understand the human perspective of sustainable design, Sara Laura Wilson, a research assistant in the Environmental Solutions Initiative (ESI), is looking into the intersection of climate identities and design for pro-environmental behaviors, like energy conservation, waste management, and environmental protection. Together with ESI research associate Supreetha Krishnan and their cohort of UROPs — Bianca Lee, Zainab Khan, and Simon Opsahl — they hosted a Climate Art Night on Nov. 14. The event was a research workshop that doubled as a social gathering. It drew 40 participants from the MIT community who each created an art piece that reflected their relationship with and attitudes towards the environment, collaged with their choice of assorted magazines, newspapers, construction paper, crayons, and paint pens. Upon completing their piece, participants wrote an artist statement to accompany their creation and provide further insight into their artistic process and mindset.

MIT students created art pieces that reflected their relationship with and attitudes towards the environment at the Climate Art Night on Nov. 14. Photo credit: Bianca Lee

This workshop is part of an ongoing series of events that are tailored to understanding user perception on climate change and environmentalism through fun and interactive means. It was first conducted as part of the MIT Climate Machine’s collaboration at the 2023 Group Therapy Weekender, an electronic music festival at the Gorge Amphitheater in Washington state. There, 30 festival attendees created climate art pieces that were displayed as a collective art piece at the festival.

Climate art gives insight into the emotional and visual associations people have with the environment; it can also serve as valuable user input for early-stage design development. The integration of user input in the early stages of product and service design is a critical component in developing effective tools that promote pro-environmental behavior. Engaging with users during the formative phase of design not only enhances the overall acceptability of the product but also significantly lowers the risk of product abandonment due to design-user misalignment.

The Climate Art workshop, conducted as a participatory design research method, was developed to understand the visual, verbal, and emotional associations each participant has with the environment. Photo credit: Bianca Lee

Insights from these workshops will be integral to the research group’s development of eco-feedback mechanisms for product design. Eco-feedback design, which encompasses quantitative displays (such as the number of resources consumed or saved) and figurative representations (such as visual metaphors that convey environmental impact), stands out for its effectiveness in promoting environmental stewardship. Through workshops like this, the researchers aim to understand the pre-existing visual and emotional associations users have with the environment, and thereby effectively design figurative representations for eco-feedback that encourage behavior change.

The challenge, and the opportunity for sustainable behavior design innovation, lies in designing mechanisms that not only convey information effectively but also inspire a long-term commitment to pro-environmental behavior. Such designs must therefore be user-centric, involving users in the developmental stages to ensure that the final product aligns with their values, beliefs, and emotional landscape. Through continued workshops within the MIT community and beyond, the research group’s goal is to create a product experience that, through strategic information delivery and emotional engagement, perpetuates sustainable behavior beyond the point of direct interaction with the product itself.

Results and analyses from this event and the Group Therapy Weekender will be examined in a forthcoming research publication, expected in Spring 2024.