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PhD studentship: Exploring how design can support expression of everyday aesthetic preferences in dementia

This study explores whether design can provide visual ways to provoke and express personal preferences, to enable choice and control in the curation of personal space as dementia progresses.

Researcher: Marney Walker

Funded by: Research England

Supervisory team: Paul Chamberlain

I know what I like

Whilst dementia may affect the way our minds work, evidence suggests that we will always know what we like. Where biographical identity diminishes, but experiential identity and emotional memory is retained, we can continue to experience pleasure from our everyday preferences. What we wear, the domestic objects we use, the way our homes are decorated. 

Lovely mug, Ugly mug
Credit: Marney Walker

Supporting agency and identity

If verbal communication becomes challenging, assumptions can be made about our capabilities. With all the best intentions, others might begin to make everyday decisions on our behalf. For people living with dementia, negative expectations and attitudes can impact on both agency and a sense of identity. In the context of dementia care this is recognised as contributing to a more rapid deterioration.

Visual communication

To counter this, a strengths-based, enabling approach is advocated that focuses on abilities that are retained in dementia. Where cognition becomes impaired, a sensory sensibility is often retained.

Established principles in design for dementia place an emphasis on using visual cues to support both function and orientation. Visual access pays attention to the use of sightlines, lighting, and tonal contrast to make it easier to find and use key facilities. If this works then perhaps our personal likes and dislikes for the way things look, our personal aesthetic, might be an important way to experience and express a sense of self.

Related news: Marney Walker and Life Story Network’s My Home Matters toolkit poster

Shared Looking

A form of remote sensory ethnography has been developed through a series of one-to-one web conferencing interviews. Using familiar objects associated with everyday routines, like your favourite or least favourite mug, selecting from a set of colour cards, and sharing favourite spaces in participants’ homes, to provoke conversations about everyday aesthetic preferences. A selection of images and quotes from these encounters are compiled and offered in exchange.  A way to make every day implicit preferences more tangible and explicit.

Marney has worked with Design Futures Packaging to produce prototypes for participants.

Credit: Marney Walker

Related news: Marney Walker’s PhD report published in the Design Journal

About the researcher

Marney Walker is a doctoral candidate with a unique combination of experience and training in both design and healthcare. Using her experience as an occupational therapist in housing, health, and social care to specialise in advising on the design of inclusive and accessible housing to accommodate physical, sensory, and cognitive impairments and issues related to neurodiversity.  Central to her practice is an interest in the impact of the design and appearance of the environment on health and wellbeing.


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