Mount Royal students design for the Children's Hospital

During one recent February day, 40 Mount Royal students were taken to the Emergency Room.

The good news is their visit was part of the Design II course in the Bachelor of Applied Interior Design program.

Left to right: students Kendra Robinson, Sarah Boniferro and Kinga Kovacs.

The best news is how they are using that visit to generate ideas for improving the emergency room experience for children, parents and health care professionals at the Alberta Children's Hospital.

"A lot of people think interior design is just about decorating, but we construct space that produces emotion and behaviour," says Frank Harks, an associate professor and student academic advisor with the Department of Interior Design & Art History.

"The Children's Hospital has identified three spaces that are both clinical and poorly designed, so our students are participating in a design charette to brainstorm ideas and design concepts that could make these interior spaces more holistic and more user-friendly."

Harks describes a charette as "a project of short duration, with great intensity, that pulls together a number of stakeholders and individuals who have a variety of expertise to examine a problem - not necessarily to solve the problem, but to look at it."

Divide and conquer

The 40 students - all in their first year - were divided into smaller groups and spent a morning touring three spaces at the hospital: the emergency admitting area, an examination room, and a procedure room that Harks describes as "basically a table with a big halogen light hanging over it."

It was an experience that student Kinga Kovacs did not expect in her second semester of studies.

In the procedure room a student takes the place of a child going through a procedure to get a better perspective on the entire experience.

"I thought we would be working on paper and just thinking about ideas, but not really getting out there," she says.

"It's awesome that we get to go to this place - and that we are taken seriously."

Fellow student Kendra Robinson says they were able to bring fresh eyes to problems within the rooms.

"We had a nurse from the hospital come and give us the down-low before the tour and, during the tour, we also heard from a doctor's perspective what's working and what's not working," Robinson says.

"They said, 'We're numb to this; we see it every day, so we really don't notice the problems you guys would.'"

Classmate Sarah Boniferro says what struck her during the tour was colour - or, rather, the lack of it.

"The outside of the hospital has so much colour that the first thing I thought was, well, we need to bring that colour inside," Boniferro remembers.

"Driving up to the hospital, I wasn't nervous at all, but once you get inside and see all of the hospital equipment, you think, 'Oh, yeah - that's where I am.'

"So bring the fun playfulness of the outside, inside."

Examining and identifying solutions

Back on campus, the student groups met to continue the conversation, which Harks says some students found challenging.

"They came together to examine all of the questions and problems they identified, and to come up with different ideas to solve them conceptually," Harks says.

"We want to instill in them that everything they do is collaborative and that, the more they collaborate, the better their designs will be."

The final stage in the charette process happens on Feb. 14, when each group of students will present their ideas with their professors and with the coordinator of Project HEAL, Stephen Page.

The design charette project is one of many ways that Mount Royal is working with Project HEAL, thanks to a partnership established by the Dean of the Faculty of Teaching and Learning, Jim Zimmer. The partnership involves several Mount Royal faculties including the Department of Interior Design & Art History.

And, says the Chair of that department, Helen Evans Warren, the design charette has also grown out of extensive brainstorming and collaboration with the Interior Design Advisory Committee, and has been shaped by Mount Royal's first DesignNite.

"The intent of DesigNite was to have discussions about design that would inform the students as they work on a design charette for a community in need," Evans Warren explains.

"The charette allows students to engage with people who need design assistance but may not be able to afford it or be able to find a design firm interested in working with them because the project is too small.

"It is important that interior design students have the opportunity to engage in real-world problems so they learn to understand project issues by visiting the site and interacting with the users and stakeholders, both individually and as a team," she says.

"It also allows the Calgary community to understand the potential of interior designers to solve problems beyond mere aesthetics."

Putting their expertise to the test

That's also an insight that the students themselves appreciate. In talking with Kovacs, Robinson and Boniferro, it's clear how much they appreciated the opportunity for practical experience in the field - and how eager they are to provide Project HEAL with solid ideas that hospital staff can work with.

"Hopefully they can take these ideas and actually have enough money to build them - or to have these ideas trigger more ideas," says Kovacs.

"This is the kind of experience I had hoped for," says Boniferro. "I think most people think about the pretty things involved with design, but not everything starts from scratch - you are usually redeveloping or recreating something that already is."

Robinson says the knowledge that they could help change lives - especially the lives of children - is powerful.

"When you realize that you can make their hospital experience better, that's just the best thing in the world," she says.

- Nancy Cope, Feb. 14, 2013