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Open to imagination
Designing interior spaces for children means striking a balance for everyone
Alexandra Lange on How we design for kids
How Architecture Learns from Children
- Eye on Design
When approaching a project for children, it is important to leave the space open to the imagination subtly, encouraging/stimulating their imagination, enabling each of them to interpret and experience it in their own way, in all the different ways that they can invent. We have to avoid giving it an infantile slant, which is very commonly seen in children’s products, which generates products that are far more ‘closed’ and which do not leave any room for the imagination.
When a designer is commissioned to do a project, they usually try to put themselves in the shoes of the user who will make use of the space that they are designing. In the case of designing spaces for children, it is normally an exercise in looking back to the past, remembering things they used to like, the spaces that made them feel comfortable, and recalling that sense of childhood that gave us free rein to imagine.
Over the course of the ten years of my professional career as a space designer, and due to a number of coincidences along the way, I have had to design various spaces for children, many of them related to the field of healthcare. Over the years, I have gradually learned a set of principles that I seldom observe or see applied when I research other spaces for children.
In most cases, designing this kind of children’s spaces involves managing colour and shapes, while, in many cases, it is directly a matter of theming a space. This poses a challenge to the professional, who either develops a low-key project with the risk that the client or user does not perceive the existence or contribution of a designed project, or exaggerates, with the ever-present danger of making a ridiculous mockery of the space.
Designing a space for children runs the risk of turning into an infantile project designed from an adult’s perspective, rather than a project for children. Effectively managing this challenge is the key to success.
One principle that we strive to follow at my studio when we are commissioned to do projects for children is to design a type of space or element with themes that are not fully obvious, that may go unnoticed or be left to personal interpretation in many cases. Sometimes, abstraction, rather than a markedly figurative approach, is one way to achieve this. Another way is to use themes or stories that might blend into the background in terms of importance and which can only be partially discerned, perhaps going unobserved or only fully being perceived after a number of visits to the space. An excess of evidence often undermines this intention or makes the space overwhelming for people who have to use it on a daily basis. Commercially popular characters, which are often a tempting option for spaces with these needs, are an example of this idea of a closed interpretation with permanent evidence that makes the space predictable.
In my opinion, stimulating imagination is an added value in spaces, and even more so in the case of spaces for children.
Before starting the process of designing a project of this kind, when I think back to the past, I remember those games that enabled me to develop my imagination and stimulate creativity. In contrast to toys where the characters were already very defined and the scope for creating new possibilities was extremely limited, there were building games with wooden, plastic or metal blocks, with which you could invent whatever you wanted. These are things that you analyse once a number of years have gone by and you understand their value.
I have always found this versatility in terms of building whatever their imagination decides to be a tool that stimulates this creative spirit. In my opinion, it is important to design elements or spaces for children that are not closed or defined. I believe that they have to allow the children to decide what and how they want to see.
All these assertions become even more pertinent when we realise that many of the spaces that we classify as “spaces for children” are often not exclusively for kids, but rather they are shared with adults. A good example is children’s hospitals, a type of project on which I have worked on various occasions. Nowadays, it is essential that a children’s hospital has an effective design project to ensure that the spaces make children feel comfortable. However, the objective goes beyond simply creating unique spaces; it also fulfils a functional aspect: generating a friendly perception in a type of space that has not traditionally been very welcoming. This helps to reduce the patients’ stress when they come to the hospital, making them more amenable when they have to undergo a test or exploration, which, in turn, facilitates the work of the professionals.
A children’s hospital is a set of spaces in which it is essential that the professionals and people accompanying the patients feel as comfortable and at ease as the children. It is an easy mistake to design these spaces only with the kids in mind. As well as this consideration in terms of different types of user, it is also important to bear in mind that, when we talk about children, we are referring to a really varied range of profiles, both in terms of age and their personality. In a hospital, there are newborns, children and teenagers, so there are diverse and often opposing sensibilities to take into account. Every child, just like every human being, is a world of their own.
To conclude, when undertaking a design project for children, it is important to strike the balance that enables different kinds of users to feel comfortable. If the project leaves this margin for free interpretation, it will let the user imbue the project with meaning, based on their own perception and experience.
Main image: Hospital Sant Joan de Deu, Barcelona, Rai Pinto Studio. Photo ©Victòria Gil