Design for Island Life

For MDes at The Glasgow School of Art

Design for Island Life explores what it means to live and work in the Outer Hebrides, and identifies future opportunities from these research insights. It pioneers a new form of social design practice, moving beyond the walls of the studio and into the lives and communities on the Outer Hebrides. Looking at citizenship, culture, and technology throughout this design research journey, we proposed Storywave - a collaborative digital platform for reimagining Hebridean futures.

Many young people leave the islands but maintain a strong connection to Hebridean culture and Storywave gives them and their communities the opportunity to leap over this geographical distance and be involved in a collective future. This design concept is the result of close collaboration with Hebrideans on Lewis and in Glasgow, and of using co-design to identify opportunities that might be of interest and value to the islands.

Developing a Research Question

The brief asked my team to look at citizenship, culture, and technology in new ways and in the context of the Hebridean islands in Scotland. For a first glimpse of island life, we conducted desk research and attended a series of talks by Hebrideans.

This was part of "Winter School" where we worked with students from Cologne, Copenhagen, and Glasgow, and researchers from the Institute of Design Innovation to develop meaningful research questions as a starting point for this project. My team and I presented our first findings as an exhibition and adapted our research question according to feedback from fellow researchers.

Fieldwork and Co-Design in Glasgow

The main challenge for this research journey, was how to understand island life from a distance. We started by looking at books, newspapers, art, and music from the Hebrides. We eventually shifted our focus towards more accessible sites and participants in Glasgow. Here, we encountered a Hebridean community with a strong connection to their home, and full of innovative ideas about the islands. We attended events, visited popular islander hangouts in Glasgow, gathered impressions, had plenty of spontaneous conversations, and gained new contacts. We spoke to people from diverse backgrounds and gained insight into music, academic views, political activism, Gaelic, and cultural organisations.


To analyse all this diverse research data - often informal and ranging from photos to conversations to music - we created an evidence wall and kept adding to it and drawing connections throughout the project. Our initial research question evolved several times as we adapted to new findings and to what might be possible within this project. The main insight emerging from this, was that within the Hebridean community we encountered in Glasgow, people often maintain a sense of responsibility towards the Hebrides and their communities, even when leaving the islands temporarily or permanently.

Fieldwork and Co-Design on Lewis

This gave us first ideas and a clearer direction. We also developed a concept to describe what we think is happening on the islands. Many people pointed towards young people leaving as a big problem for the Hebrides. We speculated that the actual issues lies in what they take with them: curiosity, creativity, vibrancy, ambition, risk-taking, and an open mindset. This means, the Hebridean islands might be experiencing 'potential drain'. To test these first findings and expand them, we conducted two co-design workshops, one in Glasgow and one in Stornoway.

We wanted to learn more about the connection between these two places, about the relationship especially young people have to the island, and also to start ideating and envisioning together with participants. When we finally travelled to Stornoway, we spent most of our time following up contacts, gathering impressions, exploring, getting a feeling for island life as a young person: we attended a folk music night, visited Ann Lanntair art centre, talked to people at the hostel and the ferry port, took the bus, visited the library and cafes, visited the universtiy, and hunted for wifi.


Back in Glasgow, the team joined up their impressions and ideas, and worked on storyboarding and developing the concepts that had emerged from both co-design workshops. We translated their core ideas into the design concept "Storywave".

There are many connections between people who relate to the Hebrides and live away, and people on the island. These connections happen both virtually and physically, but their nature is mainly social, and immediate. However, there is an opportunity to move these deeper.

Design Concept: Storywave

What if we could shift the social and immediate nature of these connections towards collaboration and collective envisioning? This question inspired Storywave, a collaborative platform for reimagining Hebridean futures. Many young people around the world have a connection to Hebridean culture. Storywave lets them leap over geographical distance to open up undiscovered opportunities together with people on the islands. This aims to show a new perspective on young people going away. It celebrates the potential they can contribute to collective futures, and could raise confidence in island identity.

On Storywave, people could share stories, events, news or anything that is important to them. You could opt for writing, recording videos, taking photos or recording sounds. These options are inspired by the Hebridean oral tradition of telling stories through songs and poems. For each story, people can choose icons and tag words to help navigate easily. Based on the idea of a newspaper, Storywave invites people not only to tell stories of today, but also to discover and imagine stories of tomorrow. The further in the future a story is, the further down and blurrier it is shown. If people are interested in building on an idea from the ocean of tales, they can use the Lighthouse section to find others with specific skills or resources to collaborate. They can also participate in imagining Hebridean futures by joining the WHAT IF challenge. It's a playful sandbox scheme that generates icons and words from today's stories as prompt to speculate and to respond with future fictional stories.