The idea of including users in the design process begun in the 1970’s and has since developed from taking users’ opinions into account into participatory design where the community itself takes part in design workshops. Participatory design is a fundamental part of functional design as it is the users who know their needs when it comes to products, furniture or interiors.

Participatory design practices are also used in larger scale where town/city residents partake in town and service planning in their local community. This way residents are able to influence official decision making in issues that affect their environment. This approach is becoming common in the Nordic countries as well as other parts of the world and participatory methods are used in various different contexts.

I recently ran into an interesting study made by an Aalto University student Kaija Aalto, in which she explores learning environments and their furnishing using user-centered methods.  Aalto included school children in the design process of school furniture that would better suit Finland’s new curriculum for basic learning that has been in effect since Autumn 2016.

The new curriculum shifts learning from teacher-directed approach toward student-oriented learning. Aalto believes that this shift places new demands for furniture in learning environments. She states in her study that “furniture holds a central role in creating a functional learning environment” and “innovative furniture solutions are necessary when creating new kinds of learning environments”. Aalto begun by researching with the help of primary school children what makes a good, safe and fun space that encourages learning. Aalto aimed to design an unexpected piece of furniture for schools and she believes that co-design methods help to challenge the general idea of suitable school furniture. In co-design, all participants are considered equal throughout the process and thus is a step further from the user-centered design approach.

Aalto conducted co-design workshops in local schools that concentrated on pupil’s feelings of security, the importance of one’s personal space and how important different pieces of school furniture were in fulfilling these needs.

Ideas risen from the workshops combined with earlier research on the topic and studying the new curriculum produced a multifunctional piece that can be used as a soft mat and when joined with another element becomes a tabletop to work on or a stool or a support for leaning to when working on the floor.

Kaija Aalto found that children can have a very meaningful input when it comes to designing their own working spaces. Their contribution into developing their learning environments was filled with not only fun but practical observations. The result points to participatory methods combined with designers’ professional knowledge producing truly functional furniture.

After reading Aalto’s study I found myself interested participatory design in which children were included in the design process. I set to searching and found another case where children were included in the process of designing a space for themselves: “Habi Kids” area in Habitare interior, design and furniture fair in Helsinki in 2017. Children and their parents took part in designing a “world’s greatest learning amusement park”. The secondary aim of the project was to increase design learning in schools, which also supports the new curriculum in Finland. The project was coordinated together with SuoMu – the Finnish Association of Design Learning, Habitare and Helsinki Design Week.

The project included in total of 14 4 to11-year- old children with their parents who took part in workshops that utilized design learning and co-design methods. Participants were able to brainstorm and sketch their dream space onto the ground plan of the area. The results were imaginative and oftentimes wild and the organizers were amazed with the amount of ideas and the creative thinking behind them. The results were turned into a colour scheme for the space as well as basis for illustrated walls among other things.

I personally find this approach interesting and support participatory design and decision making in general. When it comes to including children in the process I am a little dubious as to how much their input is actually utilized in the final product. Us adults often have a need to control matters and in especially in the case of Habi Kids I do hope that the final design for the space utilized the amazing creativity that the participants showed more than just in the colour scheme and wall illustrations.

Yet, I totally agree with Kaija Aalto’s opinion in that professional designers have their place in creating truly usable furniture and thus I am more inclined to promote co-design, where professionals with different backgrounds are brought together with users in at least some of the workshops. However, I would like to see a touch of the uninhibited, childish imagination to find its way into the final products.


Liisa-Maija / Kunstportal


References used for this blog text:

Aalto, Kaija: Hiput – designing furniture for the learning environment using methods of co-design, 2017, Pro Arte Utili a Study of Furniture – Exhibition book, Aalto University School of Arts, Design and Architecture. Edited by Jouko Järvisalo & Martin Relander. give-children/?lang=en rakentuu-lasten- suunnitelmien- pohjalta?publisherId=1811&releaseId=57060512 (in Finnish) (in Finnish)


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