Gail Kenning is bridging the gap between art and design. As an experimental artist, educator and design researcher, she explores how digital media and new technologies can enrich other research fields through cross-disciplinary and transdisciplinary approaches. With a passion for craft and everyday creativity, Kenning focuses on issues concerning ageing, health and wellbeing. In particular, she investigates how craft-based textile activities such as knitting, lacemaking can create pleasurable experiences for the elderly and people with dementia.
Since obtaining her Master’s Degree in Fine Art at Birmingham City University, Kenning has been working at the intersection of digital media, art, craft and design. In 2009, she completed her Doctorate in Digital Art Theory from the University of New South Wales. Currently, Kenning is as a Researcher at the University of Technology Sydney and Honorary Reader in design for ageing and dementia at Cardiff Metropolitan University.
Social engagement through craft
Through various codesign workshops and ethnographic approaches, Kenning strives to understand the needs of people with dementia. While memory loss and impaired communication are leading symptoms of Alzheimer's and similar brain diseases, people with dementia still maintain their ability to process sensory information, which can sometimes spark joy and give them pleasure. Kenning’s goal is to design assistive technologies that can stimulate the senses, promote positive social engagement and ultimately improve a person’s quality of life.
“Often, in designing for people living with dementia, the focus is not only about the design of objects but how the design of objects and activities facilitate relationships between people,” Kenning explains. “For those who are visiting [people with dementia], it can be a very difficult time. They don’t know what to talk about or what to do. And sometimes focusing on objects or activities and not only the person with dementia can help.”
As a Design United Research Fellow, Kenning was able to deepen her research by conducting a series of participatory design workshops with students and researchers from Eindhoven University of Technology. These ranged from identifying activities that generate social connections to collecting biomarker data from participants engaging in a craft project.
“It all comes back to how we can understand what’s happening in a space between human beings through objects, through activities,” Kenning says. “The object is important but what is most important is what happens in the space when it is put into context.”
Given the multidisciplinary nature of her work, Kenning believes that arts and design have a significant place alongside science and technology. Indeed, the artist highly encourages design researchers and practitioners to explore a range of methodologies to gain a better understanding of what they are trying to design and who they are designing for.
“When it comes to dementia, science researchers are still looking for treatments and a cure,” Kenning says. “What’s really important is what happens to those people now. And this is where arts and design have an important role to play. You can’t reverse dementia but you can give people pleasure, which means their view of the world is different. You can take away stress, you can give people challenges and you can give people hope.”