Life in a year book

How We Designed For Life … and Death (Case Study)

ABOUT

The HappyUrns project is a collection of initiatives supported by the Lien Foundation and the Ang Chin Moh Foundation to overcome the taboo surrounding the topic of death.

CHALLENGE

Create experiences that invite introspection and sharing around death

THE OUTCOME

ARTICLE

“What is a favourite recipe of yours?” 

A bowl of steaming hot dumplings appears, fresh out of boiling, yummy soup. I hurriedly try to take a bite, but not before getting told off yet again by my dad who says I should be patient and wait for my food to cool down. Seduced by wafts of deliciousness, I ignore his warning and sink my teeth into the scalding hot dumpling. My mom smiles at the sight, eyes wrinkling at the corners in a beautiful way. She quickly dusts off the remaining flour still on her hands and joins me at the table.

It’s funny how reminiscing my favorite dishes always brings me back to the gentle caution from my dad and the kind and perhaps even amused expression my mom gives. The memory of their faces become more poignant than ever in these small flashbacks. Perhaps it is because food always played a huge part in my household and the idea of food and family is always intertwined closely that this simple question can take me back to a place full of feeling.

I remember going back that weekend and feeling oddly emotional. With this memory fresh in my head, I found myself more present in each moment I spent having meals with my family. It made me more aware of how much time spent with my family meant to me, and also how potentially losing that would make me feel. It is a bittersweet feeling.

What is a favorite recipe of yours?

This is just one of the many prompts you would find in the Life in a Year book. The Life in a Year Book is best described as a journal filled with prompts carefully curated to take users and their loved ones on a journey to understand one another better and to immortalize shared moments. The book is part of the HappyUrns initiative to encourage people to engage in candid conversations about death with loved ones, reflect on their relationships and celebrate life to its fullest.

In Singapore, the idea of speaking about death still remains taboo in many communities today. People tiptoe around the
subject and are afraid to confront the difficult conversations that should happen before and after life’s promised event. In response to this, the Design Innovation team embarked on an emotional and fruitful journey with a mission to transform the taboo topic into one that focuses on the celebration of life and the people that make it worth living.

The Urns

The HappyUrns initiative started when the Design Innovation team was commissioned by Lien Foundation and Ang Chin Moh Foundation to design urns for 7 residents of St. Joseph’s Elderly Home. The inspiration behind this program was to encourage these individuals to discuss the topic of mortality, life’s best moments and how they would like to be remembered by loved ones. 

While Singapore’s ageing population continues to grow, conversations regarding death are still frowned upon by many. A common response to an attempt at starting a conversation would be “Touch wood, touch wood” (a superstitious belief to avoid bad luck) or “choy!”. Many are afraid of talking about death, in fear that talking about it would hasten its approach in some way. Even those who are not necessarily superstitious are conditioned not to approach this topic. 

By inviting individuals to take part in designing their own urns, we hope to debunk the idea that talking about deathis depressing. An instinctual reaction would be: ”Who would want to design the thing that they are cremated in?”. However, a clever reframe of this is: “How do I want people to feel when they look at my urn?”, and that was precisely the mindset of the 7 lovely residents of St. Joseph’s Home as they shared with our DI members their stories and favorite things in life. 

Unlike designing a product with objective features, the Design Innovation team believed that the urns should reflect the residents’ unique stories. This meant countless hours of interviewing and brainstorming together with the residents. The design process also evolved into a safe space for the residents to share their life story and even connect deeper with loved ones. In the process, these life stories, their quirks and all, eventually shaped the final urn designs that were created.

Theresa seeing a prototype for the first time

Life in a Year Book

Inspired by the discussions with these residents, there was an inkling that many more people could benefit from having conversations like this. The Design Innovation team challenged themselves to create a tool to spur candid and heartwarming conversations about death that was more accessible to the general public. The team explored many different ideas, conducted interviews with various stakeholders and eventually arrived at a paperback journal aptly named the Life in a Year book.

The book has 179 prompts that inspire discussions about the things that matter in life and the emotions that come with death. Rather than a private journal, the Life in a Year Book is meant to be used together with a loved one. It is a bold re-imagination of how urns could be viewed as a vessel for the deepest most cherished parts of those we love - their personalities and our shared memories. 

Doodles on the Year in a Life Book

The book can be surprisingly lighthearted. The prompts are intentionally organized to help users engage with the topic of celebration of life and death gently and slowly, over the course of a year. At the end of the day, you’ll only learn more about yourself and your loved one and better cherish the best parts about life.

Takeaways

While the HappyUrns initiative will eventually come to an end, we hope that each project becomes a seed to remind individuals that the end of life is not something to be afraid of, but an occasion that calls for love, appreciation and celebration of a lifewell-lived. Normalising discussions about death is how we stop dancing around the word-that-shall-not-be-talked-about. Start speaking with the precious people in your life today. If you’re worried about not knowing how to start, get a copy of our Life in a Year Book or Celebration Kit to help you out. We’ll help you out with the first step.

About Design Innovation Singapore

Design Innovation Singapore is the design service arm of DesignZ at Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD). We offer a wide range of design services to our clients including design consultancy, design innovation training and organizational transformation, product development, etc. We are a lean team of multidisciplinary designers who have a passion for user-centric design in both application and education. 

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