The reigning Meaning Centred Design Awards winner; an interview with Marie-Claire Springham

So Marie-Claire, you won the Meaning Centred Design Awards back in 2018. What made you decide to apply?

I had just graduated and I was looking for competitions to apply for to keep me motivated while looking for a first job. I had heard of the Recipe team (then Precipice) before and I loved its ethos. It was my first time coming across an agency that focused on Meaning Centred DesignTM, which is a methodology my university had guided me towards and also something I had taken to heart and felt an affinity with. 

It immediately made me want to apply for the competition. The application was super easy, there were no fees - just a short form to fill out. I did it in a morning and it totally paid off!

It definitely did! Where did you hear about the competition initially?

I’d heard mention of it online and a friend of mine had applied for it too. I had a look and saw there was a student category (at the time, now it’s exclusively for students and recent graduates). The submission form just needed a few things I already had – it wasn’t at all intimidating.

You then went through and won, out of dozens of entries, with your ‘Chestfeeding Kit’ project – a kit that enables fathers to lactate so they can share breastfeeding duties – which was a worthy winner, by far the most interesting project in terms of how meaning can evolve!

Can you tell me about what happened next?

When I got the email to say I had won I was so excited, I called my mum from a taxi and kind of yelled down the phone. What happened afterwards was crazy. The media really blew up around it. I was in the Recipe studio to collect my award and a member of the team had the Telegraph on the phone asking if I could provide contacts for doctors who could validate and comment on my project – luckily I did! 

After that I couldn’t keep track of all the publications. I had calls from a very diverse range of media outlets. For a little bit, I was the butt of a few jokes as people interpreted the shock and controversy of my project – I got a lot of ‘Oh my God, this woman is making men grow boobs’.

Then the second wave came around from broadcasters and publications like Vice and Good Morning Britain, who were more engaged and interested in the wider implications of the project – asking if this would change the world as we know it, what this means to parents etc. There is so much admiration but also so much judgement for new parents that this project produces strong opinions in far more people than I could have expected.

It’s undoubtable that it certainly stirred up some conversation – which is in part why it was selected as the winning entry. It raises really interesting points around the meanings of parenthood and child-rearing, alongside engrained cultural understanding and gender stereotypes.

How did you find having your project discussed on a national scale?

It was a little bit tough at times. There were certainly some people who reacted negatively to it, but there were also people who were really positive. I’ve had about 25 emails from men who want to try it, for a variety of reasons. A lot of them were expecting their second child and their wives had really struggled to breast feed their first baby, so they were looking for any possible ways to make it easier. 

Later on there was a third wave of press from publications like The New York Times, who added some deeper scientific and cultural aspects to the commentary, using my project and the press it generated to highlight how people are reacting to these emerging conversations, which is really interesting too.

It has been interpreted in such a wide range of ways, from complete rejection and disgust, to opening up new debates about human biology and even offering hope to people who are desperate to make life a bit easier for their loved ones. It has been very enlightening to see the full spectrum of meanings it can interact with!

Where is your project headed now?

It’s currently on its way to an exhibition in Montreal at the Canadian Centre for Architecture called ‘A Section of Now: Social Norms and Rituals as Sites for Architectural Intervention’, which is looking at our current society and how notions of family and life expectations are expanding. 

It’s kind of got a life of its own now! 

What advice would you give to a student looking to apply for the Meaning Centred Design Awards?

I really like the brief – it gives structure, but there are so many opportunities to make it your own. When starting a project from a meaning perspective, I think it’s important to start with the personal. I might be stealing this from Brené Brown, but “lean into discomfort”. Think about your own experiences of lockdown – was there anything that really upset you? Or anything that made you reflect on pre-lockdown life and identify things that could have been better? Did you realise you relied on something more than you thought you would?

Then, once you have the hunch or ‘the thing’, work out the ‘who’. Everyone lived through lockdown, so narrow down your user group. Take your hunch, jump on the internet to research, but it’s much better to get out and speak to real people to see how other people dealt with the same thing. It might take you off somewhere unexpected, but it’s important to keep people and their lived experiences at the heart of it.

Where would you start if you were working on this brief? (Sorry to put you on the spot!)

I did have a think about this in case you asked… I wrote down three things; relationships, practicalities and digital vs. physical. I would start with practicalities and begin by mapping out my days in lockdown. If I was doing this project, I think I would gravitate towards exercise, as I know I use that to regulate my mental health. It was also a nice way to communicate with other people in lockdown – like swift little greetings exchanged with other runners in passing.

I’d also be interested to look at the most commonly broken lockdown rules, which might lead to a particular social group, or a key factor that spans the generations. Looking for what’s illegal, or not allowed, or where people are happy to bend the rules can give you lots more insight into what is missing and what people are really feeling. It’s also a good topic of conversation for interviews with people – if they’re comfortable enough to talk about it honestly!

If you were to give a design graduate three pieces of advice, what would you say to them now?

Don’t worry if it doesn’t happen immediately. 
Some of my friends got jobs straight out of university, others had to carry on with the jobs they had – like waitressing etc. – whilst they were looking. What I’ve learnt as a freelance designer is that you can learn so much about being a good person to work with, a good freelancer, a good businessperson or even a good adult, through doing other jobs than design and it will all feed into your design work. Do not feel like a failure if you’re not employed at your dream job in the first month.

Network, network, network.
It’s more fun, it can take less energy and it’s less soul-crushing than sending out applications all the time.

Carry on learning and if you can, find ways to teach as well.
When I first finished my course, I was teaching painting and drawing in an old peoples’ day centre. I absolutely loved it and it taught me so much about being overprepared, which allows you to freestyle. Since studying UX design and doing co-creation workshops, I use exactly the same techniques as I was using when setting up at the day centre. In an environment where you’re constantly applying for things, going somewhere where people are pleased to see you and you have purpose and control, counts for so much. It helps you gain perspective and balance things out. It adds more strings to your bow too.

Marie-Claire Springham graduated from BA Product Design at Central Saint Martins in 2018, winning the Meaning Centred Design Awards shortly after. Her winning project ‘Will and Way’ can be found here and has been featured in DezeenThe New York Times and, to name but a few. She has just completed an MSc in Digital Design and is working as a freelance designer.