What counts: Playability

Im Gespräch: Karin Schmidt-Ruhland

Sep 4, 2015
Designing for target groups with very special needs: Karin Schmidt-Ruhland works within her scope of research not only with children but also with elderly persons. Photo © Matthias Ritzmann

Es ist nicht leicht, Möbel und Spielzeug für Kinder zu entwerfen. Im Gespräch mit Sara Bertsche erklärt Karin Schmidt-Ruhland, die an der Burg Giebichenstein in Halle Spiel- und Lerndesign lehrt, warum das so ist.

Research, experiment, play: for the last eight years Karin Schmidt-Ruhland has been teaching “Design of Playing and Learning” at Burg Giebichenstein in Halle. The Dept. of Design at the University of Art and Design is the only one world-wide where young industrial designers can go into the design of playing and learning in depth. Schmidt-Ruhland’s students learn to design toys and furniture for kids, which above all else means: Getting into the fray. Quite literally, as the designs are tried and tested first by the prospective young users. In the university’s very own kindergarten, which the Dept. of Design has furnished and uses as a “lab”. So what do you have to look out for when designing furniture for children? Sara Bertsche talked about this with Karin Schmidt-Ruhland – and also about why designers must see themselves not only as creative designers but also as empathetic educationalists.

Sara Bertsche: How did you end up concerning yourself with design for playing and learning?

Karin Schmidt-Ruhland: While studying Business Administration I became interested in design – my great role model was Milanese designer Achille Castiglioni. I was so taken by his functional approach and reduced formal vocabulary that after graduating I enrolled at the UDK in Industrial Design. There I concerned myself with products for children. And it simply really appealed to me.

If you look back on your own childhood, have children’s rooms changed down through the decades?

Schmidt-Ruhland: I grew up in the country, where a children’s room played no role at all and was only a bedroom. We played elsewhere. In my son’s room there’s of course a lot more than just a bed because he uses it as a living space. In general I believe that rooms for kids nowadays tend to get cluttered up with a lot of junk. Our society consumes much more than in the past and that is noticeable in children’s rooms, too.

Who says, a shelf has to look like a shelf? Little “tree house nests” with “knotholes” serve as well. Photo © Marvin Heß

So what does a children’s room need?

Schmidt-Ruhland: Essentially only a bed, a table, a chair, some shelves and a lighting source. Those are the archetypes that meet children’s basic needs. My students have first of all to design those items of furniture and later have them ‘mutate’ in all sorts of versions. A table then gets given a slit where kids can hang toys, for example.

What do students need to think about when designing furniture for kids?

Schmidt-Ruhland: I try and persuade them to go for participatory designing. For which they need above all a good gift for observation and empathy, because the method really hinges on feeling your way into the user group’s mind-set. Since September 2014 we’ve been furnishing the university’s own crèche, which functions as our field for experimentation and research. The new building has space for 50 children whom we can watch playing. That’s really important as only thus can we ascertain what they need and identify what the fit-out doesn’t offer them. This way we can find solutions precisely in the form of furniture or toys.

So it’s all about “field research”…

Schmidt-Ruhland: Exactly. And in my opinion that is also what designers should always do. We have accordingly developed our own pedagogic concept for the kindergarten and designed the interior along with the architectural office of Martin Büdel. The rooms are already equipped with simple furniture that we want to advance on the basis of what we observe. And the kids then try out the new prototypes.

According to a study by Hans Mogel, who teaches Psychology at the University of Passau, a reduced design for toys leaves more scope for the kids’ creativity and imagination. Does that also apply to kids’ furniture?

Schmidt-Ruhland: Of course. I call that “playability” and it’s part of the pedagogic concept. You can achieve it by predefining as little a number of details as possible, which takes us back to the archetypes. At the outset, kids tend to love excessive design but the enthusiasm is short-lived. They soon lose interest as the object can no longer be turned in their imaginations into something else. Furniture needs to offer children the scope for personal uses.

It does not always have to be complicated: With a simple “connector” children can built their own interior. The rest is up to their fantasy. Design “Flux” by Patrick Thomas. Photo © Burg Giebichenstein

And what would such furniture look like?

Schmidt-Ruhland: The years before last I told my students to playfully “manipulate” a seat to kindle an awareness of all the different things furniture can be for a child. One student designed a kind of milking stool which had grip recesses on the legs. Kids could sit on the stool but also turn it upside down and seesaw on the reverse of the seat, holding onto the legs and really going for it. The children were thus able to decide for themselves whether they wanted to sit on the stool or preferred to play with it.

What’s your take on furniture classics shrunk to kiddie size? I’m thinking of Verner Panton’s “Panton Junior” for Vitra, for example.

Schmidt-Ruhland: They obviously look great. But I don’t know whether they function for kids, that’s beyond my ken. Often it’s a matter of the visions of adults who can hardly remember how they used the furniture in their own rooms as kids.

What adults want for their children’s rooms is not always what children want. How do designers handle this discrepancy?

Schmidt-Ruhland: Often they actually provide three designs: One tailored to the parent’s tastes; one that reflects the children’s wishes; and one intended to appeal to the manufacturer. Because sometimes what the children want doesn’t get bought because the adults don’t like it. They are, indirectly, the target group, because the money is in their pockets. The final proposal is therefore sometimes a bit of a compromise. If the students later design for the manufacturer, they will have their work cut out for them to persuade the makers to choose the design best-suited for the kids. In the university kindergarten it’s exactly the same story. You have to convince the care staff that the design is good as it is they who will be living with the furniture and they will have their own ideas of order. Our task therefore hinges on getting all the user groups round the table and reflecting their needs in the design.


Choose, what you like: a place to hide, a landscape to play or a wardrobe? Design “bushes” by Lisa Grünberg. Photo © Burg Giebichenstein
High above in the eagle’s nest, you can play or read without getting disturbed. Design by Raja Köbke. Photo © Burg Giebichenstein
House, cave, stool – reduced forms are helping children to decide on their own, how they want to use the furniture. Design “The little city“ by Judith Schulz, Wiebke Steinert and Teresa Schulten. Photo © Burg Giebichenstein