Designing a way out of the dark – in 3.5 days

Design Director

Is there an opportunity for design-led organizations in sports and health during winter’s darkest days? As we come out the other side of the shortest days of the year, it’s a good time to reflect how shorter days and the darker season can have a fundamental impact on our psyche. I’m fortunate to not be among the one in three people in the UK that suffers from seasonal affective disorder (SAD) – a depressive condition that comes and goes in a seasonal pattern. And although I try to stay active all year round, I still find it increasingly difficult during the limited daylight months of winter – evidently, I’m not alone.

Total daily activity levels are 15-20% higher on summer days with sunset after 9pm, compared to winter days with sunset before 5pm"
London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine

The relationship between daylight and activity

For most of us, it’s not the weather, but the amount of daylight that constrains our ability to be active and move around cities easily. Paradoxically one of the best ways to counteract winter malaise is to be more active. We asked ourselves, how can we, as product and service designers help people be more active – and hopefully more happy – during the darker days? And then we set out to understand the opportunities for product development and innovation using a new kind of design sprint – 3.5 days from start to finish.

Here’s what we found:

  1. The impact of limited daylight needs to be considered holistically. Millions of years of evolution means our sleep cycle, eating habits, and routine are all affected during seasons with less daylight. Less daylight can seriously affect people’s physical and mental wellbeing, and thus impact their ability to keep up or start exercising, even though exercise is one of the activities proven to have major benefits.
  2. Cities are becoming our playgrounds, but infrastructure is struggling to keep up. Cities are becoming the stadiums we work out, run and cycle in – sometimes alone, sometimes in ‘fitness crews’ and micro mobility is creating new, more playful forms of transport that are making the commute more multi-modal.
  3. The athleisure movement has helped us transition from home to office but there’s still a gap. Fashion and fitness have a long relationship with what we wear, affecting us on a deep psychological level. While many brands old and new have ridden the wave of the athleisure movement there is evidence that this is slowing and approaching saturation.
  4. Safety is about seeing and being seen. Compromised situational awareness and safety are inherent with night time activity and the impact on visibility. Often the existing running companions we have – e.g. headphones – make the problem worse.

Three opportunity spaces for brands operating in this sector

We used the ‘what if’ framework to frame our insights and concepting, around three opportunity spaces – motivation, the post-athleisure revolution, and safety.

1. Motivation: What if a brand became your motivator to train in the dark, as well as your companion?

The hardest part of a winter run is getting out the door, as the hours of daylight decrease so does our motivation.  This raises an interesting paradox: one of the main ways to alleviate the issues with less daylight i.e. getting more activity is increasingly difficult to start and continue when there is less of it. When looking at current products on the market they fall into two categories:

  • Those that aim to alleviate symptoms of SAD by helping you wake up easier, but not helping you with motivation to be active (e.g.: Philips’ SAD lamp)
  • Those that help with the moment when you are training or for post recovery.

Having explored the phenomenon of “enclothed cognition” (how what we wear can influence our state of mind), we felt there was an opportunity to create a lasting bond with athletes by being their companion throughout their entire fitness journey – not just when they are already on the road.

2. Post-athleisure revolution: What if your apparel was as flexible as you needed it to be at any given moment?

The commute makes up a significant part of people’s lives and is changing rapidly with the advent of new city infrastructure. This, along with people increasingly combining part of their city commutes with their physical activity, is changing the purpose of our cities from places of work to playgrounds.

This throws up a host of pressures: unhappy commuters, athletes on the streets who might hop from a run to an e-scooter. And, for three months of the year, less daylight playing havoc with the conditions that you need to transition between work and working out. This led us to think about what an evolution in post-athleisure could be – taking sports equipment and apparel onto the next level of personalization by adapting to people and their environment. Athleisure has helped a new breed of commuters and athletes switch from physical activity to work. We believe the next step will be to help them move between more complex transitions such as from their run to their electric skateboard or from a poorly lit street to a bright rail station platform.

3. Safety: What if your gear could help you focus more on your workouts, and less on your safety?

For many, dark nights and mornings bring heightened anxiety around personal safety, from the point of view of seeing and being seen. Decreased visibility and the risk of running alone on empty darkened streets deter athletes from taking advantage of the hours after sunset and this problem only gets worse with many of the running aids we use (e.g. headphones.)

Our interviews with users raised many interesting perspectives on the question of safety in limited light. The key alleviating factors included being part of a community or group (interestingly this also was shown to increase motivation to continue training as well), and the perception of feeling safer if it is more likely you will be seen, along with a number of innovations in city bikes is demonstrating this already. We believe there is an opportunity to help athletes feel safe and secure without compromising their experience.

After darkness, comes the light

Just as the days are now getting longer and brighter, we believe our ideas will shed more light on the problem of beating the winter blues. We’ve proven that a design sprint, even at 3.5 days, can create a range of innovation opportunities for companies and brands who operate in this area and we look forward to bringing our concepts to life across our London and NY studios.

Feature photo courtesy of Sarah Gearhart

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