Design Out Drowning

We led a community research project in the South West to help the RNLI design out drowning.

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Project aims

The Royal National Lifeboat Institution aim to develop a portfolio of sustainable products, services and interventions that reduces the risk of drowning around the coast of the UK and ROI.

Design Out Drowning was a community led project supported by the RNLI. We were appointed to conduct research in the South West using a design-led approach to innovation.

We collaborated with design partners Amy Sergison, Matt Stone, Bethia Thomas and Arts University Bournemouth to learn more about drowning risks and challenges affecting coastal communities in Cornwall and Devon.

By observing behaviours and spending time with people from across the region, we unearthed new insights and developed a portfolio of design briefs to keep people safe at the coast and address local needs.


Community research

During the summer months, we spoke to hundreds of people around the coast including fishermen, dog walkers, surfers, sailors, lifeguards, tourists, swimmers and business owners to discover how and why people get into difficulty in the sea.

We worked with RNLI staff and subject matter experts responsible for community safety. Research activities included:

  •  Data analysis and desk research
  •  Ethnography and user journey mapping
  •  Community events and public engagement
  •  One to one interviews (filming)
  •  Stakeholder engagement and questionnaires
  •  Online engagement and social media
  •  Discovery and ideas sharing workshops



We categorised observations and stories into key topic areas for further exploration, for example:

  • Not being aware of changing tides and rip currents.
  • Overestimation of swimming ability in open or cold water.
  • Coastal walking with dogs off leads wearing unsuitable clothing.
  • Drinking alcohol.
  • Mental ill health.
  • Not reading / noticing the signs or listening to advice.
  • Not wearing personal floatation devices.
  • Showing off, blind belief and peer pressure.

These insights helped us to get a better understanding of key drowning risks and identify opportunities for interventions. More details:


Discovery workshops

Building on our initial insights, we ran a series of discovery workshops for stakeholders and creative thinkers.

These events helped RNLI staff, businesses, designers and voluntary groups to share knowledge, prioritise challenges and discuss ideas.

We worked with Arts University Bournemouth to connect our community research with their environmental site audits.

Throughout the process, we generated a high level of enthusiasm for DOD challenges amongst the creative community in Cornwall and Devon.

Together we developed a set of design innovation briefs, which aim to reduce drowning and add social value.


Emerging design challenges

These are just a selection of the design challenges that emerged from our collaborative research process. The final set of design briefs were launched by the RNLI in early 2019.

Theme: Safety Communications and Signage

How might we reduce drowning by rethinking how and when we communicate safety messages?

Theme: Coastal Wellbeing

How might we promote positive mental wellbeing in waterside environments?

Theme: Safer Coastal Environments

How might we design environments that prevent intoxicated people from entering the water?


Outcomes and reflections

During phase 1 we:

  • Captured stories and insights about coastal communities.
  • Developed a shared understanding of local problems.
  • Identified skills and resources within the community.
  • Identified opportunities for further research.
  • Developed local networks and brokered creative partnerships.

Our research laid the foundations for innovative ideas to flourish.  

In working with Made Open, we have developed momentum with a fantastic network of talent. Made Open were particularly brilliant at broadening our horizons in terms of potential partners, stakeholders and collaborators...whom we are now working with to help reduce the risk of drowning around our coasts in the South West.

Will Roberts, Innovation Manager, RNLI


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