RNLI - Design out Drowning

We were appointed by the RNLI to lead a community-led research project in the south west focused on reducing drowning.

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Project aims

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

Design Out Drowning is a community led project supported by the RNLI. We were appointed to conduct research in the south west and explore the value of 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 were able to unearth new insights and develop a portfolio of design briefs that aim 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. Our 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 also worked with an illustrator to bring some of the stories and experiences to life.



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 water and cold water shock;
  • Walking along the coast/cliff with dogs off leads, unsuitable clothings etc
  • 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: https://prezi.com/view/F776Y4Eesl555RhMn6sN/


Discovery workshops

Building on our initial insights, we ran a series of discovery workshops for stakeholders and creative thinkers to get involved in. The aim of these events was to bring RNLI staff together with businesses, designers and voluntary groups together 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 explored possibilities and 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 (how people behave and the environmental factors);
  • Developed a shared understanding of local problems;
  • Identified skills and resources within the community that have the potential to address coastal safety challenges;
  • Identified opportunities for further research;
  • Developed local networks and brokered creative partnerships.

Our research has laid the foundations for innovative ideas to flourish. We feel confident that the design briefs are solving the right problems. However it is clear that the RNLI have only just begun to scratch the surface of the possibilities to reduce drowning and keep people safer at the coast. The bigger challenge going forward will be for creative teams to work with the community and develop solutions to the challenges that are both sustainable and measurable.


"Working with Made Open was a very positive experience. They are entrepreneurial and very well networked and can quickly find people to fill skills gaps. They are very committed to finding ways to help society help itself and are biased towards action. A good energy. :-)"

Will Roberts - Innovation Manager, RNLI


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