/// Reflection

Empathy with the non-human: the personas of soil

Turning soil into persons through the tool of personas.

SoilMates is a 2-day event organised by Studio Swenden and Hummus & Hortense, focused on creating more awareness and appreciation for soil. In order to approach the topic of soil from a different perspective, we decided to create personas of different kinds of soil found in urban environments.

Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung considered the persona as “a kind of mask, designed on the one hand to make a definite impression upon others, and on the other to conceal the true nature of the individual”. Within human-centred design personas have become an interesting tool to create these masks for target populations and describe the needs for each of them allowing us to design better solutions for them keeping their needs in mind. As the issues designers are confronted with have increasingly shifted more towards ecosystems which involve non-human actors, the idea of creating these masks for non-human actors has started to present itself. Additionally, the human brain often adds human characteristics to nonhuman objects, concepts or systems through anthropomorphisation (e.g. aggressive cars, brutal storms, lucky numbers, etc.).



Year: 2021

Location: Brussels


Team: Adrian Hill, Laurens Van der Cruyssen

Sector: Public space & community

Services: Vision

So, when SoilMates approached us to help create more awareness of the importance of soil, we started playing around with applying the concept of the personas to non-human soil types. When discussing soil, one can easily get into rather complex stories of characteristics involving the pH-level, fertility, health, organic matter etc. very much like the complicated aggregate of human personalities. We decided to take four types of urban soil (i.e. polluted soil, common soil, reconstructed soil and displaced soil), portray them as human personalities with their own story, and link them through the narrative of a broken family system. In contrast to the traditional presentation of personas through posters, we opted for an installation with artefacts to allow for a more sensory activating experience of the personas.

After the presentation of the personas we asked the participants how soil can be improved in quality, and subsequently we asked them to apply these solutions to the different personas. The result was that participants became more aware of the different kinds of soil, its problems, but also their capabilities to improve soil themselves (e.g. looking for the right kind of soil and treatment, getting more informed, preventing soil from getting polluted).


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