Design out Drowning 

 September 9, 2018


Ethnographic community research

A community research project in the South West to help the RNLI design out drowning.

The project

Design Out Drowning was a community led project supported by the RNLI. Made Open were appointed to conduct research in the South West using a design-led approach to innovation. Claire joined the project as the ethnographic filmmaker and an assistant project coordinator.

The Royal National Lifeboat Institution work on products, services and interventions to reduce the risk of coastal drowning around the UK and ROI.

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

Researching the community

During the summer of 2018, the ethnography team spoke to hundreds of people around the coast including fishermen, dog walkers, surfers, sailors, lifeguards, tourists and business owners to discover how and why people get into difficulty in the sea.

The team's research activities included:

  • Ethnography and user journey mapping
  • One to one interviews (filming)
  • Online engagement and social media
  • Discovery and ideas sharing workshops

Design out Drowning challenges

The RNLI released a set of design briefs based on the project's outputs in early 2019.

Our team's design challenges emerged from our collaborative research process; here's a selection:

Safety Communications and Signage

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

Coastal Wellbeing

How might we promote positive mental wellbeing in waterside environments?

Safer Coastal Environments

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

Stories from the community

The ethnography project began by conducting a series of community engagement activities to collect real life stories of how and why people got into difficulty around the coast. Stories were collected at the Royal Cornwall Show, via an online questionnaire and by one-on-one interviews.

What did Design out Drowning lead to?

"The project has helped us adopt a different approach to problem solving, so we can look at the drowning problem differently. This can lead to innovative ways in which we can disrupt the drowning chain." - RNLI


"When fishing during the winter, I fell off the rock..."

"Why do some people not read signs?"

One woman's story of almost drowning in the sea...

"I was with my mates and dived into the estuary for a bet..."

"I had no idea the tides changed everyday..."

"What types of people tend to be rescued from the sea?"

"I never have my dog on a lead..."

"I was body boarding with my child when..."

"I lied to the SUP rentals..."

"The swell size increased and i couldn't get back to shore..."

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