Ema Pehlivanovic, Designer of KIUI Balance Board for Children – Design for a Better, More Humane and Just World

Source: eKapija Sunday, 03.12.2023. 13:53
(Photo: Nikola Skalušević)
Making a product that can be used by as many people as possible, regardless of how different they are and how different their capabilities are, is the backbone of inclusive design. The focus on a just society which does not exclude anybody has contributed to this relatively new design concept winning more and more fans. One of them is Ema Pehlivanovic, MA in Industrial Design, who presented the project “Inclusive Play – KIUI One Board, Many Possibilities” at Princess Ljubica’s Residence at the exhibition of select works of the students of the Faculty of Applied Arts on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the faculty.

It is precisely possibilities that are the topic of our interview with the young designer – from the possibility of the development of inclusive design in Serbia, through opportunities for a large number of vulnerable groups to live better, to opportunities for industrial designers in our country to develop professionally and progress.

Wherever there are possibilities, there are limitations as well, and eKapija’s interviewee strives to overcome them in her work. She has designed a crutch which facilitates things for people who have to use that kind of aid, worked on designing cutlery for people suffering from arthritis and on designing a wristwatch for people with impaired eyesight. She has also pushed the limits of design as part of the Serbian team which took part in designing exhibition items at the Museum of the Future in Dubai.

We talked about all this, but what first drew our attention was – a toy. And not just any toy. KIUI is a balance board which, through play and fun, helps the psychomotor, sensory and spatial development of a child. The balance board has the option of attaching special pillows which are intended for various physical exercises, positioning exercises and comfort, explains eKapija’s interviewee.

The balance board which can be used as a swing, a seesaw, a bed, a drawing board, a slide (Photo: Promo)The balance board which can be used as a swing, a seesaw, a bed, a drawing board, a slide

– KIUI incites creativity and freedom to be used in various ways depending on what suits the child and what kind of activity it likes. It can be used as a swing, a seesaw, a bed, a drawing board, a slide, as well as any other item from the world of play and imagination. Development through fun activities stimulates positive emotions which influence the child’s motivation to play and thereby develop faster, not because it has to, but because it wants to – notes Ema, whose work can be seen at the “To Be the Same, to Be Special” exhibition at Princess Ljubica’s Residence until December 10.

The project is primarily intended for children with developmental difficulties, who require special care and work on solving certain problems.

– However, considering that the aim of this project is inclusive play, KIUI is meant for all children. The option of adapting the balance board to the capabilities and limitations of the child enables children with and without developmental difficulties to play and interact.

The project is primarily meant for children with developmental difficulties (Photo: Promo)The project is primarily meant for children with developmental difficulties

And how did it all begin? The idea behind KIUI arose from facing a wide range of various needs of children with developmental difficulties and the desire to create a solution which influences proper development in children, in an adequate, fun and entertaining way, while also mitigating the consequences of a certain disability or fully removing those consequences.

In doing the research and in the process of understanding the complexity of this topic, our interviewee was greatly helped by professor Vera Ilankovic, Ph.D., as well as the Center for Protection of Infants, Children and Youth without Parental Care in Zvecanska Street in Belgrade. In order to understand the needs of the children as well as possible, the designer spent some time with the children in the Zvecanska Center, followed their daily activities, as well as the corrective exercises which the children do with the help of experts.

– I can tell you that it was a very emotional process, because, truly, understanding that these are children who, like all other children, love all the things that children normally like and who pay almost no attention to their limitations, is one of the first and, perhaps, the most important steps toward changing the society’s awareness – points out Pehlivanovic.

Search for investors to follow after the test phase (Photo: Promo)Search for investors to follow after the test phase

The next step which is supposed to lead to the final goal – starting the production and bringing the toy to the market – is testing with educators who work with children with special needs. Another improved-design version, a financial plan and a search for investors are to follow.

– The testing is going great so far, the children are finding the board very fun, but in our line of work, the path to the product’s final entry to the market is always long. Potential investors are domestic or foreign investment funds which concern children with special needs. The preparation itself requires cooperation between various professions, as the wooden board is produced in one place, the pillows in another, the velvet toys in yet another one, but in theory, it could all be produced in Serbia – notes Ema Pehlivanovic.

Why inclusive design is important – A solution to problems that people face

This would be a true example of inclusive design, a concept that our interviewee started researching in her sophomore year at the faculty. Already in high school, she had the tendency to solve concrete problems in relation to defining the aesthetics. Then, at the faculty, she read the book Design for the Real World by Victor Papanek, which talks about the significance of asking important questions and solving the real problems that people face, as well as about the responsibility that industrial designers have, considering that they have the opportunity to considerably influence people’s everyday lives.

– That book further inspired me to do projects that I believe can have a positive impact on our society or contribute to improving the quality of the lives of people who need it. I believe that inclusive design should not be an obstacle, but a challenge, because striving toward providing people with equal opportunities to take part in the society, regardless of their differences and capabilities, is the basic step toward a fully inclusive society – our interviewee believes.

The project is primarily meant for children with developmental difficulties, but is intended for all children (Photo: Promo)The project is primarily meant for children with developmental difficulties, but is intended for all children

As she notes, in the past few years, there have been several initiatives in Serbia for creating an inclusive society, which mostly pertain to removing architectural barriers, especially within school, medical and other public institutions, to creating inclusive models of education, as well as to a specialized education of the educators at the Faculty of Special Education and Rehabilitation. That way, she adds, children with different needs are brought into mutual contact, based on which empathy is developed from an earlier age and the existence of differences between people is normalized.

However, inclusion is not exactly a rule in industrial design.

– Inclusion within industrial design in Serbia mostly comes down to projects done within individual initiatives or startups. For now, working on such projects is not wide-spread enough, but it is definitely noticeable that there are efforts toward it and that, within their solutions, designers are increasingly frequently taking into account the differences in people’s capabilities and limitations – Pehlivanovic says.

The biggest obstacle to the development of inclusive design is the lack of awareness about how important such projects are, our interviewee believes. The financial aspect is often mentioned as one of the problems in Serbia, however, when it comes to inclusive project, as Pehlivanovic notes, it seems like a much bigger problem is that there is a lack of initiative and support to such projects, because those problems are not discussed as much as they should be.

– I certainly believe that a change in the approach to the whole project realization process is needed – from the investor to the designer. I am glad that I am able to say that, at the Faculty of Applied Arts, they are already working on changing the approach, in the industrial design program, as well as in other programs.

The toy could be fully produced in Serbia (Photo: Promo)The toy could be fully produced in Serbia

From cutlery for arthritis patients to The Museum of the Future in Dubai

KIUI Board is not the only project that our interviewee has done for a specific group of people. She has also designed a crutch where the focus was on solving the problems experienced by people who have to use that kind of aid for a certain amount of time or their whole lives. She has worked on designing cutlery for arthritis patients who can’t use regular cutlery, as well as on designing wrist-watches for those with poor eyesight.

She also pushed the limits of design as a member of the Serbian team that took part in designing the items at the Museum of the Future in Dubai. That, she says, was an unforgettable experience.

– After four exciting years of work, we presented our exhibition “JOURNEY OF THE PIONEERS” at the Museum of Future in Dubai, where the visitors were able to look into the speculative future of 2071, in order to inspire the kind of action that needs to be taken in order to save the planet today – Pehlivanovic reveals.

With the help of science experts, the Serbian team developed technically feasible concepts, worked on pushing the limits of design and technologies and created narratives which aimed to show a positive future and motivate people to take the necessary steps today in order to have a better tomorrow.

The Museum of the Future (Photo: Unsplash/Riyas Mohammed)The Museum of the Future

– We also did the physical production of the items, which resulted is a four-meter movable model of the space station “HOPE”, the biggest movable planetarium in the world and many other interesting items. I worked with an incredible team of designers and creative people, as well as with electronic engineers, mechanical engineers and experts from various fields, from whom I truly learned a lot – our interviewee notes.

Industrial design in Serbia poorly developed

Still, despite the large number of young talented people, industrial design in Serbia is poorly developed. Today, it is concentrated within startups or through freelance projects, Pehlivanovic notes and adds that there are companies which actively do industrial design, but they certainly don’t seek as many designers as there are in Serbia.

Plenty of designers are switching to working in the fields of the gaming industry, marketing and graphic design, or work for foreign clients. It seems to me that the future of industrial design in Serbia lies in startups, which are launched with increasing frequency in the territory of Serbia. I hope that this will continue – the young designer believes.

The problems that industrial designers in Serbia face today are numerous – from unrealistic demands from company owners and customers, through the development of artificial intelligence, which is threatening to take away a part of their job, to the lack of perspective and opportunities for professional development.

– When it comes to AI, plenty of people fear its influence, and I can tell you that I am one of them. On the other hand, it seems to me that AI should be seen as one of the tools that can be used in the process of re-examining design. Each innovation brings about changes, and I hope that these changes as well will be positive.

The exhibition “To Be the Same, to Be Special” is open at Princess Ljubica’s Residence until December 10 (Photo: Ema Pehlivanović)The exhibition “To Be the Same, to Be Special” is open at Princess Ljubica’s Residence until December 10

One of the bigger problems, according to our interviewee, is the lack of opportunities for a designer to truly develop professionally within a single field of industrial design.

– Every one of us has different interests and motivations and it would be ideal if we in fact had the space and opportunities to follow those interests – she adds.

Another client-related problem is the relation toward time and deadlines.

– People live at an ever-increasing pace and we are all aware that we have to adapt to it, but there are often cases where very short deadlines are set for coming up with the design, which inevitably affects the quality. A good design requires a certain process, time and thinking things through, and if that’s missing, the solution itself may not fulfill its full potential – concludes Ema Pehlivanovic.

M. Dedic

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