Research Blog

Framing the problem of sleep

This is the text of a nine-minute Lightning Talk I gave as part of Research and Innovation week at Cardiff Metropolitan University in July 2024.

Prynhawn dda, pawb. Good afternoon, everyone. My name is Sally Cloke and I’m going to start my lightning talk with a question: How many designers does it take to change a lightbulb?

The answer, of course, is Does it have to be a lightbulb?’

All good jokes are based in truth, and lurking behind that tired old joke is something very insightful about the power of design.

Over the past few decades, there’s been a change in how industry views the job of the designer. Clients used to ask: Can you make this look good? Now they ask: Can you help solve this problem?

That’s a big step forward. But there’s still a way to go. Because the most significant contribution that designers can make, in the commercial world and in research, is not in solving problems, but in framing them.

The most useful tool in the designer’s arsenal is this…

Holds up medium-sized picture frame.

The problem frame. That’s because problems don’t come ready made. They need defining and refining. Problem framing describes the process of clarifying questions, testing assumptions and setting boundaries to get to “the problem behind the problem”.

Einstein is quoted as saying: “if I had one hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about the solution”.

So, with what’s left of my nine minutes, I’m going apply to this concept of problem framing to my research into the relationship between design, sleep and social justice.

It seems everywhere we look, there’s a new product or lifehack designed to improve our sleep. These range from smartphone apps or other wearables that track body movement and temperature, to cuddly toys with a heartbeat designed to calm our nervous systems, to grounded bed sheets that discharge our excess static electricity, so we don’t spontaneously combust in the night. All up, the market for sleep products is worth into the tens of billions.

Now, this focus on sleep makes sense. There’s growing evidence that not getting enough sleep contributes to a range of mental and physical health conditions with serious consequences for individuals and society. From dementia, to heart disease, to depression, and increased workplace accidents.

You may not be surprised that many of these new sleep products have no scientifically supported benefits. Even a simple sleep tracker app can do more harm than good. Not only are they often inconsistent or unreliable, quantification itself has given rise to a new health condition: ‘orthosomnia’. Apparently, some people become so obsessed with getting ideal sleep they stay awake worrying about it.

But there’s a bigger issue here. And it applies to more traditional sleep products – like earplugs and sleeping pills – as well as newer ones. It’s this:

Holds up small picture frame.

Their problem framing is too small: they frame sleep at an individual level.

Now sometimes poor sleep is due to an individual’s poor choices – study left to the last minute or binge-watching boxsets. But just as with every other aspect of human health, individual and behavioural factors play a much smaller role than demographic, economic and structural ones. Sleep is socially determined. And very few of these determinants are within the power of an individual to change or control, with or without the latest sleep product.

A soothing bedtime podcast may help the anxious thoughts that are keeping you awake, but it has no effect on your precarious employment as a food delivery rider, the actual source of your worries. A gentle sunrise alarm clock may make it more pleasant to to get up at 6am, but it cannot compensate for being kept awake past 2am being elbowed in the head because you have to share a bed with your little brother.

Then there’s urban noise, light pollution, addictive technology, long commutes, family caring commitments, lack of access to healthcare or nutritious food, no safe place for exercise or play, the demands of the 24/7 economy, poor health knowledge, disability, race discrimination… The things that make waking life hard make sleep harder, too.

Sleep exists in an ecosystem of institutions, practices and norms, shaped by inequalities of money and privilege, with a host of players including big pharma, tech companies, government agencies, health bodies, and the media. While some people go without sleep – others profit. Like any area where access to common goods are unfairly distributed, sleep is a social justice issue.

If we’re going to really make a difference to how people sleep – and the wellbeing of our communities – we’re going to need a bigger frame.

Holds up large picture frame.

My research explores how design could shape a more sleep-positive world by framing the problem of sleep on a societal scale. Going beyond gadgets to co-ordinated approaches that put good sleep at the heart of the good society. Recognising that housing providers, employers, community groups, researchers, policy-makers and people with lived experience of sleep injustice all have roles to play.

We’ve seen that commercial product design is not doing a good job at framing sleep. So I’ve been exploring the alternative field of speculative design. Speculative design is like the science fiction of design. As a research practice rather than a commercial one, its free to be experimental, playful and provocative – to spend all of its time on the problem, presenting audiences with new ways of looking at familiar things. It takes the ultimate object of capitalist desire – the consumer good – and defamiliarises it to create, if not exactly a consumer bad, then certainly a consumer weird.

I’ve found a many more examples of speculative designs that recognise the socially determined nature of sleep than I have commercial ones. Like an alarm clock that doesn’t wake you up at a certain time, but only after you’ve sleep a certain amount. And one I’ve been working on – a futuristic app that lets you go without sleep as much as you want, but that calculates how much shorter your life’s going to be.

And I’ve been running workshops introducing the idea of the sleep-positive society and getting people to make maps of sleeptopia, where there’s room for play, protest and music – as well as sleep.

In this election campaign, we haven’t heard much about sleep, but politicians have been busy framing a lot of other problems for us, so we know where the blame lies. Immigrants. People on welfare. What the other side of politics has or hasn’t done. Maybe with a bigger frame, there’d be room to include a few nuances to that picture, some social and economic factors, maybe a little empathy. Who knows, we might even see ourselves as part of the problem.

Diolch for listening.