Two projects, Empathy Rock Garden and Personalized Potions, use design methods to materialize mental health and to allow people to physically express their thoughts and emotions. Inspired by participatory design and facilitation methods, each project takes a different take on the use of materiality to support mental health.

  • Role: Interaction Designer
  • Collaborators: Jen Brown, Carlie Guilfoile, Ulu Mills, Supawat Vitoorapakorn

Empathy Rock Garden

The Empathy Rock Garden project sets out to address the common feeling of being alone in your anxiety. By encouraging people to express the things that currently ‘weigh them down’, we attempted to allow people to relate to others and to evoke a feeling that they are not alone.

The project was exhibited in a library, where passersby could take a rock, scribe it, and place it in the garden. Others could make use of small rocks, which were placed next to bigger rocks as a sign of empathy.

The intention was to produce a short activity that would still reap the benefits of self-expression. The interaction was anonymous and solitary to create a low barrier for participation. We intended for the activity to be individual, but for the results to be collaborative, giving participants a feeling that they are not alone.

Design Process

In the design process we tested two aspects of the interaction: the garden itself, and the interaction with the rocks. For the garden, we started by sectioning the garden to represent life categories, such as “work” or “family”, that we thought might weigh on people’s minds. Yet participants felt it was too prescriptive, and asked many questions on whether they were getting the interaction right. We decided to keep the interaction open-ended, with no particular guideline on where to place rocks.

In our exploration of the rocks themselves, we tested how to design them in a way that would support our goals. Some of the questions we explored included whether the rocks should be stacked or spaced, facing up or turned over. By testing with participants, we learned that they preferred to easily read the messages on the rocks. Based on that feedback, we chose a simple interaction, with larger and smaller rocks that are all visible.


The Garden was exhibited for two days, and resulted in very diverse messages and many rocks. We looked at three aspects of the results: content, interaction, and materiality.

For content, some messages were very concrete (for example, a deadline), while others expressed abstracted messages. Most messages were negative, with some optimistic or even humorous messages.

For interaction, when we observed how people interact with the exhibition we noticed the barrier of entry with small rocks was lower—many participants places small rock and spent time observing others’ messages. Some even gathered a handful of small rocks to distribute among the existing rocks they empathized with.

Finally, we were interested in the use of the physicality of the material. We noted that participants created relationships between rocks through proximity, for instance, by commenting on a nearby message with another rock, placed beside it. Others used small rocks to create shapes in the Garden. One notable example was a cross-like shape made of small rocks next to a bigger one that read “please save me”.

This project focuses on materializing collective wellbeing in a shared space. Participants had an individual experience, in which they silently observed or added their own messages, but the rocks they placed also became a part of a larger exhibit that represented the wellbeing of their community. Thus, the project highlights the balance between personal expression and being part of a supportive community.

Personalized Potions

Personalized Potions is a project that set as a goal to materialize mental health in a personal, individual way. Participants were asked to think of a challenge they are currently facing in their life and create an appropriate potion to help them with that task.

The team guided participants to create a potion step by step: First, define a challenge. Then, take a vial, and place ingredients (colored sugar) that you need in order to succeed in that task. Each ingredient represented a quality that one might need to handle a challenge, such as “courage”, “trust” or “discipline”. Finally, after placing the ingredients, we asked participants to think of an  “activation” phrase for the potion—like any good potion, it needs a phrase or an action to set it off. The activation phrase was an actionable first step—we wanted participants to not only think about what qualities they need, but also what is a single action that can move them forward.

The goal of the activity was to give people an opportunity to pause and reflect on what they need for their personal wellbeing through a playful activity.

Design Process

In the design process, we tested many materials for interaction, including pebbles, beads, moss, flowers, gravel and string. Our initial intention was to  provide a diverse set of materials, so participants can personally interpret them and use them accordingly. However, we found the task of interpretation was too difficult, and diverted participants’ attention to attempt linking material qualities to abstract qualities, instead of focusing on self-reflection.

In these pilots we noticed participants enjoyed using colorful materials that were easy poured into a vial, like beads. Therefore, we narrowed the materials down to colorful sugar jars. As we noticed participants were not successful in coupling a color with an abstract quality, we provided a small set of qualities to choose from. This way, participants were better at focusing on self-reflection.

The final ingredients were: “courage”, “compassion”, “trust”, “discipline”, “hope”, “honesty”. We also added a “secret ingredient”, that was any other quality participants might desire.


The final exhibit was located in a student dorm, and in an office. In both groups, participants interacted with the material itself. Some participants paid attention to the quantity of each ingredient, adding an ingredient in the amount they needed (“…just a bit of courage”). Other participants took the order of ingredients into account, and placed them in the needed order for action. We noted that some participants decided to shake the potion as a way to finalize it. Others liked the layered nature of the potion, that could serve as a reminder of the qualities they need. Finally, all participants wanted to keep their personal potion, perhaps as a physical motivational artifact.

The project allowed people to transfer complex questions about their wellbeing and challenges into playful material. From reactions we received, this helped reflect and talk about their concerns more openly. We were especially interested in the ways people used the material to make the potion personal and suitable for their needs. 


Each intervention created distinct takeaways for participants. Personalized Potions was an opportunity for out-loud individual reflection, and a call-to-action to step towards their goals. On the other hand, interacting with the Empathy Rock Garden was a quiet, but also collective experience, and the artifact was meant to be left behind.

In both cases, staging the interventions in the right environment seemed to matter greatly — the casual, light-hearted nature of the potion project, and the solitary reflection of the rock garden may not have been possible if staged in a different place or time. Both projects had the kind of impact that we were hoping to have on participants — they were able to communicate in meaningful ways, and we hope that these conversations continue beyond the life of the exhibits.