When a Playground Is More Than a Playground

By: Jess Kessin

One day last summer, I was chatting with Anel Muller, the lead of the Capital One Design Pro Bono program. While my team was working on some great projects, I was feeling the need for an infusion of passion, and I wanted to do something to inspire myself and my team.

Anel had just met up with a group from UCSF Children’s Hospital (the new premiere SF hospital), Stantec Architecture (the team that designed the hospital) and a few others. They had been talking about the amazing design and the details that went into this magnificent hospital, but the playground on the fifth floor was a bit of an afterthought. I could see the gears turning in Anel’s head as she told me about this encounter.

We had no idea where this would go, so naturally, we jumped right in. This could have been one design thinking workshop we did with the UCSF team, but it turned into something much bigger.

Passion became contagious as we included more diverse players in the design process.

I have never taken the standard path. I have always created my own realities and found the magic in connecting people and opportunities in ways that others wouldn’t. I have done so throughout my career many times and in many iterations.

I’ve worked in design thinking and with extreme users for most of my career. I teach Design Thinking at the Stanford D.School and I have used the methodologies as long as I can remember. I started a toy company for kids of all needs and abilities. I am fluent in American Sign Language and have worked in the Deaf community. I have worked on countless projects and advocated heavily for Universal Design. I believe that good design breaks down barriers. Accessibility is a design problem—not a medical problem—and as designers, it is our responsibility to enable access to all people that use a product, space, or service.

Bringing in the team

At Capital One, I have become known for doing internal startups of new or emerging practices. I originally came here to start a Design Thinking practice for one of our lines of business. I went on to Data Visualization and Physical Experience Design (PXD).

The PXD team is a group of physical designers and engineers with backgrounds ranging from sculpture, to architecture, to mechanical engineering and industrial design. It’s a surprisingly diverse group of backgrounds — in a bank, of all places. BUT we make amazing physical experiences that connect to people in ways previously unseen in our industry…and we have a ton of fun doing it.

I went back to my team and told them about my conversation. “This isn’t part of your job. You don’t need to do this. I know you have deadlines, projects etc. all happening.” They all looked at each other and then looked back at me. “There is NO way you are doing this without us. We are in.”

The passion was instantly contagious and the unknowns of the project made it even more enticing.

Human-centered design is about understanding the underlying emotional needs of users. It goes beyond surface needs. Hospitals, especially great ones like UCSF, are experts at the medical practice. What we needed to do was to find the emotional needs that weren’t being met and fill in the gaps.

Bringing in the community

This was an exercise in Inclusive Design. The only way to do that well is to co-design. Designing with users, not for users is paramount. We needed to get to know the space and more importantly, the people using the space. We decided to host two workshops. The first was for patients, their parents and siblings. The second was for the staff.

We met an amazing group of people throughout our process. We thought we had passion, but I will tell you we had nothing on this incredible group of people that we were fortunate enough to meet.

We met two brothers who were 7 and 8 years old respectively. They were animated, goofy, and rarely stopped moving. They were perfectly healthy, but like the patients at the hospital, they used this playground everyday. They had a baby brother in the NICU and basically lived at UCSF going on 8 months with their mom, while their dad did the 4-hour drive up from their home on weekends. This space wasn’t just for sick kids, it also had to serve their siblings.

We met a teenager who was thankfully healthy enough to now be home living a normal life. Like many teenage boys he liked playing basketball and hanging out with his friends. But he was telling us about the months he spent at UCSF the previous year where he didn’t have the energy to go more than a few feet without getting exhausted. He needed a quiet space to be outside and get some air. This needed to be a space for teens.

We talked to a mom who was too terrified to leave the premises just in case something were to happen to her son. She had been there everyday for months, even sleeping in his room at night. She needed a space to take a walk, get some air, exercise and clear her head…but while still remaining close by. This was a space for parents.

We met a dad who spent so much time at UCSF with his baby daughter, that he was now a parent volunteer to help other families going through the stress of chronic childhood illnesses. He did this despite living a 3-hour drive away. This was a space to build communities.

We heard about the kids on the sixth floor who were in isolation for things like bone marrow transplants, but could look down on the playground from their rooms even if they couldn’t physically come to experience it. What could this space mean to them?

And then we heard from staff. We heard about the needs like IV pole issues, textured ground for physical therapy, and the need for infection control. But we also heard about their personal needs—needing a mental break from their really intense work day or a place to sit for a moment and eat a few bites of lunch between patients. This space was a mental break and recharge spot for the people that worked in the hospital.

At this point we realized this was not just a playground. It needed to be a community space that served all of the extreme needs of this unique and diverse community. A playground is a jungle gym where young kids go play…I have a three year old, and I frequent them quite often. That wasn’t going to cut it. This needed to be a town square, a community garden, a teenager hangout and a playground all in one. We needed to redefine how people saw the space and reframe people’s expectations. This is the point when we stopped calling it a playground and started calling it a playscape.

What we learned

In both the kids and family workshops, and then again in the staff workshop, we were wowed by the intensity of the ideas and the free spirit in which they were created. While their ideas were fun, we were not viewing them literally, but searching for the spirit of the ideas. What do I mean by this? Well, we heard a lot about building rocket ships, or desert islands or fantasy lands…..what we distilled out of that was the need for escape.

When you’re in a hospital, you really don’t have any control over what’s happening to you. You are poked, prodded and have very little say about any of it, especially as a child. Family members are held hostage in a space that is designed for function, not for living. We realized that what this community needed was to be transported out of the hospital to someplace where they had a sense of control, a sense of magic, a sense of possibility. That’s what this space really needed to be…an escape.

We all worked together to create something much bigger than us, and it’s something we’re all immensely proud of. I can’t go into too much detail while approvals are underway, but I will say that it’s inclusive, and that the spirit of the community is present in every detail. It serves the needs of the users and imparts a sense of being transported to a magical, whimsical and hopeful place where you can embrace autonomy, control, and peace.

We are currently working with the amazing crew in the Child Life department of UCSF and Stantec architecture to finalize details and then the team will start fundraising. Hopefully this will all be more than just a concept soon, and the community of UCSF will have the welcomed escape they need.


Jess Kessin is a Senior Director of Physical Experience Design & Data Visualization. Check out the open jobs in One Design, and join the Capital One team.