SCD Chronicle #2: Design Inspiration from Bathrooms and Litter Boxes

Sunny the cat checks out my design team as we research his litter box habits (photo by SCD team).

I didn’t imagine that I’d spend so much of my time in my new job talking about the bathroom. But here we are midway through my first year at the Siebel Center for Design, and bathrooms have made for a couple of really formative experiences. Hey, you have to meet inspiration where you find it, right?

Bathroom Story Number 1: This past semester, I taught a class called “Playful by Design” with Dr. Judith Pintar, a game designer and faculty member at the University of Illinois’ School of Information Sciences who studies digital literacy and social informatics. In this class, students used design thinking and human-centered design to understand the role that play and playing takes on in our societal structures and physical spaces. We asked them to think about how play and design impact our mental and physical health, communication, and place in the world.

For the class’s final project, the assignment was to transform various forgotten spaces on campus into playful, meaningful experiences. When we discussed possible places to look at, the whole class scoffed at my idea of the bathroom as an option. Regardless, we went on to talk about it more — lots of community conversation takes place in the bathrooms on campus, in person and on the walls. The concept of bathroom conversation pointed to some sort of design opportunity, in my opinion. A weird, age-old variation on Reddit? An opportunity to answer calls for help and questions? I’d made my way across many bathrooms around the university, and there was much writing on the walls and stalls.

One of the student teams — composed of some of my most skeptical students of the human-centered design process, actually — took me up on the idea. They researched both men’s and women’s bathrooms on campus, exploring our basic human needs for privacy, trust, comfort, and relief. They decided to focus on transforming a creepy, derelict women’s bathroom in a corner on campus into a more inviting, less scary space for its users. They added an Echo Dot to play music for bathroom-goers, decorative lights to make the space look less haunted, and dry erase markers for writing positive messages on the mirrors. It was impressive how a boring, mandatory space such as a bathroom could be transformed into a location where one might honestly consider hanging out in.

When it came to watching the team’s final presentation in the bathroom, I have nobody to blame but myself — I encouraged them to go on a bathroom quest. Our other bathroom design experience, however, came completely at random.

Bathroom Story Number 2: Long story short, if you’re invited to get involved in something called a CAT HACK, you don’t say no. After being approached to participate in this student hackathon, my team and I dove right in.

Sponsored by Illinois’ College of Veterinary Medicine, this hackathon revolved around coming up with the best concept to help conquer one of the biggest issues facing cat owners — peeing outside of the litter box (the cats peeing outside the box, not the owners). We thought this would be an interesting context to give students the opportunity to use design thinking to discover opportunity areas for design to this problem that leads to many cats being relinquished to shelters.

We organized “pop-up” user research sessions over two weekends for students to practice their observation and empathy skills in a real-world challenge. Cat owners in the Champaign-Urbana community were recruited to serve as our subjects (along with their cats) and in one day, we received 20 responses from local cat owners volunteering to serve as research participants. Clearly, this issue is one that plagues a multitude of cats and their owners. Students joined the Siebel Center for Design team in one-hour interview sessions in people’s homes, where we learned about each behavioral situation with the owners and their non-litter-box-using cats. Then we went back to our workspace to storytell and synthesize what we heard during these sessions.

To help the Cat Hackathon participants kickstart their ideas, we presented our findings around “The Quantified Cat” and other opportunity areas that emerged from our research. The students who participated in the research told us they loved the experience. Students and community members of all backgrounds joined forces to try to “hack” this issue, all the while using design thinking in their processes. Some really brilliant ideas came from this seemingly ordinary hackathon, hopefully enriched from our observations and empathy around cat owners and their cats’ litter box issues.

One of the key things we’re trying to help students understand at the Siebel Center for Design is this: You can find inspiration in unlikely places, and you can apply your empathy to any interesting problem that might come along. Even in the bathroom (or litter box).



Harnessing the potential of human-centered design so students can use their expertise, passion, and creativity in all fields and walks of life. The Siebel Center for Design is based at the University of Illinois.

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Rachel Switzky

Currently the Director for Siebel Center for Design at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, previously ten years as Executive Director at IDEO.