A New Approach to Environmental Issues: Creating Empowerment in Exhibitions and Experiences
By: Analise Mehmet, Fashion Institute of Technology
The environmental issues of the modern world will fall upon the generation of emerging adults. This burdensome responsibility creates feelings of powerlessness in affecting positive change. Exhibitions can address this challenge by creating experiences that utilize methodologies that encourage participation, and foster feelings of empowerment.
This research explores the power of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) techniques when applied to environmental exhibitions, creating a call to action in the new generation of young adults. The exhibition project entitled “Seeing Change” explores Climate Change, using the first-person experiences of outdoor enthusiasts in varied landscapes. This exhibition was designed to educate audiences about Climate Change while using CBT guidelines to create experiential activities that set the stage for increased empowerment.
Shame is the dominant effect of the current messaging across all environmental issues. This research found new ways to communicate this major issue and encourage receptivity to the topic. Smoking Cessation programs for teens were reviewed as their goal was to create a modification in the behavior of young adults. Behavioral Sciences were used as guidelines in these programs which led to my review of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy techniques and uses. A focus group highlighted the importance of language and tone when presenting these highly charged concepts.
The created exhibition “ Seeing Change” translated three Cognitive Behavioral Therapy techniques: Relaxation, Exposure, and Reward into design elements. They concentrated on viewer receptivity connecting Climate Change impact to increased awareness and a personal call to action. The CBT techniques chosen were placed throughout this exhibit with forethought and regular frequency to enhance the reinforcement of the techniques. Language in the Exposure design elements reflected the focus group information and additional research.
Exhibitions and Experiences focusing on environmental issues can apply Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) protocols that could generate an understanding of purpose and capability in visitors, prompting in them a call to action in addressing critical environmental issues. These techniques are translatable into other exhibits and experiences of varied formats.
Where I started…
“One man gathers what another man spills” ~ Grateful Dead
There is a lyric that goes, “One man gathers what another man spills.” This lyric comes from a song by the 20th century, American rock band, the Grateful Dead. After listening to this song and this particular lyric, I was struck by its power. Reflecting upon this lyric enabled me to have an epiphany regarding the relationship between worldwide environmental issues that are both current and significant, and the unfinished efforts of prior generations leaving the work of protecting the earth to those who are now entering adulthood.
Climate Change and environmental issues are highlighted in news media outlets every day. Often, when news media outlets present such issues, the presentation is done in a dire and accusatory manner and as reported by the participants at a meeting held at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, it was “recognized that engendering feelings of intense fear and despair tends to paralyze people.”1It was noted at the same meeting that “Much of what the news media reports involve worst case scenarios and this approach is counterproductive”.2 Young adults are an essential part of the solution as they will be needed to create and sustain efforts that reduce the impact of Climate Change.
In scientific journals and in attention-grabbing media clips, the health of the environment is presented using an approach that creates an emotional response by describing the subject in crisis like terms and leaving the viewer unsure as to how they should think and respond to the issue. In the Executive Summary of “Toward Consensus on the Climate Communication Challenge”, “Participants acknowledged that effective public engagement is challenged by today’s consumer media landscape which has altered long-standing relationships between the judgements of subject matter experts, policymakers, the media, and the public in ways that undermine a shared understanding of basic facts and issue priorities across society”.3 In a digital stream from India dated May 14, 2018, a similar concern was shared in a discussion on communication of environmental issues “Fear psychosis may work in politics, but not in conservation”.4
1. Tom Bowman, “Toward Consensus on the Climate Communication Challenge: Report from a Dialogue of Researchers and Practitioners,”Bowman Change, Inc., http://bowmanchange.com, (May 2016) 1-18.
2. Bowman, “Toward Consensus,” 1-18.
3. Bowman, “Toward Consensus,” 1-18.
4. Subhojit Goswani, “How to convince communities to sustain conservation efforts,” Down to Earth, May 15, 2018, https://www.downtoearth.org.in/blog/environment/how-to-convince-communities-to-conserve-60525.
The environment is in a critical stage of change, and designers need to speak to this situation through their exhibits by increasing the awareness of the young adult generation which will be called upon to manage the issue. Those who read the national newspapers can recall a nature related image with supporting dialogue about a climatic event on Earth, destruction or pollution of land, and species’ extinction, all of which are complex issues that are highly emotionally charged. For many people, after viewing this information, the resulting emotions can inhibit their ability to engage in the discussion and provide active support of the issue. One of this author’s aims is to create a new language for Exhibit and Experience designers to embed in their work when focusing on environmental issues.
The methodology used…
A focus group was used early in my design process to help identify the relationship between the spoken word, visual media and viewer response. Placards were developed for two areas of environmental concern; air pollution and plastics in oceans. Each concern had two placards, one had a disturbing photo and a second sought empowering through a redemptive photo. The purpose of the prototype was to confirm that messages constructed from a shame perspective will produces less of an incentive for the viewer to take desired action. The initial research I had conducted also demonstrated that when engaging an individual with a topic allowing them to feel that they are in control and increasing their self-esteem by providing choice, creates a positive connection to the message and is capable of producing behavioral change. The focus group was asked to view the materials and read the written statement. Their written response to the exercise were informative to the author in that each easily recognized the tonal differences which highlighted the importance of language and tone when presenting these highly charged concepts.
The focus group was divided in that some asked for a stronger directive be given for future action and others appreciated the reinforcing nature of the less judgemental pictures and statements. After reviewing this information, further research was conducted through case studies and interviews addressing environmental subjects and Behavioral Sciences to strengthen the exhibit’s design goal. The relationship between behaviors, actions and presentation of information was directly identified in the smoking cessation program, the Truth( R) campaign 5 where the concept of behavior change was identified and stated within the article was the benefit of Behavioral Sciences research to their program design.
5. Allen, Jane A., Donna Vallone, PhD, Ellen Vargyas, JD, and Cheryl G. Healton, DrPH. “The truth® Campaign: Using Countermarking to Reduce Youth Smoking.” In The new world of health promotion: new program development, implementation, and evaluation, eds. B.J. Healey, R.S. Zimmerman, and Cheryl G. Healton, 195-215. Sudbury, MA: Jones and Bartlett Publishers, 2010.
The subsequent review of Behavioral Sciences led to a deeper dive into Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and specific techniques especially because of their researched effectiveness in addressing anxiety issues. Additionally, CBT acknowledged the importance of the individual as a partner and that resonated with
my view of the exhibit visitor as an active partner with the design. During the development of this paper, there was no direct research available regarding the use of CBT techniques within the exhibition design process. The author then focused on the development of exhibit components that would offer CBT influenced pathways for the visitor to achieve exhibit goals. Related articles discussed the importance of the choice of language and presentation of information that focused on conveying information to a wide audience. In addition, specific articles added to an understanding of that practice and informing the author’s translation of those techniques and implementation in the design process. It is the author’s belief that assisting the visitors’ viewing of information can be facilitated by inclusion of CBT techniques within the design components. CBT is well researched, the elements were “design friendly” and can directly connect to presentation of the subject matter. A review of Behavioral Change Theory led to the discovery of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), which is further detailed in this section of the paper. The behavioral change components within CBT have been proven to manage anxiety through relaxation, sequential approaches for exposure to information and the value of reward.
This therapeutic approach aligns with the information found in the reviewed articles that confirms that there is increased anxiety around this topic which is disenfranchising the new generation of adults and affecting their ability to take action. Successful components of a CBT program is elimination of the client’s use of maladaptive behaviors by changing their internal thoughts through sequential exposure to new information. Dr. Carson shared the CBT technique of “cognitive restructuring” which is the change from those self-defeating/helpless thoughts to something more empowered and/or re-framing thinking from something like “it’s impossible” to something like “every small step I take helps”. The exhibit is designed to support this shift in thinking.”. 6 Also in my interview with Dr. Carson, Exposure was clarified as “a graduated and repeated exposure (planful, step by step exposure) to difficult or anxiety provoking content/ideas helps people to manage it and face it head on rather than just avoiding it.”7 They are gradually exposed to the negative information about Climate Change through the step by step design of the exhibit which helps them to face any anxiety and stay engaged.
6. Carson, Gabrielle (Licensed Clinical Psychologist, Ph.D), interviewed by Analise Mehmet at Mamaroneck, New York, October 19, 2018.
7. Carson, Interview Oct 19, 2018
In exhibit design, I am translating that into engagement of the viewer through their senses, presentation of clear specific information using multisensory activities, and demonstrating an appreciation of their support and concern for the environment. The components of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and effective use in the proposed exhibit “Seeing Change” will consider elimination of guilt-laden language when presenting environmental issues and provide environmental information in a goal-oriented and personal approach with clearly presented sequential information. To engage the visitor to a call for action, the addition of the reward of appreciation of their efforts and strengthening the connection between the visitor and environment through relaxation will create the opportunity for an awareness, orientation and focus to the topic. Utilizing CBT strategies, a visitor will be able to access information on the topic and become active in the solution process.
The three areas that I selected for incorporation into this exhibit design were influenced by the interview and citations listed below and are described as follows. Relaxation offers the visitor a safe space where they connect to themselves and nature allowing increased receptivity to new information. I viewed this as a meditation space. Exposure to information that could be new and uncomfortable to hear can be made more accessible when presented sequentially on a personal story level increasing receptivity and understanding. Rewards are motivating, and appreciation of a person’s effort can be given through, action, object or verbally and can reinforce behavior.
To clarify and stay true to my intent of the exhibit’s focus on Climate Change and to ensure that a strong connection was made with the visitor throughout the exhibit, the following goals guided content development:
● Communicate the overarching theme
● Use non-judgemental language to convey information
● Connect the audience and the related environmental issues through tailored design and messaging
● Offer a transformative experience and empower the audience using researched behavioral change
theory in exhibit design
● Inform how their positive actions can contribute to the overall health of the environment
8. Carson, Interview Oct 19, 2018
9.Davis, Kathleen. “How does cognitive behavioral therapy work?” Medical News Today,
September 25, 2018, https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/296579.php.
10. e-Source Behavioral & Social Sciences Research. “Social and Behavioral Theories.” Bethesda,
MD: Office of Behavioral & Social Sciences Research & the National Institutes of Health, no date ,http://www.esourceresearch.org/eSourceBook/SocialandBehavioralTheories/1LearningObjectives/tabid/724/Default.aspx.
The power of this age group can be harnessed and needs to be more actively engaged in resolving and combating the pressing environmental issues of Climate Change. I propose that this power can be accessed by using proven techniques from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy as part of an exhibit’s elements to create a stronger connection between the audience and environmental issues. Moreover, the techniques used could also focus on proactive steps that motivate visitors to action.
Not in the future but today, emerging adults need to influence the action taken to address Climate Change. This segment of the population has a high rate of anxiety, which CBT is a proven approach to combat anxiety and promote positive behaviors. I strongly believe that the pairing of exhibit design and CBT techniques can make a significant difference in how people are delivered information on highly sensitive and expansive public issues.
Contribution to the field…
The field of Exhibition and Experience Design has as its overall goal to offer concepts to an audience and ask that they deeply experience its message. From my research, Behavioral Sciences is a field that looks to identify how people respond to their environment and to offer proactive positive tools so that there is self awareness and openness.
Behavioral Sciences and directly, Cognitive Behavioral Techniques are aligned with the Exhibit and Experience Design field because both seek to develop a new awareness within the person. The designer seeks to connect the viewer with its message. If messages stir anxiety and avoidance, the viewer can be unaware that they are not comfortable with the subject which creates an emotional reaction that limits comprehension of the material. The designer using researched CBT techniques can thoughtfully construct the exhibit being aware and responsive to the personal reactions of the viewer.
The presentation of factual, non-judgemental information through personal stories creates a visualization and a responsiveness furthering direct connections to the information. This is not manipulation of information to achieve a desired response, rather it is presenting information in an authentic manner, letting the viewer experience the subject matter deeply. There is great importance in formally recognizing that the visitor is capable of a positive impact on the issue and that their unique efforts are appreciated and impactful to future outcomes.
Within the art of Exhibition and Experience Design, there is a great opportunity to expand the
discussion and participation related to critical environmental issues by creating arenas that increase receptivity utilizing design elements empowered by Cognitive Behavioral Techniques delivered through design.
Implications of Theory …
“The environmental issues of the modern world will fall upon the generation of emerging adults. This burdensome responsibility creates feelings of powerlessness in affecting positive change. Exhibitions can address this challenge by creating experiences that utilize methodologies that encourage participation, and foster feelings of empowerment. Exhibitions and Experiences focusing on environmental issues can apply Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) protocols that could generate an understanding of purpose and capability in visitors, prompting in them a call to action.”
The implication for all designers is to understand the current demands being made upon their audience through all mediums and assist their understanding of the exhibit concept by utilizing CBT techniques within the design. With the art of Exhibition and Experience Design, there is a great opportunity to expand the discussion and participation about critical issues by using exhibits and design as powerful transmitters of information. In order to increase their receptivity and response of visitors, understanding that design elements can be more powerful when Behavioral Science research is considered and Cognitive Behavioral Techniques are incorporated into the design.
It is unfortunate that there is no general public agreement regarding how to approach the environmental issues that wIll befall our world. There will be many topics related to the environment that can only be addressed through effective transmission of information and creating a personal understanding and relationship to the issue This is the power of exhibitions!
This new methodology adds enhanced design approaches to engage the general public. These approaches are an even more important tool when discussing sensitive and highly charged subjects because of their ability to create an openness to the topic. Prioritizing thoughtful messaging on environmental topics can result in an increase in audience openness to the subject matter which will reach a wider segment of the population, and in turn encourage the development of action plans that will attend to critical concerns.
Implication in Practice “Seeing Change”…
Developing a design process that will support a greater understanding of Climate Change is the motivation for the thesis developed exhibit “Seeing Change” and for future frameworks addressing environmental issues. The design elements that translated the CBT components in “Seeing Change” can be utilized in multiple design iterations, the focus is ensuring that the these tools are woven within the design and leads the viewer into exploration of the topic.
This is an outdoor travelling-exhibition that visits four beaches in New York and New Jersey throughout the summer months. It stays in each location for approximately one month. Throughout the exhibits, the space will be open to the environment so that the visitor can sense the benefit of a healthy environment as they come to understand the significant issues facing the environment. Reinforcing the presented concepts will be achieved by the visceral experiences of not being in a solid closed structure but rather outside sensing the feel, smell, look and sounds of these striking environmental areas with audio equipment for amplification of natural sounds, the natural light will play off the exhibit design creating a changing visual of sun on sand as the structures shade different areas.
Seeing Change has three exhibit areas allowing the visitor to visit one or all environments which respects the individual and their ability to engage with the exhibition as they please. Each visitor will experience, in each of the three areas, similar components but not content. The exhibit will begin with a relaxation activity that allows for a transition to the exhibit material. Each concept is designed with attention to the use of multi-sensory materials and learning styles. Information will be presented in compact visual and verbal messages so that exposure frames the impact of Climate Change. Before leaving each exhibit area, there will be an opportunity to recognize the visitor’s importance to the Climate Change discussion and their personal choice of action appreciated.
Having reviewed literature and articles on Behavior Change, I chose to use Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) methods to present this topic and create an empowering call to action. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy techniques will relax, expose and reward the visitor as they gain an understanding of their personal power to create positive change with the recognition of the value of our natural resources and the destructive impact that Climate Change is having upon our environment and lives.
The impact of Climate Change is uncovered on a personal level through exploration of three environments through the eyes and voices of outdoor enthusiasts. Visual information of content will be presented through pictures, and other readings, and all around will be descriptions and sensory experiences that reinforce the human connection to our environment. The exhibit itself will have three Cognitive Behavioral Concepts embedded into the design, and each of these will be represented in each section. The CBT concepts were chosen to promote in the viewer an openness to the topic, facilitating their exposure to specific information and recognition of the important role that each visitor has as a change agent addressing Climate Change issues. The content information is not presented in a linear fashion, but rather through storytelling and multiple voices. Developing a design process that will support a greater understanding of Climate Change serves as the motivation for the thesis developed exhibit “Seeing Change” and for future frameworks addressing environmental issues. The design elements that translated the CBT components in “Seeing Change” can be utilized in multiple design iterations, the focus is ensuring that the these tools are woven within the design and leads the viewer into exploration of the topic.
My personal goal is to continue to create exhibits/experiences that would engage and empower the viewer to action, and be attentive to language that would infer fear and shame in the messaging. Critical tools from the research will be implemented in the author’s future designs to encourage discussion and action about the global environmental crises.
Allen, Jane A., Donna Vallone, PhD, Ellen Vargyas, JD, and Cheryl G. Healton, DrPH. “The truth® Campaign: Using Countermarking to Reduce Youth Smoking.” In The new world of health promotion: new program development, implementation, and evaluation, eds. B.J.Healey, R.S. Zimmerman, and Cheryl G. Healton, 195-215. Sudbury, MA: Jones and Bartlett Publishers, 2010.
Bowman, Tom., “Toward Consensus on the Climate Communication Challenge: Report from a Dialogue of Researchers and Practitioners,”Bowman Change, Inc., http://bowmanchange.com, (May 2016) 1-18. Bowman, “Toward Consensus,” 1-18.
Carson, Gabrielle (Licensed Clinical Psychologist, Ph.D), interviewed by Analise Mehmet at Mamaroneck, New York, October 19, 2018.
Davis, Kathleen. “How does cognitive behavioral therapy work?” Medical News Today, September 25, 2018, https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/296579.php.
e-Source Behavioral & Social Sciences Research. “Social and Behavioral Theories.” Bethesda,MD: Office of Behavioral & Social Sciences Research & the National Institutes of Health,no date, http://www.esourceresearch.org/eSourceBook/SocialandBehavioralTheories/1LearningObjectives/tabid/724/D efault.aspx.
Subhojit Goswani, “How to convince communities to sustain conservation efforts,” Down to Earth, May 15, 2018,