Off the Grid: VCUarts Qatar Alumnus Creates Products to Help People to ‘Disconnect’
Mental health and well-being might be one of the trending Google searches at the moment, but for Mohammad Jawad – an alumnus of Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts in Qatar (VCUarts Qatar), it is a personal mission.
Jawad designs products that help people to ‘disconnect’ from the digital deluge around them, and reconnect with themselves and their natural environment. Originally from Pakistan, he completed his BFA in Graphic Design in 2015 and MFA in Design in 2019, both from VCUarts Qatar. VCUarts Qatar is a partner university of Qatar Foundation.
Design and biology
For almost a decade, Jawad’s interest in science has seen him explore the intersection between design and biology to investigate subjects of sustainability and human psychology and raise awareness of the detrimental side effects of prolonged digital dependency.
There was a time when the word ‘addiction’ was ascribed solely to substance dependency or abuse. Now it is also applied to the intoxicating allure of social media and how it leads to a constant craving for gratification and pleasure, enveloping users in a sense of addiction.
In addition to social media addiction, Jawad points to studies that show how prolonged multitasking – a trait that most organisations cite as a pre-requisite for jobs – decreases productivity and creativity by 40%.
All this prompted me to wonder: if design – and designers like myself – are responsible for creating such devices and user interfaces, why can’t we help design products that help users disconnect from their digital devices, and reconnect with themselves and their environment?
Jawad’s self-reflection, coupled with his background in biology, and exhaustive research into human psychology, led him to explore art and medicine during his BFA studies, and to create an exhibition installation titled ‘Virtual to Real’.
Later on, during his MFA studies, he delved deeper into the intersection of art and health and developed a series of wearable devices that drive home the need to curb digital dependency.
Art and health creations
One of these products is ‘Hypo Connect’, a small mesh-like finger cover that allows the user to be more present and focused by quelling the urge to constantly swipe a phone screen, especially while attending meetings.
Another one is ‘Virtual Bubble’ a wearable device – much like a light-weight helmet – with a collapsible structure; the piece, inspired by the armadillo, covers one’s face when you’re engrossed in a phone conversation, preventing others from interacting with you as they normally would – symbolic of the psychological and social barriers that digital dependency creates in relationships.
Jawad is convinced that reconnecting with oneself also means reconnecting with nature, a belief that led him to create products that are in sync with the natural environment. These products ‘change and adapt – as the natural world does – and are meant for a post-industrial world’.
My MFA thesis focused on bio-design and resulted in the creation of a series of modular lighting fixtures.
He said he was inspired by the form and process of crystallisation and chose to make nature-made crystals. Crystals are excellent diffusers of light, and what could be more alluring than a lamp made by the same process of crystallisation that leads to the striking bloom pattern of a desert rose?
Jawad worked in VCUarts Qatar Fabrication Lab to generate and grow alum and borax crystals. The development process balanced the precise, controlled, flexibility of industrial 3D printing, with the natural growth of crystals— making each lamp inherently unique. The result presented a new way to design environmentally-friendly products.
He said that if he hadn’t been a designer, he most certainly will be a neurologist or neuroscientist – that’s how much biology fascinates him.
Now that I’m a designer I feel I have the best of both worlds. I’m able to peer into the designs behind precise physiological processes within nature, such as mitosis, cosmic rhythms of growth within a single cell, decay and metamorphosis, and use that to imagine the unimagined.
The VCUarts Qatar alumnus feels that organisations, educational institutions and parents can promote mental well-being through products that improve mindfulness – something which he prioritised when he designed gifts for his own peers.
He said that the use of digital devices cannot be completely deleted from our lives, but our dependency on them has led to something rather ironic – in our haste to get technology to respond to human touch, the value of touch, by itself, is forgotten.
He shared that for this reason, he steers away from tech-based ideas when designing gifts for fellow alumni. Instead, he created a five-piece set of wooden blocks in the soothing colours of the sun, sand and the sea.
During moments of lifestyle or work-related stress, the tactile, multi-sensory characteristics of the blocks help calm the mind and refocus thoughts, while stimulating creativity and a sense of mindfulness.
For more information about programmes offered at VCUarts Qatar, visit qatar.vcu.edu.
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