The Great Flood Workshop

You live in a communist society on a sunny and tropical island that floods every full moon.

You live in a democratic society on an island in a dark and stormy sea. It floods every 5 years.

You live in an authoritarian society on an arid and windless island that floods each year.


Your task: design a luxury good for the inhabitants of your island.


This was the prompt given to participants on April 29th as part of The Great Flood workshop, designed and hosted by graduate students in the industrial design program. RISD undergraduate students, graduate students, as well as professionals and community members from the Providence area convened to explore designing for extreme scenarios. In addition to developing innovative product concepts, the workshop participants wanted to explore: how can roleplaying enhance a workshop environment? How can sequencing the introduction of new design constraints affect the ultimate output? And how can designing for extreme environments help us better design for our everyday lives?

After a brief icebreaker activity, participants were randomly assigned island locations via a miniature message in a bottle. Each participant was given a role (politician, shop-keeper, humanitarian) and each island was assigned characteristics of government, environmental conditions, and flood frequency. Additionally, each island featured an additional fantastical constraint: that the inhabitants’ memories reset each year; that inhabitants lived forever; and that the island was mountainous such that only a select few could comfortably avoid the flood on high ground.

With one hour, and using only the materials supplied to them, participants designed prototypes of luxury products for their unique island contexts.  

Community members of the various islands convened to review the prototypes of each island. In a twist, the shop-keepers were then asked to swap islands in order to tweak product ideas to be marketable on both their original and new islands.


Product ideas included:


A suite of life vest products to be worn for survival and in order to indicate socioeconomic standing

A flask that would contain “immortal water” that was specific to each inhabitant’s DNA

A backpack that contained materials to help civilization rebuild itself each year


As one workshop participant reflected, “the structure of the workshop really helped me to free myself from the usual constraints — and to think outside the normal parameters of product design.”

Maureen Buttenheim