Tackling tough topics

In Denmark, over 10% of young people are sometimes or always lonely. Ventilen is reducing this number by hosting gatherings in venues across the country, multiple times a week. Five fellow students and I worked with them to help their volunteers develop new ways to break the ice at these gatherings.

The delivered design

Ventilator is a board game to be used during Ventilen’s gatherings. It aims to help lonely youths that attend Ventilen form friendships with each other and encourages tough topics to be discussed. The players’ goal is to reach the centre of the board. They move by rolling a dice or spinning a spinner. After moving they take a card that matches the colour of the space they land on. Each card belongs to one of the following four categories:


Softball question — easy and fun topic.


Tough question — tougher topics that cover issues that the youths often struggle with.


New rule — A rule from the card must be added to the game.


Interactive — a challenge that involves other players.

If the player picks up a card they don’t want to answer, they can opt to return to the spot they came from rather than answer. So, while the game incentives players to discuss tough topics, they aren’t excluded if they aren’t ready to answer. Also this relaxed approach to progression highlights to the player that the game won’t be fun if played in a highly competitive manner. This relaxed play style creates a calming atmosphere where friendships can be formed.

Read on to see the design process.

Making contact

A team member was already acquainted with the chairman of the Copenhagen branch of Ventilen. He recruited three co-workers with each at a different level of seniority and experience within the charity. The participants also had different roles within the organisation, which provided us with the perfect cast for the two workshops we had planned.


(Left to right) Anne is responsible for recruiting new volunteers. Sebastian is chairman of the Ventilen Branch in Copenhagen. Anya is vice-chairman. Jes helps coordinates social outings for the youths.

We ran two workshops with our four participants, each of which was split into two parts. Afterwards a meal was served, both evenings lasted a little over two hours each. We hosted both the workshops in one of the team member's apartment in Vesterbro, Copenhagen. Whilst our university, ITU Copenhagen, offered space in which we could conduct workshops, the team agreed our priority was to create a relaxed and informal atmosphere. We felt under these circumstances our participants would be more likely to open up and be frank about the challenges they face.

Workshop one

The primary aim of the first workshop was to identify a clear design opening. First, a modified version of Cranium was played. We tailored the game to focus on topics relevant to Ventilen and shifted some of its mechanics to better suit the co-design model pioneered in Scandinavia. Sometimes the player would have to enact a scenario that occurs at Ventilen gatherings. Other times they would need to respond to a quote taken from interviews done with members of the public we did prior to the workshop regarding volunteering.


This was an ideal activity to start with, as the participants were immediately absorbed by the competitive nature of the game. Within minutes they began speaking freely about each topic the game introduced. If an insightful comment was made, the game would pause organically as the facilitators participating in the game asked follow up questions. The participants enjoyed the game so much that when asked if they wanted a break, they wanted to play a final round.

The second session consisted of a Future workshop. This design exercise got participants to envision their dream scenario for problem solving. First, they reflected on all sorts of problems they have encountered at Ventilen, which they sorted by priority. Then the participants and the team came up with the ideal scenario in which the problem they faced could be solved. This could be entirely abstract from the reality in which they had to tackle it at the time. Lastly, the participants were encouraged to integrate these utopian scenario into the reality of working at Ventilen.


The participants were given a range of props and materials to illustrate their ideas.

The four key insights from workshop one were:

Assumptions vs. Reality
Based on our fieldwork, we thought that Ventilen would have issues with recruiting volunteers. However this isn’t a problem. They have an excess of applications, and have to turn some down.

Network Recruiting
The participants agreed that knowing somebody in Ventilen was the easiest way to join the charity. This is a double-edged sword as whilst new volunteers require a “stamp of approval” before joining, it also reduces the diversity within the charity, potentially limiting the range of skills and ways of thinking at the charity's disposal.

Sharing experience within Ventilen
Ventilen mentors their volunteers through a trained psychologist. The volunteers have a duty of confidentiality, so meetings with the psychologist are individual. Despite this, the participants all desired more opportunities to share their knowledge and learn from fellow volunteers.

Leaving the charity
Those that receive the support of Ventilen can sometimes struggle when transitioning out of the charity. The participants ascribe this to the fact that some of the youth use Ventilen as a clubhouse, where they meet all their friends.

Workshop two

The insights gained in workshop two presented a number of design openings that we examined in the second workshop. In the first session, we presented our responses to the design openings we had identified. We encouraged critique, which they were willing to provide thanks to the strong rapport the group had developed in the first workshop. In the second session, the participants collaborated with us to improve the concepts and eventually choose a favoured design.

We presented the participants with a number of designs that employed modern digital platforms. They saw potential in them but were wary of the complexity they introduced to the organisation and resources they’d require to build and maintain. When we mentioned the idea of adapting the version of Cranium we had used in the first workshop for the Ventilen attendees, they lit up. They agreed that the game had been the catalyst in the success of the first workshop, in that it made a potentially uncomfortable encounter between near strangers into a fun evening in which everyone left feeling progress had been made. The rest of the workshop was spent fleshing out this idea.


Amanda Barlebo

Alan Long

Niels Ørner Nørup

Simone Pless

Isabel Vittrup-Pallier

Anton Blinkenberg Zeuthen