Fostering the Next Generation of Designers in Zimbabwe

Look At The World Around You.

Actually, Just Look At The Room You’re In.  

This room, along with most of the rooms of the world, and the products that are in these rooms, and the clothes on the bodies of the people in these rooms  and the services from from buying a cup of coffee to buying insurance, that these bodies interact with, all of it, yes all of it, has historically been designed by a very privileged, more or less homogenous group of people.

So we started asking ourselves, what must it feel like to move through this room if you aren’t from that privileged minority?

And further – what would this room look like if we had a more diverse set of designers in the driver’s seat?

And further – what if when we talk about diversity we weren’t just talking about color of your skin or gender, but diversity of backgrounds – from migrants and refugees, to rural farmers, to sex workers. What if those that have traditionally been left out of the conversation were able to design their own solutions?

At SINGA Studios we know that diversity drives innovation and with all the problems the world is facing today, boy do we need innovation.  

We had an exciting opportunity to make our ideas into reality with ACT in Africa, an accelerator in Zimbabwe.  They wanted design researchers for their program, and instead of flying in foreigners, wanted to train a new generation of local design researchers, who had creative minds and were embedded in the local context.

They would then go on to become advisors to the entrepreneurs participating in the accelerator to help them design human-centered services grounded in real market needs, a win-win.

Learning by Doing

We started with an intense two-week bootcamp where we introduced the concepts and tools that are essential for design researchers.

We believe the best way to learn design research is to do it.  Theory was probably 10% of the program and all the rest was about immediately applying the concepts taught.

Name tag prototypes

Name tag prototypes

Within the first two days our students were out at the main bus terminal in Harare dodging touts and combis to get at the deep insights around their challenge:

‘How might we improve public transportation in Harare (the capital)?’.

Within one week they were conducting in-depth interviews and doing card sorting with public transport users. One of the things we discovered was that the difference between having a white knuckle, hellish transport experience versus arriving safe and sound was oftentimes the relationship with the driver. Within 1.5 weeks, they were testing their prototypes on buses and in interviews. One of the ideas tested was the simple idea of including name tags with some humanizing information on the bus driver and tout, creating an opportunity for communication and establishing a relationship. This led to better understanding from both sides and reduced the tension, violence and danger during the experience. Simple, but effective.

Career Ready

Creative field research is part of the designer’s job, but also a big part is working with clients and presenting your findings and recommendations in a compelling manner, so we imitated the project lifecycle hosting mock ‘client meetings’ where they presented their plans and findings and our team acted as clients giving feedback and asking for more information.

Focusing On Local

We made sure that all examples and designs reflected the reality of the continent, and didn’t just highlight issues but highlighted innovations. The reason is simple: even by putting images of people that do not look like your audience, we are indirectly strengthening the already strong bias that most ‘cool’ things come from the other side of the world, when that’s not the case.

Tools Not Training

We focused on equipping participants with a toolkit they could draw upon again and again and adapt to their needs. We prioritized the basics and did them well instead of putting too much on their plate. We wanted to be facilitators rather than commanders. A focus on the core guaranteed that, at the program’s end, they were immediately ready to act. They became independent. 

Learners become Leaders 

After two weeks our students were ready to do the work. Through partnerships with some of the largest corporations in Zimbabwe, our learners were suddenly leading their own design case challenge.

Each group focused on a different challenge that were incredibly varied including:

“How might we improve the customer experience in Halsted’s (a leading big box hardware store)?”

“How might we reimagine the Chicken Inn (a leading fast food restaurant) drive-in experience?”

“How might we prevent counterfeit seeds being sold by Seed Co’s (a leading farming provider) competition?”

Researchers presenting their findings to their corporate clients

Researchers presenting their findings to their corporate clients

Through an intense 5-day sprint the newly minted researchers went from conducting a client kick off meeting, to doing intensive on-site research with users including, to building their prototypes and testing them, to their final presentations to the client.

They discovered unexpected insights like that fact that in Halsted’s when couples came in to re-do their homes they often argued and the whole process created so much conflict within their relationships. We used these insights to reimagine experiences, transforming the home design process into a personalized coaching that brought couples together instead of driving them apart.

Another idea that came out was exploring the adoption of a thermochromic label for original seed packages to fight counterfeits in the market. The label that would change colour with a change in temperature was inspired by a local beer brand that uses the exact same technology to inform users when the beer is rather cold and ready to drink or too warm to enjoy the flavour. Such analogous inspiration would likely not have emerged from foreign designers never been exposed to that product on a regular basis.

At the end our learners had become leaders and stood proudly and confidently to present to their clients, with one client even breaking into applause at their ideas.

After the training, in a 2-months iterative process and with our support, the newly minted design researchers participated in the Act In Africa Accelerator as researchers, helping local entrepreneurs challenge their business assumptions through design research, and prototyping and testing of new ideas. This gave them further professional experienced, and helped the entrepreneurs do better by creating more human-centered products, services, and organizations.

What’s Next

With this first project, we were able to transform 13 unemployed Zimbabweans into Design Researchers with professional client experience under their belts and better job opportunities. We are proud to say that few of them have already found employment in the sector and we are looking forward to running the training again in 2020.

This was our first step. Through continuous action we aim to create a ripple effect so that, together, we can shape a more inclusive world, where power is distributed more evenly and in diversity there is not just beauty, but business and social value. Want to know more?

By Olga Sganzerla & Alex Alden

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