31 December 2008

Field Kits

I spent my Christmas holiday learning how to sew again. Thanks to my mom and her new machine, we were able to produce my ideas into a workable prototype. The bag is made of a wool blanket and is secured on the inside by a button and loop. The top flap has a cardboard insert to act as a drawing board while in the field. The other side of the bag holds what you need it to: pencil crayons, pencils, cameras and notepaper.

I still need to create the belt for the back loops (as the women might have to carry children, I opted to create a kit that would go around the waist). But I have that concept sorted - just need to do the work of stitching them up. Ironically, at the end of all this thinking, some may end up carrying it on their heads (since I witnessed people doing this with backpacks).

So you want a website?

I'm amazed at how often I'm asked for help to make a website. This idea that a website will do the trick every time sort of gets under my skin. Don't get me wrong, I see the value of having internet presence. But it's only as good as a) the information you've got to share and b) the number of people who will actually take time to read it. And it requires an internet connection (obviously). In my ongoing work on ideas for the developing world/periphery where the access isn't always reliable or available, I have come to appreciate the value of other notions of technology that might be more helpful. And the value of thinking beyond a website when you are trying to get the word out.

This piece from GOOD Magazine's Transparency section is one more reminder of this.

23 December 2008

Someone else's interpretation

Someone took the time to read through all my blog posts and summarize my thesis project and ideas. I am delighted with what surfaced. Thanks, Helen!

"Your thesis/project supports a number of Rwanda’s 2020 development goals and the MDGs by supporting a group of rural women to develop weaving skills that will help them generate income. One major additional benefit of this weaving enterprise is that it uses for raw material the invasive water hyacinth plant. This plant is degrading the environment on which people in the Bugasera region, where the weaving cooperative is located, depend for basic survival.

The situation for the weavers at present is that, although a number of organizations have helped them to learn weaving skills, start a studio, and a business cooperative—COVAGA, the women are still in the early stages of weaving skill and design development; consequently, their production is limited in quantity, variety and quality.

The women need further support to (?)
(I inserted: Build a suitable factory, design and create their own products, an understanding of quality and market needs, business planning)

Kara, when you got acquainted with the women, you were becoming aware of how so many development “solutions” are imposed on the “beneficiaries”. Often, little, if any, effort is made to consult the beneficiaries about what they need and want, what their ideas are about how their lives might be improved.

You also discovered that language was a significant barrier. Even when words alone might not be a barrier, there’s the language of culture that cannot necessarily be transmitted through words, especially the words of a foreign language and a foreign culture.

So, Kara, as a person who’s interested in how images convey values and persuade, you want to create the means, “a cultural probe,” in the form of a kit, which the women weavers can carry with them as they go about their lives, to enable then to convey their aspirations for COVAGA via media consisting not of words but, rather, drawings, photos, found objects, and (more?). These things, you believe, will give fuller expression to what words can only partially express about what the women see, feel and think."

Currently, I'm researching materials to make my bag for the field kit. I have started by looking at the blankets often used by NGO's in humanitarian aid. From what I can gather, this material seems to be accessible in many countries thereby making it possible for the kits to be made in the respective country of research. Next step is to find the appropriate strapping material for the handles.

While the focus of my research isn't on the bag itself, I am pleasantly surprised by the process I've had to go through in thinking through the functionality of these probes in a rural situation. Gaver's examples used a Ziploc bag as a simple inexpensive way to give the probe to his participants. In my case, this isn't really an option (especially since plastic bags are technically banned in Rwanda!) How will they carry it? How will they write or draw if they are not sitting at a table (which isn't a guarantee)? I am most interested in the visual outcomes but without the infrastructure to acquire these, I would likely be wasting my time. It is as though the bag has as much to say about this research as the contents that will go into it. I can imagine something extra emerging just by engaging the process of making and sending them out.

Still to go:
1) Finalize probe activities
2) Translation where necessary
3) Sew bags

17 December 2008

Carry this, please?

In developing the probes for my lovely women in rural Rwanda, I've been thinking about the ease and practicality of how they will engage these exercises that are asking them to document their needs, desires and wants via image, texture and color. And I got to thinking that maybe having this "kit" in the form of a carrying case might be:

a) more useful and
b) a bit more practical.

Since they might be attending to the farm or weaving at the shop, my typical assumptions of how they complete these activities seems to require a different approach. So here's a very rough prototype of my thoughts about how I could make a simple case for this. Once the activities are complete, they can keep the pencils and "purse" for something in the future?

Think fabric, think the size of a Moleskine, and think reusable. Or so I hope.
Thoughts? Ideas? Feedback?

Inspirations came from:

15 December 2008


I am working on getting a cultural probe (Gaver) developed to send out into "the field". This probe is meant to use creative activities to see how people process the information. I'm curious to know if this concept could be developed into something that helps the periphery in areas of governance. To me, the idea of governance relates to Ideo's work on Design for Social Impact.

Enzio Manzini references the ideas of 'governance toolkits' in a wonderful book, Design Research Now . Beat Schneider is also quoted:

"With the trend towards a globalised, standardised cultural mishmash, people have an ever-greater need to communicate their own regional cultural identity (for example) to others. What part can visual communication play in this process? How can international communication between different cultures be structured in a way that primarily employs images rather than words? And how does non-paternalistic visual imagery in local development work look at the level of development cooperation?"

My only wish right now is that I could fund myself back to Rwanda to be in the field working on this. I'm giving these probes (Lord willing) to those who work in the development arena to see what comes of their process. My hope is that by asking the people they work with about their needs, desires and beliefs that they might find creative communities that already have some good ideas about their own futures. And I'm seeking to do all this where language is not shared so the notions of image, texture, shape and color become new forms of language investigation for me.

(These all have to be translated. While I'd love to get away from language in all forms, it simply isn't possible. Thankfully, I have support!)

12 December 2008

Big Question

Ideo has always been a hit with me. Love what they do, how they do it and then some. And I love their widget. What's your big question? I'm still working mine out but apparently I can look ahead in time to find out if someone else already wrote it. Phew.

11 December 2008

( ) space: Legal Size

Last night, the grad program hosted an opening event at the new ( ) space at the 1612 West 3rd Studios. The exhibition put us all on the same page. Literally.

We were invited to use a legal sized piece of paper to make something that represented where we were at in our research. I opted to create a piece of origami, interactive in nature, to show how I am investigating communication when you don't have a shared language (as a designer who has trusted this more in her previous work).

Origami, as a pattern language, is interesting to me in as much as demonstrates how art and math can work together to create objects both functional and beautiful. My last post identifies the ways that health and science are benefiting from the principles of this ancient art form. I learned how to make this piece without a manual or words. I watched videos or looked at the fold patterns as a means to consider how I can learn something without text.

Kara shows Rok her interactive piece, Without Words. Photos courtesy of Defne.

09 December 2008

The art and science of Origami

I have been completely taken with all things origami recently. I'm not good at it like Lang, but I am keen on how this is being referenced as a language. I respect and am interested in the connections between art and science that are discussed in this TED talk. I am blown away that these items can be made with one uncut piece of paper.

Even more fodder.

04 December 2008

Peripheral Participants

These are the ideas I'm after.

When I think of how the periphery have the potential to contribute to the whole (specifically in the context of those who face challenges in the developing world), I start to consider how this model could be translated back in Rwanda.

Because it speaks of good governance. The fact that citizenship is developed "by the people for the people" is recognizable. I realize we live with incredible freedoms to do so, but if this idea could be shared with a rural town in Rwanda, would the same potentials be realized? I get a bit of hope inside thinking about the "what if's".

The tools I'm trying to figure out in the process of this are being considered and evaluated through a lens that isn't my "home town"(like this Vermont case), which adds some complexity to my process. Language, beliefs, needs and values are relevant in this research (for them and me). In my case, I want to consider how a cultural probe (Gaver) might illuminate ways to bring a community on the other side of the globe into their own change (without assuming I know what that change should look like). Because many initiatives are developed without consulting the people who will be affected by them, I like what this town in Vermont is suggesting by including their peripheral actors. And perhaps by understanding deeper needs, future innovations can be approached without messing with what already works.

By the people, for the people.

03 December 2008

Notes on a Conversation


This work fascinates me.
I think it highlights the tensions I am interested in. How can design really address the needs of those on the periphery when my idea of technology isn't available? Not all progress is good progress, in my estimation. I don't claim to know the hierarchy of "good progress". But I do know, from watching and immersing myself in the various communities I've engaged with both here and abroad, that some of the best ideas aren't always the best for everyone.
How to know what is best? My research is attempting to ask questions of the individuals who don't always have people around them to help them find their best answer.

"The idealization connected with these experiences provokes a small-but-important detach of the perception of reality and what i want to do by writing the names of anything connected with the 2.0 life we are living in the slums of the third world is to point out the gap between the reality we still live in and the ephemeral world of technologies." --Filippo Minellis
Wooster Collective Article

01 December 2008

Design Research

Firstly, ‘research for design’ refers to ‘R & D’ or background research undertaken that is directed towards a particular design project: such as testing the performance of a glaze by an industrial designer or user testing the clarity of a brochure designed by a graphic designer. ‘Research into (or about) design’ includes the various accounts of design phenomena usually done by other disciplines – such as a sociological, historical or economic account of design – which are straightforward dissertations since they can adhere to the conventions of their respective disciplines. Finally, the most contentious but potentially ground–breaking possibility is ‘research through (or by) design’ where a degree may be awarded for a project and is often labelled ‘practice-based’ or ‘practice-led’ research (Frayling 1993/1994, Findelli 2000[1999], Newbury 1996).

This has provided great inspiration in the directions design research can take. I'm most keen on the last idea.

[There] is still a widely held assumption that though sociologists may study and analyse visual representation, the resultant analysis itself is separate from the visual domain: the verbal analyses the visual...But...the distinction between social analysis and visual representation is becoming less clear-cut...social analysis is beginning to make more use of visual representation, and indeed should make more use of visual depictions, unconventional typography and page layout in its analysis. (Elizabeth Chaplin)

Chaplin asserts that visual representations contribute to the social argument in themselves, capable of ‘[telling] us a good deal we did not already know about a particular society.

(Excerpts taken from Helen Box's PhD thesis on design)