Helping design better stories

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Last November 27th, 2012, my mentor and friend Maria Rogal and I were invited to speak in a discussion panel called Artists on Sustaining Humans, Health, and Communities. This event was sponsored by the University of Florida College of Fine Arts in Celebration of the Morrill Act Sesquicentennial Anniversary and UF’s membership in Imagining America.

It was a great opportunity to talk publicly about my design research work in Chira Island, Costa Rica, after more than two years. I got really nice and enlightening comments about my speech, and I thought that it could be a nice idea to share it here:


My journey began in January of 2008, when I became part of the D4D initiative, previously described by Maria Rogal. Experiencing the discipline of design in a way that leverages people’s life and supports development and entrepreneurship really opened my mind to the real benefits of design.

For 5 years, I have worked with professor Rogal and several student groups in brand development, creativity, and design thinking projects in the Riviera Maya, Mexico. Working with artisans, cooperatives, and indigenous groups allowed me to experience the multidisciplinary and social value of design research, that employs methods and techniques from fields like anthropology and ethnography to be culturally accurate, in order to collaborate and co-create better.

The dual learning that happened during the development of these projects is one of the endless benefits of bringing design students to the field, taking them out of their context, and helping them develop curiosity and find opportunities from otherwise uncomfortable or unknown situations.

Designing for development helps designers understand the importance of not working in a vacuum or for other designers. Designing for people brings a completely different focus to the profession, and a total involvement of the designer in the development of our communities and our countries. It is motivating, inspiring, and life-changing.

Experiencing this approach first-hand working in the Riviera Maya motivated me to develop my thesis project in my home country, Costa Rica, most specifically in Chira Island. I felt inspired by working with women after understanding the great influence that organized women have in the development of their communities around the world. Women live poverty differently than men. Gender inequality is synonym of poverty in rural communities.

The Women’s Association of Chira Island is a group of entrepreneurs that was formed in 1999, with the support of the National University of Costa Rica, the Ford Foundation, and the United Nations Development Program.

Their ecotourism project, a pioneering development initiative consisting of a lodge and tour services around their island, has been an example of persistence and success. Since the beginning of their project and until I met them, they accumulated more than 10 years of experiences, testimonies, and lessons-learned, and their story was worth telling.

When I first approached them, I was lured by their motivation and desire to share their experiences with other women. The first member I had contact with with was Lilliana Martinez, the president of their women’s association.

Lilliana is not originally from Chira Island, but she adopted the community as her own after getting married with a local fisherman. She, as the majority of the women in Chira, spend their days taking care of home, or fishing with their husbands. Whenever the women intended to have a project, organize themselves in groups, or develop an economic activity, they were treated as lazy, irresponsible, or labeled as “negligent mothers.”

The Women’s Association of Chira Island had to overcome these hurtful stereotypes and gender roles in order to succeed with their project, and according to Lilliana, “their self-esteem is their biggest asset today.”

Not knowing what my involvement and collaboration with this association would be at first, was the most exciting challenge during my first field work visit. I first explored the option of helping them develop materials for entrepreneurship workshops, but the more I knew them, the more I was convinced of the uniqueness of their story, which was the base of my thesis project.

I visited Chira Island three times during 2009 and 2010. The first visit was a non-organized and exploratory field work, where getting to know the women and their families, and getting involved in their daily work were some of the key activities I carried out, in order to getting the approval from inside their social group, and keeping a certain level of validity among these families and their context.

My design research methods included open-ended interviews and casual conversations, a lot of observation and non-planned participation in their daily routines. These activities allowed me to become a community participant and not staying as an outsider, to understanding their motivations and economic and social activities.

Design field work is a journey of exploration, collection, but also patience, tolerance, and humility. It is an opportunity to see beyond our own context, find opportunities to collaborate, and think about our own place in the world as solidary humans, but also as designers and actors of change.

These experiences can be represented with one word: empathy. Putting myself in the shoes of women who have suffered abuse, exclusion, and poverty, but were empowered and given the chance to envision, to create, and to succeed, and now, it was their chance to inspire others. I was really fortunate to help them in their goal.

The deliverables of my thesis project, “Swimming Against the Currents”, were a series of mobile and easy to reproduce materials that visualize the story of the Women’s Association of Chira Island through time, space and voice.

I first created a Map of Connections, a poster/mural that reflects a series of social and geographic connections  between the members of the association and other entities and people around their island, mixed with other textual elements, such as testimonies and my own field notes.

Afterwards, I created a Timeline, a more factual representation of their story visualizing the most important happenings during the last 10 years, that connects to testimonies artistically represented with collages.

Finally, I created a series of cards and a video, both with testimonies of the women, representing their voice. These materials are currently in use by the association when attending development conferences and fairs. They are also on display at their lodge.

Being a partner of Design for Development changed the course of my career. My design practice and teaching activities are focused on a kind of design that puts the end-user first, benefiting communities, and audiences directly. It is a kind of design that creates empathy, encourages solidarity and open spaces for discussion, collaboration, and empowerment.

Whatever you do today, I want to invite you to get involved with those around you. You don’t have to be a social designer, a social worker, or a red cross volunteer in order to be an active participant of your context. Explore ways to improve your community, your country, or other people’s community or country. Think outside your context, get uncomfortable, move around, and get inspired by others.

Maria Rogal being presented by facilitator, Andy Howard.

That’s is me, being presented by Andy Howard.

During my speech.