Cortex Design participates in design abroad program
Cortex News

Design Thinking in Africa: Cortex heads to Zanzibar!

Sam White
Sam White May 23, 2019 • 0 min read

It’s one thing to practice design in your home city with the materials and culture that you’re used to, but it’s an entirely different thing to work in a completely new environment. It can be instructive: How much does our design thinking depend on our familiarity with a North American environment? What happens if we step way outside our comfort zone and apply the same design principles within a completely new cultural context?

We’re always hungry for new ways to challenge our assumptions about our design process, whether it’s with a new class of products or a radically different setting. That led Cortex President Dylan Horvath on a trip to the Zanzibar Archipelago in the Indian Ocean to work with local entrepreneurs through CoDesign Abroad.

Dylan Horvath design travel in Zanzibar

CoDesign Abroad (CoDA) is an organization that facilitates design-based collaboration between designers and under-served communities in culturally-rich destinations around the globe. Dylan joined 8 other designers to work on a design project for Barefoot College, a nonprofit that empowers rural women in emerging economies by offering skills training and pathways to entrepreneurship. They teach solar power systems building, clean water systems design, and other skills to help women sustainably develop their communities.

Near Stone Town, Zanzibar, Barefoot College started a new enterprise training program around beekeeping. Local women from the community go to the school for six months to learn how to build and maintain beehives and produce honey, which they then harvest and sell back to Barefoot College – a business opportunity for a community with limited access to traditional educational options.

(Yes, we tried the honey, and it’s delicious. Zanzibar is world-renowned for spice cultivation, so you can only imagine the results from bees pollinating clove, nutmeg, vanilla, black pepper and coriander.)

Great design thinking solves real human problems. In this case, the CoDA design team worked with Barefoot College to collaborate with the students on a sticky issue: commercial beekeeping suits are too expensive, making homemade beekeeping suits a necessity – but materials on the island are limited, and existing suits weren’t up to the task.

Design abroad students try on beekeeping suitsMembers of the team trying on the old suits.

The challenge: work with the entrepreneurs to design a beekeeping suit that is:

  • made of available, locally-sourced materials
  • simple to make out of available tools
  • comfortable, breathable, and loose enough to accommodate the beekeepers’ traditional garb, while providing a seal against the bees.

The bees, by the way, are referred to as “killer bees” in North America. In Africa, they’re just “bees.” But they are characterized by their swarming behaviour. In other words, really important not to get stung.

Over the two week trip, Dylan and the other designers went through a full design thinking process that included ethnographic research, problem identification, visualization, prototype design, and production prototype delivery.

product designers discuss design concepts with local entrepreneurs

It started with hands-on research. A deep dive into understanding the beekeepers’ world helped the team learn where the existing beekeeping suits were falling short. Their homemade suits weren’t just uncomfortable. Worn over top of their traditional garb and headscarves, they became unbearable after ten minutes in the hot African climate.

The beekeepers didn’t feel comfortable or safe. Their hand-made process for making the suits was neither documented nor replicable, and hence very difficult to teach or improve.

Next, the team brainstormed ideas for a better suit. The group drew on their diverse expertise in industrial design, costume design, woodworking, beekeeping, and other areas to mindmap a wide base of possible solutions:

product designers work with users on concept ideation

They broke into groups, sketched out solutions, presented them, and categorized them against the mindmap. Then, two solutions were presented to the client for evaluation:

concept designs A and B of suits

Zanzibar has a strong textiles industry. The group went to Dar es Salaam to source local materials and found some constraints: most of the markets’ beautiful prints weren’t suitable for the purpose, and zippers and other fasteners were hard to come by.

designers visit zanzibar fabric market

Sometimes constraints are the biggest driver of innovation. The team began to prototype the solutions using the established materials of sailcloth and mosquito netting.

These materials constraints on the ground – as well as client feedback – led the team towards one simple, functional design: a two-piece suit with mosquito netting on the torso to create extra breathable room. A looser, overall design on the pants provides for better heat distribution, and excellent protection without the old suit’s uncomfortable cinching.

user testing of new beekeeping suit concept

Also, a cell-phone holder (on the front) is crucial — and commercial beekeeping suits don’t have it.

After more work with the entrepreneurs on production methods, the team delivered production-ready patterns that were replicable, with piece names in Swahili:

patterns of new beekeeping suit concept design for production

Detail from the finished design.

We have found that no matter what we design, it’s our job as designers to empathize with people, often in environments that are new, even strange to us.

zanzibar city sunset

Stepping outside the confines of our comfort zone is an opportunity to test our design thinking process against radically unfamiliar constraints.

Process is powerful. The farther afield you get, the more satisfying the results. Design can solve tangible problems for people everywhere, if you take the time to understand the resources and limitations, the needs and hopes of real people. That’s what we love about it.

One thing is clear: we would have designed a very different beekeeping suit from home.

Dylan Horvath on route with design abroad program to select materials

A big thanks to CoDesign Abroad, Barefoot College and Stone Town, Zanzibar for the opportunity to work on this project!

Want to read more about how we apply design thinking? Check out our thoughts on what happens when design fails to deliver. Or take a look our e-book: How to Make Profitable Products to learn about our process.

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