One Giant Leap for Caribbean Design

“Contact light.” — The actual first words spoken from the surface of the Moon, by Buzz Aldrin on 20 July 1969 when Apollo 11 landed.
View from Green Island, Antigua — It’s going to be a good day.

The future is bright.

That’s the conclusion I came to after teaching a Design Management course for the Creative Design Entrepreneurship degree at the University of the West Indies (UWI), St. Augustine. It’s a progressive move on the part of UWI and I was honoured to be a part of the brave but challenging movement to elevate and promote the value and benefits of design through education at the region’s titan of tertiary education. You see, I had to travel overseas for my postgraduate studies in design, as did many of my counterparts. I know many other Caribbean nationals who have had to travel abroad for their undergraduate design degree. The many disciplines of design simply didn’t exist, weren’t recognised or weren’t widely practised in many islands. UWI’s efforts to offer a postgraduate design-related degree has been one small step for design development in the region.

True to the regional positioning of UWI, my course was comprised of students from various islands, backgrounds and disciplines. At the end of the course, I told the students that I was proud of them and pleased with their efforts. Here was a class comprised of men and women with backgrounds in graphic design, economics, marketing, education, music and more, all recognising the value of design and making connections between design and improved living; design and experiences; design and innovation; design and competitiveness; design and profitability; and design and their own work/business. This group of students passionately pursued their assigned projects as I sought to develop their vision and process thinking. By the end of the course, their thought approach was not about purely theoretical academic exercises but served as the foundation for innovative approaches and solution development: the kind of thinking that, when put into practice, can fuel regional progress and economic development.

One student, Tanya Marie Williams Rhule, developed a handbook introducing design and design management to Caribbean makers: “By reviewing this info and implementing the practices, you will see results that will transition you from a local, weekend market seller to a sustainable small business owner with local, regional, and international reach”. In Tanya’s handbook, she created a model for design that provided guidelines for makers to assess design functionality rather than purely subjective opinions about colours or elements.

Used with permission. CDEN 6002 project handbook, Tanya Marie Williams Rhule, ©2016

She added “Design management is a necessary strategic tool for the innovative and economic development of the Caribbean through design thinking and the development of efficient and relevant products and processes and thereby the growth of self-sufficient entrepreneurial businesses”

Another student, Jason de Lancey, took a broader approach, creating an educational handbook on the value of design management for the Caribbean region. His handbook, called “Sarompo” found the origins of its naming in the history of Caribbean people: “Sarompo is the Carib word for leaves…” He went on to connect the thought of leaves being part of a living system, each have a unique identity but coming together to serve the same functional purpose. “The label Sarompo is used to create a metaphor for the organic translation, sharing and discourse of ideologies that will card the way forward for a design management focused movement in the region.”

Used with permission. CDEN 6002 project handbook, Jason de Lancey, ©2016

Jason went on to discuss the need for innovation and improved solutions and experiences, by adopting the tools and thinking approach of designers. Jason saw design thinking and the collaborative nature of designers to share ideas and approaches as a catalyst for economic development on the progressive evolution of Caribbean cultures. “Design of a product or service in the contemporary landscape is dependant, not only on immediate consumer need, but through proper interrogation used in design [research], new needs can be assigned… Sarompo is intended to evolve into a Caribbean design ideology and method where we focus on our similarities in politics, culture, geography and climate in order to filter, enhance and create an ideal environment for ourselves that is irreplaceable on the global platform…” He added, “Entering into this new way of thinking, it will be ever important for the innovators of this future to remember design is always about people and making the ever-changing reality surrounding us better.”

While Jason took a broad look at the designers potential if embraced at a national and regional scale, Kyron Jeffers honed in on his specific target of faith based businesses in a handbook highlighting the role of design in inspiring hope and change and creating a better future. Written much like an inspirational or self-help book, Kyron sought to introduce the design process approach to move faith-based businesses from their “present situation (state) [to] the desired state.” With language reminiscent of religious principles Kyron saw the practice of good design as fruitful: yielding income or surplus; progressively improving and iterative: building upon previous outcomes; and creative.

Used with permission. CDEN 6002 project handbook, Kyron Jeffers, ©2016

Embracing a position of hope and optimism, Kyron commented on what he saw as the current situation around design in the Caribbean. “Design has not yet taken a main stream foothold in the Caribbean and design education is lacking. In an attempt to manage creative processes within a firm, Caribbean entrepreneurs have manifested qualities of design management without conscious knowledge that this is what the practice is called. Therefore, room exists to expand the body of knowledge and skilful application of the study and practice of design…”

Like Tanya, Jason, Kyron and the other students, I see immense potential for the development of design practice, thinking and solutions in the Caribbean. I’ve seen the difference design can make when connected to people, organisations and systems. Design improves communications, is a cornerstone of great brand experiences, solves problems, evokes emotions, is pleasurable, connects people and is profitable.

While a functional knowledge of tools, programs and available technology is important, design education addresses how these are managed, manipulated and applied to benefit and influence people. The reality is that well-designed products, services and experiences are just a click away in our globally connected world. The Caribbean cannot afford to ignore design’s many disciplines any longer.

The good news is that there is a new postgraduate degree programme focused on the contributions of design; there is a progressive buzz around design in the Caribbean (eg. Ministry of Design Colloquium, 2015, that saw designers and participants from across Latin America and the Caribbean present on a variety of topics) and there is the visionary thought direction of a new set of Caribbean-trained design ambassadors (my wonderful class). With these new developments, I can happily say that I see the sun on the Caribbean’s design horizon. It’s going to be a great day!

“…our visions go rather further than that and our opportunities are unlimited.” — Neil Armstrong

Thoughts from some of the students

“The Design Management course was very, very useful for me. It helped me gain clarity on just how wide design management is and how powerful it can be once used correctly. As a practicing Graphic Designer for over a decade this was a much needed step in the development of my personal career and it will better equip me to serve my clients and offer them a stronger, more well rounded branding experience and hopefully build a stronger creative partnership with them. This has really re-energised my thinking about design and my career direction.”

— Tanya Marie Williams Rhule

“We in Trinidad may not notice how many facets of our environment are inherited and adopted, rather than self-designed. Recently we’ve seen implications of design led management being employed by large scale companies in the Caribbean region, a practice which departs from the usual linear approaches to business.

The reality is that cultures emerge and evolve — after the class research and interactions, I believe holistic design thinking can evolve into a “regional culture”, forming an ideological structure that can respond to social, political and cultural questions in a manner relevant to us.”

— Jason de Lancey

I see the knowledge gained being able to add great wisdom, effectiveness and dynamism to faith based businesses and charities. A “Ministry of design” can work well with the values-based, problem solving motivation that faith based endeavours characterise.

My thinking grew to a Caribbean perspective, as someone who never left Trinidad and Tobago I was able to expand my thinking. The benefit I gained from Ms Estwick as a Caribbean designer and a faith based practitioner added a unique dynamic that allowed me to grow in the areas of brand building for cultural enterprises, empowered by faith based business practices. The value that this model brings to the table being outreach based rather than profit driven.

— Kyron Jeffers

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