London and its social infrastructure provides any curious minded person with a rich set of informal circumstances, events and places for chance meetings. I find this is underlined by a mutually supportive process drawing on a web of connections between industry, academia, a deep pool of socially-curious educators and an internationally diverse student body.

One only needs to walk through Trafalgar Square to appreciate how sociology, economics and politics affect how Londoners and visitors to London experience the city. A Westminster Council survey involving over two thirds of Londoners informed how Trafalgar Square was transformed from a transport hub to a public temporary exhibition space and square. Consulting with users was a necessary precursor to reflecting interests of a broad section of citizens who have a stake in the space. Trafalgar Square’s value for Londoners lies in its capacity for public expression — from workers chilling out and tourists taking in the scenery, to music gigs, outdoor theatre, and annual events.

Peter Merholz’s statement “Experience is the product and the only thing user’s care about’’ has never been more true whether the product is a public space or a learning aid. Becoming user literate is a precondition for design effectiveness.

Recently, I was involved in a client project with design students which puts this background into context. The project started with a chance meeting I had with Rebecca Sweetman, CEO of TutuDesk UK at the Mandrake . TutuDesk is a South Africa-based social enterprise set up to provide durable and portable school desks to children in parts of Sub-Saharan Africa. The company subsidizes the distribution of desks in Africa by selling them at a profit in the UK. When we met, Sweetman explained TutuDesk UK’s business strategy, and its efforts to carve out a niche for an ‘advocacy product.’ I immediately thought of Central Saint Martins (CSM), where I had been a product design student myself, as a perfect academic partner for the project.

How do you position a desk developed for Africa in the UK?

‘The Africa Learning Barometer’ points unequivocally to an education and learning crisis. Over one-third of the pupils covered in this survey — 23 million in total—fell below the minimum learning threshold.

Without a functioning learning infrastructure, such as learner centred teaching methods, and learning materials (including desks) millions of African school children are unable to learn, with consequences for literacy, critical thinking, ability to range widely, imaginatively and pragmatically. Enterprising initiatives to increase access, for quality conscious low income earning parents, to good education at low cost is work in progress. This is the context around which TutuDesk UK’s fund raising strategy is designed; to support TutuDesk South Africa’s capacity to increase brand awareness, distribute 20 million portable and durable desks into the hands of kids across Africa by 2020.

These insights aligned with Jane Penty and Nick Rhodes’ thinking (that in the UK or any part of Africa the education of a child should be aimed at maximising the potential of that child. This is better served where a broad range of options are provided by schools with considerable resources, and a recognition of how technology is affecting work and life patterns of parents or guardians) year lead and course director respectively on the BA Product Design course at CSM. The CSM/TutuDesk project became part of a round the clock set of activities designed to negotiate sponsorship deals, plan events and retail from the UK.

Sketch concepts by April Kwok Wan

By first quarter of this year student product designers in the second year were briefed to shift their frame of reference from TutuDesk’s African user group to new user groups in London. The premise was that culturally varied people, living in London, have diverse habits, social norms and expectations. Ultimately TutuDesk as a campaign product brand needs to retail in and from the UK. To design experiential products for differences within the UK market it was critical that student designers discover lifestyles of intended user-groups by having deliberate conversations, interacting with them, observing a representative community of users to inform their ideas from the users’ perspective.

A variety of user situations such as how reception class kids use learning spaces to how young professionals living in constrained apartments optimise their space (there was also a nomadic and outdoor theme)opened up to comparative analysis at review sessions. This initial discovery process in itself was not enough, as the students learnt that to get accurate, relevant, understandable and meaningful insights out of the information that users’ provide can be difficult and frustrating.

Each student then commenced early prototyping of their ideas to test it with a small representative group of users. Jane Penty, Magnus Long (visiting lecturer) and myself helped the students to understand problems associated with navigating cultural relevance for their various types of user-groups. Review sessions became a process of deconstructing prototypes and mapping how users might experience them. In addition each student had to consider experiential attributes that their ideas will evoke about TutuDesk as a brand.

I would argue that this process is analogous to how Trafalgar Square, designed for diverse public interest, embraced multiple views at the front-end. In a similar sense further peer reviews and user tested prototypes informed new product concepts.

To the extent that the quality of each student’s approach to understanding lifestyles of their users depended on their level of user literacy, it also reflected their interpretative ability.

(Left) Rebecca Sweetman (Middle) Jane Penty and (Right) student product designer, Victor Moynier reviewing links between graphic concepts, user’s perceptions and product identity.

Between April and June a few students transferred insights gained as a result of the TutuDesk brand re-framing exercise to exploring data visualisation as a product identity strategy. The CSM/TutuDesk project culminated in a creative challenge to devise a graphic language that would clearly link TutuDesk’s identity, messaging for the UK market, literacy related issues, with a diverse cultural context of Africa. A combination of visually engaging illustrations, images and contextual data became decision making tools with which Rebecca Sweetman and her colleagues in South Africa began to evaluate ideas for embodying the desk’s identity as an issue based campaign product.

One of the Product Identity themes developed by student product designers @ Central Saint Martins — University of The Arts London

Education and practice are being transformed around sustainability. Some students are coming to design school wanting to know how they can be part of the conversation addressing social issues and participatory approaches to development. Projects such as Stanford D School’s ‘Embrace’ is one groundbreaking sign of socially responsive curricula in ascendant.

The impact of the global economic crisis began to define careers and opportunities in many disciplines including design. Being nimble becomes an imperative. In my experience the city supports this quality by fostering the collaborative instinct of creative minds to build on other people’s ideas and reach fresh conclusions that might not have happened otherwise.

Researching, testing and developing socially responsive and participatory methods of design that are appropriate are as critical for responding to wicked problems in Monrovia as they are in Dhaka, California and London.

As a simple idea ‘embodying user literacy, by cultural diffusion’ is getting traction. It is about being on the ground and understanding people, helping to build up people’s awareness of their own capacity (as well as learn about and know one’s own limitations) and giving them a say in what they want and imaginatively exploring how they want it.

As a result culturally mediated thinking about experience as the product can be a teacher. Consumer products developed in different international markets are adapted for use in parts of Africa have provenance. On the other hand products emerging from an African region developed for international markets are also functioning as “teachers’ of Africa’s varied context”.

Knowing that chance encounters do open doors to addressing these issues and thinking collaboratively with clients at varying scales does feel at times like an injection of inspiration.