NYC Design
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NYC Design

The Ugly Hair Day

This is a story of how I along with a team of talented women tackled an impossible challenge of representing diversity accurately in media and in a social environment. We presented the idea using an adaptation of the classic Hans Christian Andersen fairytale, “The Ugly Duckling”.

Left to Right — Mariel, River, Sam, Pavi (me)

The Ugly Truth

Today in a world where mass media consumption thrives, representation and portrayal of cultural diversity on screens is mirrored inaccurately. The portrayals in media affect children most in how they see themselves and others. Although progress has been made, many of these issues continue to persist. Now, the audience demands more authentic and reflective content.

The Big Question

How can storytellers ensure that their audiences are represented accurately and fairly even when they might not be part of the community they are representing? And in an ever expanding sea of platforms and content types, what forms should stories take and on what platforms should they be delivered?

The goal of this challenge will be to leverage the power of design thinking and co-creation to better understand audiences, speak to them in a language they understand, reflect them in a fair and balanced way, and to reach them through platforms and formats most meaningful to them.

Throughout the challenge each step was timed, therefore forcing us to work in a lean and agile process.

We first seeked to understand:

1. How does cultural misrepresentation occur in the media?

2. Why does misrepresentation occur?

We went through a process of diverging and converging our discussions and ideas. We initially talked about diversity as a whole with references to colourblind casting in media, books and shows about a community written or directed by someone who isn’t from that community proving the representation to be inaccurate. Some shows and movies we talked about were: Glee, Superstore, Bride and Prejudice, Madiha and more. We observed that the media only focused on narrow cultural stereotypes and wouldn’t venture beyond that to bring true stories to the audience. This led us to the question:

How can we change this misrepresentation and present the audience with more accurate cultural diversity experiences?

We initially thought people experiencing the culture and living the experience to capture a more accurate representation. However, it then made us think,

Would people still trust that this person has experienced and lived our culture? Does this make the information accurate?

How can we help people experience what we experience culturally?

Finding the “ugly” in us

Card sorting

We spent time understanding each other’s challenges socially and culturally as we all came from different backgrounds. While discussing, we all wrote specific themes and challenges on notes preparing for a card sorting exercise. We identified some similarities in questions being asked about identity.

We thought about who’s affected by cultural misrepresentation most and based on our experiences we felt that the most tender age is pre-teen. This is the age where changes occur physically and mentally in the midst of fighting against peer pressure.

While developing our persona, we chose not to label the person ethnically, instead we focused on the experience of the persona rather than demographic. We drew from our personal experiences to come up with our persona:

Name: No name

Age: Pre-teen

No name is trying to discover her identity and wants to feel empowered by not confiding to the expected cultural norms of societal pressure.

We arrived at this persona with a vision of having children teaching their parents and grandparents about cultural diversity.

Why does it matter?

Empathy mapping

We did Empathy Mapping to help us understand the user better. We tackled this differently by discussing very specific cultural incidents that troubled us most. One story that stood out to us was making a personal decision about hair without seeking advise from family or friends. As we pondered on this idea further, we all realized we had a very similar experience and all culturally different.

Non-traditional journey map

We didn’t go through the Journey Mapping in a traditional manner. Instead we split it into a beginning, middle and end experience. Beginning being the decision making process of cutting our hair, middle was how it was done, end being the aftermath of the haircut. We all took turns describing and noting down our specific experiences and used sticker dots to vote for the best story highlights.

We aligned this to experiences from “The Ugly Duckling”. Four major obstacles the duckling went through stood out to us:

1. Mother Duck — whom initially disapproved the duckling

2. Other Ducklings — who abused the duckling

3. Other Geese — who would enforce social norms on the duckling

4. Hen and Cat — who prevented the duckling from making it’s own decision

Aligning these obstacles with our stories:

Mother Duck — Family members that prevented us from making a decision on our hair

Other Duckling — “False friend” that influences your decision making preventing us from making own decision

Other Geese — Bullies who set expectations of how you should be

Hen and Cat — the hairdresser who believes he/she is the expert on your hair. Deeming our opinion insignificant.

How can we convey this story effectively getting the message across?

Content and Form of delivery

Children best engage themselves in games. We thought about a gaming form for our adaptation. We then thought of one of the most stressful situations for young girls in school related to hair. We came up with picture day. The idea was that a young pre-teen girl getting a haircut for picture day and the social challenges she comes across to eventually making her own decision to take matters into her own hands.

Physical protoype of “The Ugly Hair Day” game

Each obstacle would be an island or a level which they have to conquer to ultimately get to their photo day. We called this game “The Ugly Hair Day”.

We presented our idea in front of a panel of judges coming from backgrounds of storywriting and screenplay. After hearing all teams adaptations they finally made a decision with our team winning first place!


Following the non-traditional methods of design thinking. There’s always a process or flow that is recommended by design thinking. We took the non-traditional approach by brethinking the typical design process. Ultimately during the discovery of our project we overcame obstacles by not sticking to the traditional approaches laid out to us.

We learned to find the ugly within us, and left determined to help others embrace and overcome social challenges or norms.

It is only with the heart that one can see clearly, for the most essential things are invisible to the eye.― Hans Christian Andersen, The Ugly Duckling

Please feel free to get in touch if you have any questions or would like to chat about design!


  1. TMZ Ryerson
  2. The Ugly Duckling by Hans Christian Andersen



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