Seven lessons from co-creating a design fellowship program
Using human-centered design (HCD) with Animals Asia turned out to be one of the most transformative experiences of my life.
From co-designing with community members to prototyping ideas for collective care, I learned how to advocate for community voices, facilitate creative problem solving, and ultimately leverage design for social change.
– Lena-Phuong Tran, Pitzer 2018
How might college students design with rather than for local communities in a global context? How might we co-design a global design fellowship program? We posed these questions for the Hive’s first summer equity-minded global design fellowship program in Vietnam. The program launched and ran from 2018 to 2022. Here is the story of what we designed and lessons learned.
We began by asking a range of Claremont Colleges human-centered design students from various backgrounds what their dream summer design fellowship would look like. They shared a desire to apply design thinking in the world for positive social impact. They wanted to touch issues that mattered to them and learn how different people would approach them. To meet this need, we created a summer fellowship program that offers human-centered design students the opportunity to focus on timely issues with partner organizations and mentorship from Hive faculty and staff mentorship — as well as the option to travel farther afield.
This project grew out of my work as a Postdoctoral Associate at the San Diego Zoo’s Beckman Center for Conservation Research, working as an environmental anthropologist and design researcher on community conservation and health behavior change in Northern Vietnam. We were focused on the use of bear bile, one of many animal parts used to treat medical conditions in Asian medical traditions. The practice today is far different from the past when only wild-hunted animal parts were used for medicine. With modern commercial bear bile farming, wild bears are trapped and caged on “farms” to extract bile for medicine. Capturing and holding wild animals in concentrated spaces (such as markets or farms) has been linked to overexploitation of wild animal populations and the spread of zoonotic diseases such as Ebola, HIV, and COVID. Our Vietnamese partners wanted to understand what drove people’s health preferences and to co-design culturally respectful behavior change away from animal parts medicine toward alternatives.
We traveled to Vietnam for two summers (2018 and 2019) for the initial design research and testing. From 2020–2022, the program ran remotely due to COVID-19, building upon strong working relationships with our partners and the community to complete the design refinement and completion. Our partners included an international conservation organization (Animals Asia), a Vietnamese national government agency (the Traditional Medical Association of Vietnam), a Vietnamese community, and Vietnamese college students in Hanoi.
THE DESIGN RESULTS
Through the design process, we identified three key design objectives:
- Decentralize health knowledge
- Celebrate and share women’s herbal medicine health knowledge
- Increase the use of herbal alternatives to wildlife medicine in Vietnam
Student teams designed tools to amplify the voices and knowledge of local health influencers — namely, matriarchal women using an iterative process. The final design tools were: (1) women’s health circle and (2) women’s herbal medicine book. The book features herbal remedies curated by women in northern Vietnam and showcases sustainable health knowledge passed down through generations. The launch event in October 2022 garnered attention from Vietnamese national media, Pomona College, and Pitzer College, recognizing the contributions of The Claremont Colleges students and promoting the use of traditional herbal alternatives to animal parts medicine. The design work celebrated the expertise of local women and their traditional knowledge, promoting community health, and empowering women. This book came directly out of the design process and responded to women’s stated need to obtain accessible and affordable health knowledge from their peers to better treat their families. Animals Asia plans to distribute 10,000 copies of the book and to employ the book and women’s health circle in their bear bile reduction campaign across Vietnam.
THE HOW — 7 LESSONS
Here are seven lessons we learned in designing this program.
#1: Work with culturally informed partner organizations with topical expertise.
There are many partners in the world and some of them will be a great fit for a community-based, human-centered design program. Find partners through trusted connections and past collaborations. For this program, I drew from extensive experience working on human-wildlife conservation issues across the globe, in particular a partnership with Animals Asia from my previous postdoctoral work (at the San Diego Zoo Center for Conservation Research). We were both committed to a participatory design approach — working in collaboration with local communities and governmental agencies. We wanted to use a systems approach — examining how our designs would impact others in the system and the system at large, and wanted to focus on powerful yet historically marginalized perspectives. We both committed to ethical and culturally aware design in the environmental conservation realm, which is sadly not the norm. Get curious about what drives your organization to align the design project with their long-term goals. This will ensure mutual respect and a productive working relationship for students and partners alike.
#2: Co-design from start to finish.
This will make your international program salient, inclusive, and culturally respectful. I co-designed the program with input from multiple stakeholders. The students and I huddled up in the Hive to talk through their concerns before leaving, such as where would they live, what vaccines did they need, and how would we design responsibly in another country? Pomona College International and Domestic Programs office advised on navigating the complex web of logistics to take students abroad, such as visas, health insurance, safety, and cross-cultural challenges and opportunities. We read articles on co-design, Vietnamese culture and history, and interviewed Animals Asia about the communities where we would work.
In Vietnam, we partnered with Vietnamese students from Hanoi University of Education and immersed ourselves in the communities to identify key health influencers who would also be interested in co-designing. Government restrictions placed on our ability to visit the women outside of government-sanctioned health days slowed down our co-design process, but we persisted and were able to visit and test regularly over an extended period of time to develop meaningful final designs with the women.
We iterated with subsequent cohorts to adapt to the pandemic and the evolving phases of our design process. This approach empowered students and our target audience with a sense of co-ownership of the program and incentivized them to invest themselves more deeply in the work, channeling their unique skills and interests in the program each year.
#3: Make design a reflexive research experience. Employ cross-cultural learning and social science research methods.
Human-centered design is a powerful tool to engage people, but it is made stronger by layering in a systems lens and awareness of a larger population sample through surveys, observation, and interview analysis. In this program, students were guided by our partners in Vietnam, through prior readings on Vietnamese culture, and conversations with one another, some of whom had Vietnamese heritage and language skills. We discussed cultural biases around the design problem space. We went through IRB training and used surveys and survey analysis alongside empathy interviews and observations to contextualize our interviewees’ perspectives in the overall system. We spent ample time preparing ourselves intellectually and emotionally for this research. We took time to reflect on each person’s (including my own) positionality, lived experience, and power dynamics before, during, and after the program. Taking the time to learn more about the cultural context and overall system we were designing in, as well as our positionality and power in that system, led to more responsible and effective co-design with our partner organization, as well as the local community.
#4: Create diverse design teams with diverse knowledge and useful cultural and language skills.
In a workplace, we know the value of diverse perspectives and skills on teams to produce higher-quality work and encourage learning across colleagues. Doing this in student teams will similarly challenge and elicit deeper learning, diverse design ideas, and meaningful reflections. Intentionally create diverse teams with students from different backgrounds, abilities, perspectives, and majors. Include about 50% with relevant cultural and language knowledge so as to include these perspectives but not place a burden on them to help others navigate the place or language. Consider pairing your program with a pre-established study abroad program where students will receive useful cultural and language training.
In our program, when we added Vietnamese designers to our teams, we learned that a series of graphic designs we thought looked great did not appeal to the target audience (older Vietnamese women). They preferred real photography over graphic designs in the recipe book. Learning the unexpected design qualities appreciated in different contexts and by different audiences was a rich lesson for our American-based students to carry forward in their design careers.
#5: Co-create something that your partner organization can use.
Partner organizations invest time, human labor, and energy to work with students. Make it worth their while by ensuring you deliver usable insights and design outputs. After four years of work, we completed the herbal medicine book and outreach launch event in October 2022. We completed a final paper documenting our design research results and lessons for the conservation community (pending publication will be linked on the vietherb.org website). Our partners plan to use the book and health circle at their health outreach in bear farming and hunting communities across the country.
#6: You will need money to do this. Create a funding strategy early on.
In order to carry out a fellowship program internationally or in another part of the country, there will be added expenses. You don’t need to do a program away from your college town or area to present your students with cultural awareness in design, but if you choose to do so, be prepared to budget for this through your own budget, private fundraising, or grants. This was the first of our Hive summer fellowship programs, and it required international travel. Our selected destination, Vietnam, is pricey to get to (~$2000) but relatively inexpensive to navigate once you arrive. We needed roughly $5000 per student to cover their costs for six to eight weeks in the country, including international travel and basic design research expenses, an amount they were able to access through college summer internship funds. Talk to your advancement, foundation, grant, and study abroad experts to design a strategy to request funding. We initially got funding through a Henry Luce Foundation grant. In subsequent years, I coached students through applying to internal and external grant programs. This was a great experience for future grant writing they might need to do.
#7 Center the margins in your design research. For far too long we have centered a White male perspective in the design of our world. Rather than default toward an urban, male-dominated locale, we intentionally chose to focus our research on rural and peri-urban villages, where traditions of following women and elders still hold power. The dynamics of this community led us to realize that there was an opportunity to amplify these voices so that they could be heard, not just within the villages they live in, but by a much broader audience who could benefit from their wisdom.
In our research, we found that women possessed a significant amount of health knowledge and power in family health decisions. Older Vietnamese women in the community wished to share and exchange herbal medicine knowledge to be able to better heal themselves and their families. Learning what was important to women and centering their perspectives in our design solutions resulted in our collaborative creation of an herbal medicine book and a women’s health sharing circle to promote dialogue on sustainable and accessible health choices. Animals Asia and the Traditional Medical Association of Vietnam now plan to use this book in their national outreach efforts to encourage sustainable health alternatives to animal parts medicine.
Check out our website to learn more: https://www.vietherb.org
If you’re considering designing a design program for students abroad, reach out to me. I’d love to connect. It’s not easy but can be very rewarding for you, your students, and all the international partners involved. It will take lots of patience to design slowly and collaboratively, and curiosity to learn from other cultures and your students to make it a success. Be prepared to commit to working with your partner for at least a few years to make it worthwhile.
Author: I’m Shannon Randolph, the Director of Global Social Impact at the Hive and founder of our summer design fellowship program, the vehicle through which this work was carried out. At The Claremont Colleges, I get to use creativity, play, and design to solve wicked challenges with organizations, students, and leaders in higher education in Southern California and globally.