Originally published on “Matters” by Designit
The opportunity of designing in developing countries is a chance to create hope. It’s a chance to embrace our social responsibility and be part of meaningful projects, to drive positive change rooted in real needs, and to deeply understand and learn from the people we are designing for — they are the ones facing the everyday problems we want to solve; they hold the key to the answers we seek. Design is about building these relationships, it implies a two-way conversation and has the power to inspire people. A human approach to problem-solving is therefore essential to make real impact and to keep the people we are designing for at the center of our work and reasoning.
Trust is the main component of any relationship, and the driver of most of our decisions. We connect with people we trust, we pursue our dreams because we trust our vision, we pay for a service or product because we trust its quality and values, we follow and listen to a leader because we trust their conduct. People fight when trust is broken.
During the month of July last year, I had the opportunity to be part of an amazing project run by Designit and East Africa Investments to help two Rwandan entrepreneurs grow their businesses through different design disciplines. One of them was an International Montessori school, and the second, a healthy fast-food restaurant and venue for various cultural events, both located in Kigali. While working closely with our clients, I realized that my design process and business interactions needed to be based on trust. It was important to make it a priority to learn from one another; keeping in mind that there isn’t a wrong or right answer.
The way these entrepreneurs build relationships and do business was very different than what I was used to in the UK. The Rwandan culture puts great emphasis on practices of etiquette that demonstrate respect and the Genocide is still very present in the way they live. Understanding their culture and values, and observing their habits closely to immerse myself in their world, was essential to draw successful outcomes.
Reflecting back on my experience designing in “the land of a thousand hills”, I took note of a few things I’ve learned about how we can forge common bonds of trust to make real, lasting impact, both in Rwanda and back home.
Support ongoing mentorships
Helping clients approach coaching and mentoring in ways that will continue long after a project gets off the ground, is the best learning outcome you can leave behind. These sorts of support are empowering and inspiring. Share methodologies and tools to unlock design potential, while instilling critical and creative thinking to promote autonomy. Enable an environment where people can develop and thrive, this will encourage them to support each other long into the future.
Foster a co-creation environment
Bring your clients along with you in the design process and promote a co-creation mentality. Take their ideas and concerns on board and something magic will happen: big ideas will begin to sprout from smaller ones. Make them part of the decision-making and most importantly, stay curious and open-minded. Learn enough about the project to realize that you don’t know everything about it. Listen to your client and they’ll become deeply involved in the process.
Walk a mile in their shoes
Designing with empathy is the ability to step into other people’s shoes and solve problems from their perspective. Immerse yourself in their culture and market, to develop an understanding of its intricacies. Understand their experiences, struggles and thought process. Avoid making assumptions and generalizing; needs and desires differ from nation to nation. Learn as much as you can about your client’s values so they feel fully understood.
We’re all human. Be honest if you don’t have an immediate answer to a problem. Always verbalize your concerns (pretty insignificant you might think, but it is symbolic). This is when you get the most valuable feedback, and when an authentic, nonlinear dialogue unfolds.
Embrace uncertainty, stay open
Unexpected challenges are also a good base on which to build trust and keep ourselves on our toes. Constraints can push creativity and lead us to real innovation. This also means adopting an iterative process where thinking is done by making. Besides, if we knew the answer when we started, how could we possibly learn? Adopt a never-settling-attitude and never take the relationship for granted. Stay positive.
Be reliable and transparent
The only way to achieve a result with longevity is through a transparent approach to collaboration. Favor the explicit over the implicit, because it makes everything easier to understand. Communicate trustworthiness based on consistency and work ethic.
Define success and commit to it
Define what success looks like to you and your client. This is the difference between designing a product and designing outcomes. If you have a clear picture of what success means to them and their business context, you’re more likely to achieve tangible results. Manage and meet your client’s expectations. Produce quality work. Under-promise and over-deliver.
Immersing yourself in another world unlocks new creative possibilities and helps leaving behind limiting beliefs and obsolete ways of thinking. Designing in Africa presented me with unique challenges, and required an awareness of critical subtleties. I’ve learned that embedding trust in the relationship should be part of the design problem. Trust is about doing what you say you will do. If you could only do one thing, I’d say: keep your promises.