Reporting by Deborah Alden
Remember the awkwardness of "the talk?" Wei Sun designed a Jenga-style game to capture that tension and unease, bringing her research—into how parents in the US talk about sex with their kids—to life. Grown adults revert to ungainly youth as they sheepishly giggle and blush, tentatively sliding blocks from the stack, which prompt them to recount tales from their own adolescence and share insights from Sun's research.
As part of the course Transcultural Design at IIT's Institute of Design, students like Sun (from China) are exploring how to design for cultures other than their own, something more of us are finding we do everyday. Designed to engage people in the context and stories of a particular culture, these experiential research objects help others connect and learn through participation and self reflection.
It is relatively easy for designers to work within their own culture because they innately grasp the context around any given challenge or solution But, take that problem statement to another country or within a different culture and suddenly their high-resolution understanding of a user's needs breaks down because of miscommunications, unknown traditions and "exotic" habits.
Paul Sheetz (from the US) chose the makarapa, a South African miner's hat customized and worn for sporting matches, to transform his research on the national concept of ubuntu, or unity. Throughout the country's divisive history, Sheetz found that sports have provided a symbolic common ground. In assembling Sheetz's makarapa, the wearer is exposed to diverse South African stories. While contemplating what brings community and countrymen together, participants are engaged in figuring out which traits resonate with their own story, that they want to use to customize their hat.
This layering of one's own story with that of another's is the transcultural key. Whether one is digging into the implications of how success takes shape in México and Korea or uncovering the culturally complex flavors of nostalgia, from the longing of saudade in Brazil to the past romanticism of furusato in Japan, adjunct faculty Deborah Alden and Lawrence Abrahamson believe that the secret to understanding others' cultures is to start with your own. Stepping back and recognizing their own story allows designers to shed a light on and comprehend their own deep-rooted cultural drivers and biases.
The resulting experiential research objects, or probes, like Sun's game and Sheetz's hat, are meant to be stand-alone objects that enable the participant to learn a topic through the lens of a particular culture. As objects that reveal their content through engagement, they increase empathy and openness, allowing the exploration of someone else's story and highlighting salient overlaps and gaps with one's own. These types of tools and their resulting conversations will be increasingly vital as our design work and distant worlds continue to mingle.
See also: Don Norman's essay "Does Culture Matter for Design?"