(from left to right: Maneerat Sartwattanarod, Vicky Nway, Lucasz Saczek)
In the course of their undergraduate thesis for the Bachelor of Design at Raffles International College in Bangkok, I have had the pleasure to coach and mentor a particularly gifted group of students. To gain insight into their work for the public I have conducted interviews with Maneerat Sartwattanarod (Thailand), who has developed pharmaceutical packaging design for the visually impaired, Matthew Spaulding (USA), who has explored entomophagy, the innovative and original idea of commercializing insects as food, and Lukasz Saczek (Poland), who has investigated the problems of orphanages in Thailand. Special mention goes to Vicky Nway (Myanmar) who has documented the dynamics behind productive and dignified ageing. Credit goes also to my colleague Pirawan Numdokmai for coaching our Visual Communication Design students.
INTERVIEW 1: Maneerat Sartwattanarod (Gigg): The ‘Braille Pill’ Project – Developing Braille-based medical packaging
Developing medical packaging for the visually impaired is a very specific topic. What got you started?
Gigg: I got the idea from talking to people during the “Dialogue in the Dark”- exhibition [a government organization], so I asked myself how I can design something useful for blind people since design must be useful and accessible to everybody. When I interviewed blind people, they mentioned that they are not looking for technology based on a smart phone since it is hard to use and to understand, especially for elderly blind people. I wanted to develop a design which can be used in daily life and which is relevant to this group. So, as a designer, I came up with the idea of a pharmaceutical packaging design. I wanted to re-design medical packaging and medical labels. It had to be easy to understand and user-friendly. My project hypothesis states that it is possible to design a Braille-based packaging design that allows visually impaired people to read medication information as accurately and almost as efficient as non-impaired people. I thought it would be excellent if I could really create this and if visually impaired people could use my packaging design in Thailand. It was a big challenge for me.
You have developed the design in cooperation with visually impaired and blind people. Can you tell us a little more about your approach?
Gigg: Yes, first I went to the foundation of the blind in Nakornpathom and I conducted and recorded qualitative interviews. Many blind people told me that they cannot imagine shapes, even if non- impaired people try to explain them. Blind people don’t read symbols, but they understand Braille code for Thai language. The sensation of touch is the most important. After interviewing, I started my research. I created the first prototypes of my packaging design which included a Paracetamol box, as well as the pharmaceutical label for the clinic and hospital. The design should assist blind people to live their life independently and as easy as non-visually impaired people.
Braille-based packaging design, (click to enlarge)
How did you test the design? Can you elaborate on your methodology?
Gigg: My prototype packaging design was tested by 40 participants, 20 visually impaired people and 20 non-visually impaired people. As methodology I used an independent sample T-test. During the test, the participants followed a specifically-designed question protocol asking, e.g. to identify the name of the medicine. Other questions were, ‘How can you identify the packaging?’, ‘What’s the expiry date?’ … and so on. I recorded the participants’ reaction time for reading the packaging. At the end all data was translated into statistics. Visually impaired participants spent, as anticipated, more time to read and understand the medical label on the packaging than the non-visually impaired participants. But the times to read the packaging information were statistically acceptable as compared to the typical population. The medical information on the Paracetamol box prototype was clear to decipher and the Braille letters were, according to participants, properly spaced. At the end of the trial, visually impaired participants were highly satisfied with the packaging design and they found the additional medical label very helpful.
Thesis structure (click to enlarge)
How has the project influenced or changed you on a personal and philosophical level?
Gigg: The project influenced my personal and philosophical level because when I design something, I generally design things for people who can see my design, but good design must be able to be used by everybody. Design is not exclusive to specific groups. This project made me change my design perspective. Design does not need to be made of high technology or fabricated by complex machines. Such approaches are useless if the cost of design becomes too expensive. Design can be simple, but it must be helpful and accessible to everybody in society.
INTERVIEW 2: Matthew Spaulding: Commercializing Entomophagy (Eating Insects)
To promote eating insects on a commercial scale is a rather unusual project. How did you come up with the idea?
Matthew : Unfortunately, the idea didn’t come easy to me. I was already several weeks into the research of a different topic that I wasn’t too enthusiastic about. Even though I was several weeks into my research, I was looking to change the topic. That’s when I decided to watch a couple of TED-Talk videos, something that I like to do in my spare time. One of the videos that I clicked on had to do with the subject of entomophagy, the practice of consuming insects as food. The presentation was truly eye-opening. After watching the presentation, I knew exactly what I wanted to do. I became fascinated with the idea of entomophagy and how it could possibly be introduced to Western consumers on a commercial scale.
Many people may feel disgusted by the idea of eating insects in their daily diet. What is your answer to this objection?
Matthew : Disgust and the psychology behind it is another fascinating subject all by itself. Through the course of my project, I made sure to look into how disgust works and how it could be managed so that insects could be more palatable to Western consumers. Disgust, a natural reaction that once functioned as a mechanism of survival and defense against possible pathogens and disease, present in bad sources of food, has evolved into an emotion. The development of disgust happens at a very young age, usually right around the time children start using the term “cooties,” [a body louse, or a children’s term for an imaginary germ or repellent quality transmitted by obnoxious or slovenly people] which is a term that elicits the emotion of disgust. Because of this original development, this emotion is subject to being morphed and formed through social and cultural pressure, which means that it is possible to change the perception of disgust relating to certain items. In this case, we would need to change the perception of insects.
Since large companies and organizations have influence over the culture of which it belongs to, it is important to take the idea of entomophagy and channel it through these entities. Introducing entomophagy to Western people would require careful advertising and educational campaigns. The design of these campaigns is important because it needs to be demonstrated how appetizing and attractive insect based foods can be.
Currently, the sight of an insect often elicits the emotion of disgust; so the early stages of introducing entomophagy to Western cultures would most likely require insect based product to be processed into powders and pastes so that there are no discernible shapes of the insects are present. Mitigating the emotion of disgust in the introduction of entomophagy to Western cultures is tricky, but not impossible!
On a global scale – can design save the world? How does your project tie into this intuition?
Matthew : Wow, I think saving the world is a tall order, but I think that design definitely contributes. In my case, I think my project would have many benefits if it were implemented. There are many issues that entomophagy would combat. By the year, 2050, it is estimated that the world will have a population of nine billion people. Supporting those kinds of numbers with our current agricultural system is nearly impossible. Entomophagy would help ease the stress of feeding the rising population. Also, it is said that agriculture is the leading contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. Traditional livestock requires vast amounts of land and resources, and it often contaminates water resources. Insects, on the other hand require very little land and resources and greenhouse gas emissions are minimal. Here is an excellent illustration of what I’m talking about:
To produce one pound of beef, 1,799 gallons of water is required. To produce one pound of crickets, only one gallon of water is required.
On top of that, crickets have half the fat and a third more protein than beef and a ton more micro nutrients. If insect based products were commercially available, access to healthy and cheap food would be more of a reality. Although it is highly improbable that westerners will trade their steaks for an all cricket diet, treating insects as a supplemental food item and easing the overwhelming dependence on traditional livestock would be a great step in reducing the environmental impact of agriculture.
What have you learned personally and on a philosophical level during this project?
Matthew : Through this project, I think I’ve come to the realization that I get a lot of satisfaction out of producing a concept that could possibly help to make the world a better place. I think with some tweaking, this would be something that I would like to pursue and push for. I’ve always had a problem of nailing down exactly what I wanted to do within the world of design, and perhaps I’ve found something here in this project.
INTERVIEW 3: Lukasz Saczek: Understanding orphanages, their underlying psychological- and human rights issues
Orphans are a highly vulnerable population. What do you think are the most misunderstood issues when people hear about orphanages in the media?
When people hear about orphanages they often have this picture in their heads of poor, sad kids who are wearing scruffy clothes and are usually malnourished. I think many Western people picture orphanages this way after seeing dramatic media footage, such as from the ex-Eastern Bloc, particularly Romania. And the biggest misconception is that people think that these kids don’t have parents. We think that they have no family, no relatives to take care of them and that’s why they are placed in an orphanage. According to the UN, 80% of children in such institutions are not actually orphans. Many children are placed in orphanages because their parents can’t afford to take care of them. Many of these children come, for example, from minority tribes, some are disabled. An estimated 374,000 children worldwide have been left without parental care due to HIV/AIDS, which are 34,8% of all orphans – and this number has been growing rapidly in the last decade.
Sometimes parents are even paid for placing their children in an orphanage. There is a great documentary available from Al Jazeera titled “Cambodian Orphan Business” that describes such criminal misuse. Some private orphanages are, sadly enough, a tourist attractions and children in need attract more tourists. Placing non-orphan children in orphanages is often supported by local officials. Instead of investigating the problem and checking why parents can’t take care of their child, officials look for the fastest and easiest solution.
Tell us about your experiences with orphanages in Thailand. Which were the most encouraging but also the most troubling findings that you have encountered?
Children have basic needs provided the least. What is troubling is that government-run orphanages actually encourage short-term visits by volunteers. There is no awareness of the psychological damage being done to children forced to form an endless series of new relationships with strangers. Part-time volunteers just come and go. Pop in, play with kids, donate, they don’t see a problem…
What can we do to avoid harm and how can we do some good when it comes to orphans?
To avoid harm is quite simple: Don’t volunteer unless you are professionally qualified to work with children. If you want to do some good, contact a reputable childcare organization and ask how you can help. When you travel and come by an orphanage, buy products from local communities because that’s probably the easiest way of support.
UNICEF recommends that tourists should refrain from visiting and donating to residential care facilities simply because ‘Hug an orphan holidays‘ create a never-ending cycle of abandonment. An average price for a one-week volunteering experience in a private orphanage in Thailand is around 400 USD and the majority of these institutions do not even require a criminal background check.
The government has a key role to play when speaking about orphans. The private childcare sector is a grey area and it urgently needs government regulation because there are too many business and non-child orientated organizations out there that take advantage of the non-regulated environment. In the north of Thailand there are about 500 private orphanages! The government must also grant equal rights to minority tribes and stop treating them as a tourist attraction. As for society, definitely the biggest challenge is accepting children with HIV/AIDS.
INTERVIEW 4: Vicky Nway: Dignified and Productive Ageing (Video Documentary)
Ageing societies are a worldwide phenomenon. Which aspects of an ageing society were most interesting in your investigation and why?
Vicky: In my research I focus specifically on Thailand and the Thai elderly. I was hoping to find out what it is like to grow old in this culture. First of all, older people are treated with great respect in my home-country, Myanmar, as well as in Thailand. Younger people like me usually pay respects to the elderly by providing for them in terms of physical goods and financially. This is known as a polite manner, but I think it undermines the ability, dignity and pride of the elderly since they start depending, knowingly or unknowingly, on the younger generation. What got me thinking was the difference between autonomous, individualized Western cultures and the interdependent Thai culture. I wanted to focus on how elderly people can grow old successfully without having to rely on anybody else and to encourage the idea that elderly people have similar abilities as compared to younger people.
Can you explain what you mean by dignified and productive ageing?
Vicky: A dignified life means that as a person grows older, he or she is able to enjoy late adulthood without worries, unhappiness or depression. It means that older people are happy with what they have achieved in their life and that they are optimistic about growing old. It also means that they are enthusiastic to spend their daily lives with their hobbies and what they intrinsically love to do in order to keep active and healthy. Productive ageing means that as a person grows older, he or she is able to spend time wisely and keeps on contributing to society. The elderly can become in fact a country’s human resource once they stay connected to their communities, be it through their knowledge, personality or their experience.
Vicky: In my research, I interviewed older people who are still working. Some of them have to keep on working after the official retirement age since they have to support themselves or their family. Some of them have chosen to work way into their 70s or 80s because working brings out strong personalities and self-direction. I also found a fun Karaoke event for elderly people who have retired. People in such small social worlds seem to enjoy dignified lives by spending their free time following their hobbies with friends. In conclusion, I found that there are a lot of Thai elderly who are still working to support themselves.
How has the project influenced or changed you on a personal and philosophical level?
Vicky: I am surprised to see Thai elderly that have strong, positive perspectives about growing old and living dignified and productive lives. Previously, I had always assumed that the majority of Thai elderly depend on their families. Most of the people I interviewed are willing to work and to support themselves. They are proud to make a living on their own. After finishing my research, I realized that even though Thailand and Myanmar share very similar traditions and cultures, the elderly in Thailand seem more optimistic about being old as compared to the elderly population in Myanmar.
Supportive social networks that include friends, family and peer groups were particularly important. Social networks provide a person with a relief to know that friends or family are there for them when they need them. Supportive social networks contribute to psychological well-being by providing a sense of belonging. Spending time with others prevents the experience of loneliness and depression. Besides, to be there for others contributes to an increased sense of self-worth.