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Blog Series: The Common Language of Design

In this blog series, Kendall College of Art and Design of Ferris State University (KCAD) Associate Professor and Industrial Design Program Chair Jon Moroney chronicles his recent trip to Nicaragua alongside faculty and students from KCAD and Grand Valley State University as part of the fifth iteration of the Applied Global Innovation Initiative, a program that helps individuals in developing countries learn how to design and implement solutions to pressing challenges.

Day 7 – Final Presentation

This is the fifth year I have had the pleasure of experiencing day seven. The facilitation team showed up early to make sure the space was just right. Groups trickled in one by one, staging their final models on the demonstration table by the entryway. It was obvious they had been up very late working and preparing for their presentation, not just by the lack of sleep in their eyes, but also by the tremendous progress they had made between then and the last time I had seen them only fourteen hours ago. Nonetheless, they were all excited and the energy in the space was high.

design workshop in Nicaragua(above): Final models all ready for the presentations; (below): Pressure mounts as the audience waits.

design workshop in Nicaragua

Admittedly, my Spanish is “no bueno,” so watching over 30 presentations in Spanish, with no translation available, was a bit challenging to say the least. As we made our way through the order, it was obvious the groups had taken a bit of inspiration from all of the presentations we had delivered throughout the week.

Fortunately, their presentations were highly visual, making my language deficiency less of an issue. Many of the groups included large images or videos of their mock-ups in context. Several used digital tools like Google Sketchup to make a 3D model and rendering. One group even used Marvel Apps, an online tool developed by a software company in Michigan, to create a demo of their mobile app idea. Not only did they manage to find a progressive tool used in app development, but they learned how to use it in two days as well!

design workshop in NicaraguaOver 30 groups pitched their ideas to a panel of local business owners and advisors.

The presentations were impressive and comprehensive, each telling a story that wove together a meaningful problem, a creative solution, and a business model that could help deliver the idea to the market. The groups tackled a lot of details in a short period of time. You could see a sense of pride in them as they pitched their ideas. You can’t fabricate this sense of ownership of an idea. It has to genuinely emerge from within through hard work and a belief that what you are doing has purpose. Mission accomplished!

design workshop in Nicaragua(above): Digital product idea with a live demonstration; (below): This team learned to use Google Sketchup during the workshop.

design workshop in Nicaragua

Some groups won an award based on judging scores, but all participants walked away with a great experience. Our hope is that each participant remembered what is possible when you work as a team. The faculty participants have taken these lessons back to their classrooms and are working to implement the methodology. Student participants have been looking at how they can interact with their classmates differently and learn to solve problems in a new way. The experience will carry on over and over again.

design workshop in Nicaragua(above): Awards were given for the best presentations; (below): Meeting a true craftsman in the community. design workshop in Nicaragua

As I walked away from the presentations, I reflected on what we had just accomplished. Did we really just teach 140 people -- with no prior experience -- how to use an innovation process in less than a week? They picked it up so quickly! Granted, their ideas needed a lot of refinement, but the core idea is there, and most of them made a lot of sense. “Is it that easy?” I thought to myself. I turned a corner and came face to face with a giant, beautiful mural that had been masterfully painted on a city wall. At that moment, I realized that the main driver of innovation, creativity, truly is a universal language.  

mural in Nicaragua(above): Checking out the local artwork throughout the city after the presentations; (below): Celebrating with the other volunteers at the awards dinner.

design workshop in Nicaragua

As for the KCAD and GVSU students who dedicated a week of their time and used their hard-earned skills to help the workshop participants, I believe they learned just as much from the experience, if not more. This trip left a lasting imprint on their view of a designer’s role in a changing world.


Day 6 – Final Details 

We started day six with some one-on-one advising. I think the groups expected another creative warm-up exercise, but they were happy to get right to it. We used a detailed rubric to evaluate the ideas again based on business feasibility criteria including: validation evidence, product naming, target audience, channel strategy, marketing strategy, product cost and price, sales forecasting (volume and sales), production strategy, cost to start business, financing need, and design development status.

design workshop in nicaragua(above): Participants getting their first look at a 3D printer that traveled all the way from the U.S.A.; (below): Teams digging into all the details with mentors at the advising tables.

design workshop in nicaragua

The goal was to expose groups to information gaps and encourage them to learn, plan, develop more, and raise their score before the final presentation. This exercise led to several follow up conversations with individual groups in which we taught teams how to analyze and evolve ideas in areas they had no experience in. This took a lot of patience from the mentors and the group members, but I believe these detailed conversations helped build strong relationships during the workshop.

design thinking workshop in Nicaragua(above): One team used an app simulator to help test their idea.; (below): Some of the mock ups were functional…sort of.Design thinking workshop in Nicaragua

That afternoon was a dedicated work session. It was time to step out of the way and let the train pick up speed. Mentors and students spent more time digging in with the groups, almost becoming part of the group themselves. KCAD students really shined during this part of the workshop. Their many talents allowed them to coach groups with confidence.

Groups made progress at a blistering pace, refining models, running financials, testing ideas on social media, designing logos, and crafting their final presentations. Energy is the only word to describe the mood. Many would work into the night. For people who started the workshop without any idea of what would be expected or formal training, the output they achieved after just six days was remarkable.

design thinking workshop in Nicaragua(above): Teams working on their mock-ups outside; (below): We even caught a few local artists getting creative.artists in Nicaragua

As we transitioned the space from holding workshops to formal presentations, the transformation felt symbolic of a shift in mentality from intense creativity to a calm before the storm.

futbol in NicaraguaWe finished the night with a game of futbol against the locals…who whooped us good.

The next day would bring the final presentations!

Day 5 – Experience the Idea

We started the fifth day with another creative exercise. Groups were tasked with creating a tower using only spaghetti and marshmallows. This sounds simple, but it is actually challenging, especially with fast-paced music filling the space along with your competitors who are making progress faster than you are. For those who quickly figured out a simple structure technique (and managed not to eat their construction materials), their towers reached as high as six feet from the table surface.

design workshop in NicaraguaSpaghetti tower contest (with lots of left over marshmallows).

The warm-up exercise loosened people up for more creative thinking (and gave them a sugar buzz from the marshmallows). On day 5, the groups were inspired by a few more design projects. First, one of the GVSU students presented a “bubble shirt” he developed as a solution for refugees in the Middle East. The solution may have surprised a few participants when he first described it. Why would someone wear bubble wrap? However, the low-cost, easy-to-produce solution could provide real value (warmth) to many people who had no money. It was a great example of how a company could make good use of commonly discarded materials to solve a serious problem.

Next, KCAD Industrial Design student Amanda Teske presented a design project focused on using eco-friendly materials. Her algae-based material could be used in packaging that would dissolve back into the earth if it were pitched on the side of the road. I even got in on the action and presented Pretch, a mobile whiteboard product I have been working on for the past year. Granted, it didn’t exactly feel relevant and appropriate considering the workshop themes, but it was an idea that has traveled a path we were asking the participants to follow should their ideas continue beyond the workshop. The presentation reflected all of the product and business model details we were advising groups to define in their own ideas. It also provided a real example of a method for launching a product through pre-sales (Kickstarter). Our hope was that they walked away knowing the opportunities are real… and possible.

student Amanda Teske (above): KCAD Industrial Design student Amanda Teske presenting her algae wrap product ideal; (below): KCAD and GVSU design students mocking up a walker idea during a demonstration.

KCAD and GVSU students in Nicaragua

Next up was another demonstration. This time we inspired the groups to create a physical mockup of their ideas so they could evaluate the experience and share it with others for more feedback. The KCAD and GVSU students and Teo, a physical therapy professor at UNAN, fabricated a walker for people with arthritis using only foam, PVC tubes, plastic bottles, and duct tape (all good mockups use duct tape). They built the model in ten minutes. It was not pretty. It did not hold much weight. But, it did demonstrate the idea. The audience provided feedback on how to improve the idea and a few daring participants interacted with the model. The designers tweaked the model on the fly, once again demonstrating how quickly ideas can evolve.

After a flurry of materials (and more duct tape), the groups had quickly fabricated a mockup of their idea. Each group was given the opportunity to present their mockup in smaller teams for feedback. This exercise really raised the level of energy in the room. There is something about building with your hands that gets people excited, regardless of their artistic abilities. It was a true team building experience. Ideas started to round out and teams were vested in their work.

design workshop in Nicaragua(above): KCAD students demonstrating how to use clay to develop handles and test ergonomics; (below): Groups building mock ups of their ideas.design workshop in Nicaragua

In the afternoon, teams visited a mentor table for advising on each element of their idea including design, branding/marketing, manufacturing, cost vs. price, channel, and sales strategy. We really dug into the details and challenged all assumptions. During this process, teams evolved and pivoted to make their ideas more robust. The KCAD and GVSU student mentors grew their understanding of what it is like to advise someone to change an idea after they are fully invested.

We ended the day with a discussion of expectations for the final presentation. The participants had seen lots of examples throughout the week, and we were hopeful that they would be able to pull everything together in a nice presentation.

design workshop in Nicaragua(above): Some groups even used Google Sketchup to help develop their idea; (below): Teams sharing their ideas and gathering more feedback.design workshop in Nicaragua

Participants had been blending design and business thinking to formulate a robust idea. Their ideas were personal and their effort reflected that. That evening, many groups continued working in order to show up in the morning with a better model. The next day, we would pull all the details together! 


Day 4 – Refinement

We started the fourth morning bright and early with a discussion about… soap. One of the faculty mentors had designed a new soap product during the workshop we held back in May of 2015. It was a good product with a unique feature that would benefit the local region.

What really sells an idea? Why do people love certain products, yet ignore others? To help participants understand the answers to these questions, we held a discussion about branding and packaging. The new soap product was packaged in an unassuming, industrial looking jug-shaped bottle. The label had a small name, with an even smaller photo. As I assured the audience that I had a great new product they would love, I asked who wanted to buy the product. Not one of the 140 participants raised their hand.

When I asked why, one brave soul responded saying, “Because I don’t know what it is.” At that moment, the light bulbs went on. Everyone knew what the problem was with the product. With the help of some competitive product examples, we proceeded to have an interactive discussion about the importance of branding and packaging and how the right words, imagery, color, and shape can tell a story that will connect consumers to the product and get them to notice it.

Industrial Design students in NicaraguaKCAD Collaborative Design student Ian Culver (left) helps a team assess its idea at an advising table.

The KCAD and GVSU students captured ideas and sketched a few packaging ideas on the whiteboard. After our pseudo brainstorm, we compared the competitive products to the branded packaging ideas on the whiteboard. Many hands went up when we asked again if they would buy the product at the end of the demonstration.

Building on our use of packaging, we challenged the groups to design something useful using old beverage and water bottles. They could design and fabricate anything they wanted, as long as it followed the three themes for the workshop. Within the next 30 minutes, the room swirled with construction paper, pipe cleaners, popsicle sticks, and duct tape. When the bell rang, we had a fashion show of bottle-made products. The KCAD students had the honor of judging for uniqueness and style awards.

Industrial Design students in Nicaragua(above): KCAD and GVSU design students presenting a case for using mock ups to test ideas. (below): What can you make with old plastic bottles?Industrial Design workshop in Nicaragua

After lunch, the teams started to put the meat on the bones of their ideas. They were asked to assess their ideas to determine if they solved the problem well and were unique, feasible, and profitable. The faculty and student mentors, accompanied by a translator, manned several advising tables. Groups spent time at each advising table pitching their ideas and getting feedback from the mentors.

For most every group, this process produced more questions than answers. The groups were tasked with evolving their ideas and filling in the knowledge gaps. The ideas started to become more realistic. Groups had to dig deeper and define the details of their ideas better if they wanted to have a shot at defending them at the next advising session. Excitement started to build for some groups as they shaped their idea and built momentum. Other groups felt anxiety as they tried to pivot and get their group members on the same page. We felt certain that at least one team would have an epiphany and completely change direction the next day. That is the nature of creativity! A good night’s sleep always clears things up. 

Mariachi Band in NicaraguaAnd of course, a Mariachi band during dinner!


Day 3 – Exploration

After all of the analytical thinking in the days prior, day three was the day to finally get creative. None of the participants were studying or teaching an art or design discipline, so getting them to feel comfortable expressing their ideas to a larger group was always a challenge. To get the creative juices flowing, we began the day with a paper airplane competition. Participants had to design their own airplane and fly it for distance. The longest flight would win a prize. We also gave a prize for the best looking style. For some reason, those two awards have never been given to the same airplane. The KCAD students had the distinguished honor of judging the style award and announcing winner.

Airplane throwing contest in NicaraguaReady, set...throw! Airplane contest. 

After the warm up, Industrial Design student Taylor Axdorff presented one of his own design projects, emphasizing the importance of sketching and iteration in his design exploration. Seeing design sketches from others helped the audience feel like they could do it too. To further help them understand and envision themselves sketching, we also presented a live demonstration.

The KCAD students and I decided to design a method for delivering fresh food to people in the workforce and schools in Nicaragua. This problem statement was part of the nutrition theme for the week. Each designer had three minutes to visualize his or her solution on the whiteboard. Seeing people work that fast helped the participants understand that speed is the goal, not making the design “pretty.” The students demonstrated how important it is to tell a story of “how it works” and “how I use it” when they sketch. The audience understood the point of the sketch immediately. Having multiple people sketch an idea also helps us demonstrate how each person in a group will interpret the problem differently.

KCAD students in Nicaragua(above): KCAD students Ian Culver (left) and Taylor Axdorff (right) show off their ideation sketches during the live demo; (below): Groups visualize their ideas with mentors. 

Design workshop in Nicaragua

After the teams finished their first idea, we allowed the audience to critique and improve each idea. We took their ideas and updated the sketches. Seeing people share ideas, provide feedback, and change their ideas was a significant lesson for the participants. The natural tendency in Nicaragua is to protect ideas, but we wanted them to feel comfortable discussing ideas and working as a team in order to evolve the best ideas with shared ownership. After the demonstration, we set them free to sketch solutions to the problems they identified.

The teams spent the afternoon exploring ideas. When they got stuck, the student and faculty mentors jumped in to help their groups. There were a lot of great ideas waiting to be penned; the participants just needed a bit of encouragement and some quick tips on how to visualize them. The students learned firsthand what it feels like to teach. Perhaps a bit of karma!

students talking to locals in Nicaragua(above): Sharing ideas in the community for feedback; (below): Teams presenting their findings the old fashioned way!design thinking workshop in Nicaragua

Armed with their four best ideas, the groups hit the streets again to test them in the community. There was no hesitation to solicit feedback from future customers. In fact, the opposite occurred. Groups found people in the community who were very interested in their ideas. This gave them a great sense of pride. We were also a bit surprised at how a person randomly selected at the park, or a business owner cleaning their entryway would stop and talk to the groups for over 10 minutes about their ideas. It made me wonder if people in my local community would take the time to do the same.

The community feedback, coupled with the group’s collective intuition, helped them focus in on one direction. All but a few of the groups ended the day feeling confident in their next big idea.

The next day, the ideas would be pushed and pulled in many ways.


Day 2 – Opportunity Definition

Day two was focused on understanding the problems explained in the research presentations and defining opportunities the teams participating in the workshop could tackle with a design solution. To kick off the process, KCAD alumnus Justin Beitzel (’15, Industrial Design) delivered a presentation on the design process, using his senior thesis project, a portable living space bag he developed to provide a psychological safe haven for homeless children, to demonstrate how observed problems fuel unique solutions.

KCAD alumnus Justin BeitzelKCAD alumnus Justin Beitzel (’15 Industrial Design) presents the design process and his thesis project

Of the 140 participants in the workshop, approximately 70% were UNAN faculty while the other 30% were UNAN students. Participants were broken up into teams of 4-5, and these teams stayed together throughout the workshop. The groups spent the second morning discussing and documenting ten inconveniences they personally experience relative to the three major themes of climate change, nutrition, and arthritis. It is important to start the process by helping participants relate to the themes, as well getting them to think about how they affect their families and communities.

The main goal of the day was to help groups align their members around a short list of opportunities they all felt passionately about addressing. The process of getting to that point was structured and challenging. Almost every participant learned a new critical thinking process that day that they could apply in most any application within their teaching and school work. Starting with their ten personal inconveniences (that would equal 50 potential problem statements in a group of five members!), groups discussed, debated, and prioritized a list of four top problems. Then, each group presented and discussed their four problem statements with a larger team of five groups. The aggregate list of twenty problem statements was then prioritized again into a top five list. This process was confusing and unnerving at first. The KCAD and GVSU student mentors did their best to advise the teams throughout this mental challenge.

Industrial Design student Taylor Axdorff(above): KCAD Industrial Design student Taylor Axdorff (left) works with a fellow GVSU student mentor to help their groups combine and sort problems; (below): Aggregating and pondering all the problems waiting to be solved

design thinking workshop in Nicaragua

The impact of the process was immediately felt by the participants. One participant stated that he “had not considered one of the problems a different group presented and thought it was very good to solve.” Getting participants to let go of their personal connection to problems and embrace ideas from the larger team was a key learning outcome. The result was a robust list of problems statements that every group was excited about.

Then came the fun part! Teams developed a survey they were to take out to the community. Their mission was to poll the community and understand how the community felt about the targeted problems. They were to find out how much people cared about their evolving mission.

Groups prepared, grabbed their materials, and headed out into the…torrential rain storm!

KCAD students in Nicaragua(above): Ready, set…go research!!!; (below): Groups polling business owners and community members

KCAD students in Nicaragua

However, given the dire need for water in Nicaragua, none of the participants seemed to mind getting wet. Off they went to talk to the masses at the bus station, Central Park, main street, etc. Our student mentors, along with their rain gear, went with the participants to see and hear firsthand how the community would react to the problem statements. One student was surprised at how approachable people were in public spaces. Some of the students who speak Spanish even joined in the community discussions. This was a great opportunity for field research that cannot be duplicated in a classroom or on the internet. It was one of my favorite parts of the workshop!

When they returned, they looked inspired (and wet). The groups quickly digested the information and analyzed the data. What they learned from the community would give them an objective point of view they could build on and helped them align their future solutions with an audience who would genuinely care.

KCAD workshop in Nicaragua(above): Visualizing data, the analog way; (below): A student learning how to play chess the hard way…against the UNAN champion!Design thinking workshop in Nicaragua

The next day, the teams started to develop solutions to their targeted problems, and then headed back out into the community to test their ideas! 


Day 1 – Introduction and Warm Up

This is the fifth year Kendall College of Art and Design of Ferris State University (KCAD) has supported the Applied Global Innovation Initiative (AGII) program in Nicaragua alongside Grand Valley State University (GVSU). An interdisciplinary group consisting of KCAD students Amanda Teske (Industrial Design), Ian Culver (Collaborative Design) and Taylor Axdorff (Industrial Design), KCAD alumnus Justin Beitzel (’15, Industrial Design), GVSU students, community volunteers, GVSU professor Paul Lane, and myself recently took up residence in Esteli, Nicaragua for a week. We traveled over 3,000 miles to teach 140 workshop participants from the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Nicaragua (the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua, or UNAN for short) how to use the design process to solve problems in their regional community and develop design solutions that could become a business.

Our fifth year on this adventure seemed to me an opportune time to reflect on the growth and impact of the program. Of the 140 participants this year, 80 of them are faculty at UNAN. These participants engaged in, learned, and are now re-applying the design process in their classrooms throughout the university. The participants include students and faculty from five different UNAN satellite campuses, which span over half of Nicaragua. The reach of our efforts continues to grow rapidly every year. All the while, we come back over and over again to simply do what we love: design!

KCAD students in Nicaragua(above): Teams doing a warm-up activity - trying to solve the "Human Knot;" (below): The facilitation team (students, community volunteers and faculty) reflecting on the process and  impact of the day…over the best fruit juice ever

KCAD students in Nicaragua

The KCAD students got a hands-on global education and learned about Nicaragua’s beautiful culture as well as the unique challenges and opportunities the country faces. On day one, we listened to presentations about the three main themes for the workshop: climate change, nutrition, and arthritis. These three topics were chosen due to their significant negative impact on the regional community. We learned that climate change is creating more frequent and severe droughts. According to the UNAN professor studying these effects, 70% of the plantations in Nicaragua were affected by the drought in 2015, leading to a 50-70% loss in the production of corn, grain, and other foods needed to sustain a healthy food source for Nicaraguans. For some, this is their only source of food.

We also learned that Nicaragua is facing a significant challenge in dealing with obesity and diabetes. This seems counter-intuitive when many go to bed hungry each night, but the cost of food, along with the rising inaccessibility of fresh foods, is leading many to eat fried or processed foods. I loved the fried chicken there just as much any Nicaraguan, but it is not the foundation of a healthy diet. Arthritis is also affecting a large portion of Nicaragua’s aging population, but doctors in the country are just starting to learn about ways to treat it.

KCAD students in Nicaragua(above): KCAD student Taylor Axdorff (far left) helping teams catalog and sort their big ideas; (below): Teams discussing ways to solve the big “Theme Problems”KCAD students in Nicaragua

These are real problems. Our students were able to not only dive deep into understanding the cause and context of these problems, but worked side-by-side with teams of innovators to create solutions that can be developed and deployed locally to make a real impact.

We all ended the first day of our trip feeling genuinely concerned, but also inspired. Our creative minds were already at work thinking about big ideas. The next day, we would dissect problems and canvas the community to gather more contextual research!


  • Cheri Endean July 19, 2016

    An exciting program. Looking forward to the next installment.

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