Design in Translation

In June 2013, DSI graduate students and faculty members travelled to Beirut, Lebanon for a month-long design collaboration with Lebanese students and designers in which they together explored the shifting definition and application of design methods and tools in the Beirut context. The project culminated with an exhibition and public presentation and discussion of the experience by the DSI graduate students and faculty during the 2nd annual Beirut Design Week, which is a series of exhibitions, conferences, workshops, and screenings exploring the role of design in contemporary culture, society, education, and economy.

With the increasing complexity of social, technological, and ecological challenges, design — as a process and a way of thinking — has subsequently expanded its focus to become a leading agent of social transformation and innovation. Designers have at their disposal a number of powerful tools and methods which give them a unique ability to initiate meaningful change in communities, organizations, and businesses. But how do these design tools and methods translate across cultural, linguistic, and geographical lines? And how do the underlying assumptions and values embedded within these practices sit within in other cultural contexts? How do designers most appropriately enter into these cultures?

In our planning conversations, the DSI team and our institutional partner, MENA Design Research Center, acknowledged the difficulty of importing a team of designers into an unfamiliar place and culture for a short amount of time and expecting too much in terms of outcomes. Given this, the project’s success has been a matter of being authentic within these constraints and of setting the most appropriate expectations. What was important was building the relationships with the people we met in Beirut so that the exchange could be meaningful. Our work as human-centered designers depends upon our collaboration with others, and our ability to build trust with the stakeholders we meet in any design space. We will used the notion of trust as a point of entry to generate a specific set of questions for this design research project.

Three prototypes of design research tools came out of a series of co-creative workshops and field research in Beirut, developed and refined through our collaboration with Lebanese designers. The prototypes range in scale and format: an anonymous online survey, an interactive interview tool, and a public design intervention. As design research tools, they work to gather pointed data about specific aspects of trust as felt in different situations by people in Beirut. As newcomers to this place, we have experienced the value of collaboration and co-creation as a connective link in cross-cultural exchange. The issue of trust not only stood out in the collaboration process, but also proved essential and palpable during our interactions with people in Beirut.

Trust and empathy are paramount elements to socially-engaged, human centered design. Exploring trust as designers in Beirut afforded us the opportunity to reflect on the delicate nature of trust in a qualitative design research process. We recognize the need to be present and understanding of our own feelings of trust and how working in a different culture continually affects our approach to the design work at hand. The issue of trust is complex and highly sensitive, and the use of carefully crafted design tools helped overcome barriers to discussing trust honestly. Through this very short but intense experience, we continue to believe that establishing trust with the people we work with leads to open collaboration, more engaged participation, and successful co-design.

Key Insights and Outcomes

  • In a multilingual city like Beirut, the linguistic translation of design research tools into the most common languages spoken here (English, Arabic, French, and Armenian) made it possible to engage the widest range of residents. This accommodation of multiple languages also demonstrated a sensitivity to our stakeholders which was reciprocated with a general openness and hospitality toward our research.
  • It is difficult to translate design vocabulary into languages other than English. Explaining the core values and concepts of a human-centered, socially-engaged design process requires more embodied strategies based on participation and demonstration through design in action.
  • Exploring the issue of trust, whether through personal, religious, or political channels, is a vast subject, and the context-specific design research tools developed in Beirut with locals helped us to access more specific and meaningful data.
  • The design tools and methods we use facilitate meaningful conversations with people from different walks of life because they offer opportunities for people to give input from their unique perspectives as experts in their own daily situations and experiences.
  • The tools we developed in Beirut allowed us to gather a variety of responses both quantitative and qualitative in nature, which was important in understanding individual stories as well as broader patterns revealed in the comparison of data.
  • Co-creating design research tools with designers as well as non-designers from Beirut was very important to help us understand what questions we could ask — and how we should ask them — in this complex city which we are mostly unfamiliar with.
  • The differences of working and communication styles found in every culture are quite subtle. In this case, our participatory design methods created an effective collaboration with our local designer partners and were essential to bridge these inevitable differences.
  • The design research tools we developed are not only for gathering actionable data. The tools are also generative in that they provoke participants to think about trust in a more nuanced way.

This project was generously supported by the Office of the Provost at The University of the Arts. Essential to the project has been our partnership with the MENA Design Research Center, a Beirut-based non-profit organization dedicated to promoting the understanding of design and developing its role as a creative tool for the enhancement of society at large in the Middle East and North Africa. Studio work space for the DSI team was kindly provided by AltCity, a co-working and incubator space created to facilitate, mobilize, encourage, and support high impact entrepreneurship and innovation in Lebanon and the region.

DSI Participants

Graduate students:

  • Vrouyr Joubanian
  • Nidhi Jalwal
  • Min-Wen Yeh
  • Jordan Shade


  • Jeremy Beaudry
  • Jonas Milder