Participatory design through jewellery prototypes: Scandinavian designers and Zimbabwean village artisans

Cumulus Conference 2019 – The Design After

October 30 – November 1, 2019. Universidad de los Andes, Bogota, Colombia

Article in Proceedings page 223-235


This paper explores participatory design through the use of prototypes as boundary objects. Empowering underprivileged Zimbabwean village women through design, based on the woman’s own local craftsmanship and finding tools for the women to help themselves is the main goal of the project. Jewellery design prototypes created in Scandinavia has been brought to Zimbabwe and presented to the artisan women who respond designing prototypes with the materials they have available. This way, communication is proceeded without words, via the designed objects.

The jewellery products will be used in Scandinavia and by the many international visitors in the area around the Victoria Falls. Potential user´s preferences are explored during the process. 

Keywords: boundary objects, local ownership, participatory design, product design, Scandinavian design, UN Development Goals

1. Introduction

The first UN Development Goal (UN, 2015); The wicked problem of poverty is the starting point for this project. The first stages of a multi-stakeholder jewellery-project, between Sabona, Scandinavian Design Group, Kristiania University College in Norway and Zimbabwean artisan women of the Dopota village is explored. The project is initiated by Sabona, a Norwegian Non-Governmental Organization (NGO), specializing in Zimbabwe. 

Empowering underprivileged Zimbabwean village women through design, based on the woman’s own local craftsmanship, finding tools for the women to help themselves is the main goal of this participatory project. The aim is to develop jewellery products as a participatory process using environmentally mindful, inexpensive, local materials from local seeds and from the ilala palm tree, regularly used in basket-making. However, some additional materials may have to be bought in order to achieve the desired designs. 

Involving locals to promote ownership is an important part of the project as the power-balance between the stakeholders are uneven. Bunch (1991) explains pitfalls Westerners trying to help developing communities are confronting. Paternalism, where the local participants don´t get the ownership, is a common problem. He claims the only possible method for developing projects in underprivileged villages, is to acquire enthusiasm and that early recognizable success is crucial. Involving the Dopota village woman, developing tools so that they can take control of their own situation, and gain ownership to the project is an important part of this project. Unlike other design projects involving developing countries, the designed products are not going to be used by Africans nor does it involve any Western company commercially interested in making low-cost production in a developing country. The only commercial interest in the project belongs to the Dopota women of Zimbabwe. The design of the jewellery bears the mark of both African and Scandinavian design traditions. The jewellery products will be used in Scandinavia and by the many international visitors in the area around Victoria Falls. Knowledge about potential users and tests with users is essential for the products to be sold.

A participatory design process traditionally involves future users in the design process. This project is different as the most important participants are not the end-users. Ehn (2008) draws on Star´s (1989) theory of boundary objects describing a method in which material non-human designed prototypes are considered as partakers in a participatory design process. In our design process, designed prototypes have been used as a mean of communication between the participants. Design prototypes created in Scandinavia has been brought to Zimbabwe and presented to the Dopota women who respond by designing prototypes with the materials they have available. This is a new and extended way of performing a participatory design process. Several participatory design studies have been investigated with communities in developing countries (Winschiers-Theophilus, Chivuno-Kuria, Kapuire, Bidwell, &Blake, 2010; Drain, Shekar, & Grigg, 2017; Hussain, Sander, & Steinert, 2012). However, the use of prototypes as boundary objects and communication between Western designers and African community women has not been widely investigated. The paper asks: How can a participatory multi-stakeholder design process empower underprivileged Zimbabwean village women?

2. African and Scandinavian design and crafting

African and European design originate from dissimilar traditions of creating. Campbell (2003, p.25) states that African products traditionally derive from crafting, and that traces of handcraft is still often apparent in African designs. Whereas European or Western products are more likely to be mass-manufactured with the smooth finish of machines. The mark of the hand in objects is an unselfconscious part of traditions for Africans (Campbell, 2003). For Westerners the handmade finish may engage a sense of exclusivity or nostalgia and lost innocence. (Dormer, 1990). African visual art and crafts are often divided into three key periods: pre-colonialism, colonialism and post-colonialism where the pre-colonial era has been the most appreciated by Westerners (Matsinde, 2015, p. 10). African creativity today is influenced by its entire history and shows a thriving diversity based on local craft traditions and also of modern production methods (Matsinde, 2015). Tribal affiliation and its visual characteristics give identity to artisans in African villages, while the African nation state has a less unifying power (Clay, 1985). The Dopota village are part of the Ndbele people of Matabeleland, well known for their artistic traditions (Itebu, 2016). 

The Scandinavian design reflects the Scandinavians socially inclusive culture, aiming to create affordable and useful, often machine-made objects, where the designed objects are recognized as an integral part of daily life (Fiell & Fiell, 2017). However, handcrafting also has deep roots in Scandinavian culture, as industrialization came relatively late to Scandinavia (Fiell & Fiell, 2017, p.14). Lately, there has been a recurring interest in craftsmanship among young Scandinavian designers as a counter-reaction to the ever-increasing personal digitality most Western people are surrounded by (Friedman, 2007; Van Raemdonck, 2016; Rynning, 2018). The link to crafted products may bring Zimbabwean and Scandinavian culture closer together.

2.1. Creating enthusiasm

Western designers, unfamiliar with poverty and foreign culture, may be facing difficulties designing for or co-designing with underprivileged Africans. Mattson and Wood (2014) describe nine principles of effective design for the developed world. Their top priority principle is co-designing and involving locals in order to promote ownership. Testing of the designs with the users is another important principle of theirs. In our case, the testing involves test-making the jewellery with the Dopota women’s local materials to see if they can make the products. Bunch (1991) explains thoroughly some of the pitfalls Westerners trying to help developing countries are confronting, based on agricultural projects. However, most of these pitfalls are also adaptable to design projects (Campbell, 2013). Paternalism, where the local participants don´t get the ownership, is a problem. The paternalism of free give-aways or also of doing free favours is useless in the long run as projects started by outsiders has proven to fail when the outsiders leave. On the other hand, humans do care for what they have worked hard to obtain. Bunch claims the only possible method for developing projects in underprivileged villages is to acquire enthusiasm (Bunch, 1991, p. 27). Enthusiasm is the driving force that makes people willing to experiment and cooperate with others. “Early recognizable success is a crucial ingredient in making participation constructive” (Bunch, 1991, p. 32). Projects must start small and simple, that way it is easier to quickly reach the first success and the successful innovation creates enthusiasm which pushes people to innovate more (Bunch, 1991, p. 39). Participatory design and involvement may have the power to face some of the challenges of cultural differences and possible paternal approaches of western designers. 

2.2. Participatory design and boundary objects

«Participatory design is a constellation of design initiatives aiming at the construction of socio-material assemblies where open and participated processes can take place” (Manzini & Rizzo, 2011). Participatory design dates back to the 1970s in Scandinavia, where the collective resource approach developed strategies and techniques for workers to engage in developing new systems for their workplace, building on their own experiences, providing them with resources to be able to act in their current situation (Bødker, 1996; Sandler & Stappers, 2008). Participatory design today is the approach of involving users in the design process (Björgvinsson, Ehn, & Hillgren, 2012; Bødker, 1996; Ehn, 2008; Manzini & Rizzo, 2011; Sandler & Stappers, 2008, Sundblad, 2011). The aim is to gradually refine the designed object to suit the user. This process is different from user-centered design where the user is a passive object of study by professionals to gain insight (Sandler and Stappers, 2008).  In Participatory design, non-professional partakers contribute with different creativity according to the contributor’s abilities. The role of the designer in the creative process is to facilitate and let people participate in their own way, informing the design development. Ehn (2008) also explores the participation of material “non-humans” elements, such as prototypes performing as boundary objects. 

“Boundary objects are objects which are both plastic enough to adapt to local needs and constraints of the several parties employing them, yet robust enough to maintain a common identity across sites. They are weakly structured in common use and become strongly structured in individual-site use. They may be abstract or concrete. They have different meanings in different social worlds but their structure is common enough to more than one world to make them recognizable, a means of translation. The creation and management of boundary objects is key in developing and maintaining coherence across intersecting social worlds” (Star & Griesemer, 1989 p. 393). 

The boundary objects are adaptable across multiple viewpoints, and still maintain continuity of identity (Star, 1989). The objects may help people from different communities build a mutual understanding. Participatory design between people from different socio-cultural systems may experience unforeseen contradictions. For example; rural African communities are often hierarchical structured, and lower-ranking people are not expected to openly express opinions (Winschiers-Theophilus et al., 2010). Women are normally considered lower-ranking, which is not the case in Scandinavia. Communication through boundary objects may help overcome this tradition as it is the women creating the objects. Also, in rural African communities participation is an established practice and allowing the established group to participate in its own way and within its own timeframe is important rather than actively facilitating participation (Winschiers-Theophilus et al., 2010). 

3. Methods, findings and the design process

Our project started out in Scandinavia. Design students of Kristiania University College worked on a jewellery-project for six weeks together with Scandinavian Design Group. Three meetings for adjustments were arranged between the NGO Sabona, Scandinavian Design Group, the design students and their tutor. In the design-process Scandinavian visual culture and African, Ndbele visual culture was juxtaposed. Visual elements of both cultures were to be expressed. Scandinavian visual preferences for jewellery were investigated through a digital questionnaire. The questionnaire got 113 responses, mostly from Scandinavian women aged 25-30 years. The most important finding revealed Scandinavians prefer simple and functional jewellery. However, some also preferred larger, more expressive accessories. Preferences for African jewellery were not asked specifically but were incorporated into the questions in order to avoid “politically correct answers”.

Figure 1. Visuals from the questionnaire.

Based on the knowledge that involving locals at an early stage when working with the developing world (Bunch, 1991; Campbell, 2013; Mattson & Wood, 2014), the first interaction between the Scandinavian designers and the Zimbabwean Dopota village was arranged already after two weeks of research through a Skype meeting. The communication was in English which needed to be translated to the Dopota woman. The Skype-meeting discussed the importance of tribal affiliation. The first suggested brand name of the jewellery had to be changed, as it was associated with another Zimbabwean tribe, the Shonas, and not the Ndbele. In a mail, the Dopota community suggested new names, Kulipeda or Maboko, which sounded too foreign in Scandinavian ears. The designers, doing their research far away from where the products were to be made, had found Ndbele jewellery using glass pearls and elephant hair in addition to the material from the local ilala palm tree made for weaving baskets. However, the only material the villagers did not have to purchase externally were local seeds and the Ilala, as the palm grew in their village. The designers changed both their jewellery designs and branding designs completely. Now there was another story to be told, relating to the ilala palm tree. 

Figure 2. Ilala baskets made by the Dopota women group.

The Skype-meeting was a very important first dialogue between the different participants and improved the Scandinavian designs in order to adapt to the abilities and the culture of the Dopota women. During the six weeks, the Scandinavian designers created several products to be tested by the Dopota women group and also visual identity branding design to be tested in the Scandinavian market. Mail-input from Dopota confirmed they had seen the prototypes and were eager to test the designs. They would use ilala and also seeds to make the jewellery. In order to get the right colours, they would use dye from several plant seeds. The Scandinavian-made prototypes were brought to Zimbabwe by the Sabona representatives to be analysed by the Dopota artisan women. 

Figure 3. Prototypes and visual identity branding made by Scandinavian Design Group and students of Kristiania University College.
Figure 4. The prototypes are being examined by the Dopota women groups representatives.

The first design tests by the Dopota women revealed that although the Ilala material was available in the village, the dimensions of the earring prototypes were not easy to achieve using only the Ilala palm and local materials. Instead, the Dopota women designed jewellery based on another of the Scandinavian prototypes using local seeds available in several colours and shapes. The next step will be for the Scandinavian designers to adapt these designs and test them with potential Scandinavian users.

Figure 5. The prototypes created by the Dopota women group.

4. Discussion

Wicked problems are problems not easily solved. Poverty is considered a wicked problem linked with other problems such as political situations, equality and education (Kolko, 2012). The first of the UN´s sustainable development goal is to end poverty in all its forms everywhere.UN´s Sustainable Goal No. 1. elaborates: Economic growth must be inclusive to provide sustainable jobs and promote equality (UN, 2015).Our multi-stakeholder project is not trying to solve the vast problem of poverty, but rather co-create products that are easily made and popular with potential users, and which may help a few underprivileged people giving thema tool to help themselves.

Manzini and Rizzo´s (2011) article “Small projects/large chances: Participatory design as an open participated process”, examine the need for large-scale, sustainable changes and explain how participatory design may realize such changes through small projects: A small-scale project like our participatory designing jewellery project. Manzini and Rizzo conclude that the traditional notion of participatory design needs extending and suggest social innovation. The use of designed prototypes as boundary objects and communication between Scandinavian designers and Zimbabwean artisan women may represent an extension of the participatory design process. 

In our participatory design process, the designers are not being present in the community as facilitators designing with local participants to find a better solution for the community (Ehn, 2008; Kolko, 2012; Sanders, 2008). Instead, the designing partakers are placed in different continents working separately, but for the same goal: to create easily made products which may give income to the Dopota community. Working on different continents and representing very different cultures may lead to confusions and the process certainly takes more time, but it may also be a strength. The communication through prototypes as boundary objects may avoid misinterpretations through words and local hierarchy, where lower-ranking women are not expected to express opinions (Winschiers-Theophilus et al., 2010). Not having to work in the same place at the same time may give the participants more space to safely explore options and may also make the unfortunate power balances between the uneven participants less pressing. However, the power-relationship will always be an issue and the feeling of paternalism may be experienced when there are differences between the parties involved. Creating ownership of the project is the most important thing to achieve in order to avoid paternalism (Bunch, 1991). A feeling of success along the way is important. The experience of designed prototypes contributing to the development of the finished result may be the feeling of success needed to retain ownership in the process. Communicating through prototypes and helping each other developing the final design may help ease some of the power-differences. We really need each other in the design process to arrive at products that are easy to make, use local materials of Dopota and will appeal to Western consumers. 

In order to appeal to Scandinavian users, the jewellery must balance between exotic novelty and familiarity (Hekkert, Snelders, & Van Wieringen,2003). Campbell (2003, p. 28) claim there is the otherness of African artefacts that are appealing to Westerners and that exploration of materials and finishes help to attain this. However, the otherness must not take over the overall impression of the designs. Scandinavians enjoy handcrafted, exotic products, but they also enjoy their familiar Scandinavian styles.


In this jewellery design development, the possibilities within design are explored in two continents by people with completely different backgrounds communicating through prototypes as boundary objects. The project demonstrates how design can be a tool that connects people and cultures. Our project explores a new approach of helping underprivileged Zimbabwean villagers through an extended participatory design approach performed without being co-located, using prototypes as boundary objects. Participatory design, involving the Dopota women in the design process may create ownership and hopefully avoid the feeling of being paternalized. Having a shared process, but on different continents allows participants to work at their own pace and do the necessary tests with materials. The final result is important, but so is also the process. 

By investigating a possible market for the jewellery in Scandinavia and utilising both product design and visual identity branding design in order to reach the market, products are more likely to gain popularity in Scandinavia. 

As this paper only explains the first stages of the project, further investigations and tests, both in Zimbabwe and in Scandinavia must be conducted before the project is completed. The communication between different cultures through prototypes as boundary objects has so far been successful and may also be further explored in other cultures.


Thank you especially to Sabona for connecting the designers with the Dopota women and to Scandinavian Design Group, Marie Steffensen, Fredrik Falch Andriessen and the Dopota artisans for letting me include their work in this paper. 

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