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Where VIP Stands for "Visualising Issues in Pharmacy"
Regine Debatty, 8 Mar 07
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In February I was having a drink with Andy Polaine at my favorite burrito place in Berlin, when he started telling me about Creative Waves and Visualising Issues in Pharmacy, a project which blends education, research and ethical debate in order to raise public awareness of critical health issues in Kenya. VIP invites pharmacy and graphic design students and educators from around the globe to collaborate online during three months (April - June) and produce detailed research reports and graphic and visual communication campaigns for implementation in specific local hospitals and health centers in Kenya.

What started as a chat around a tea and a quesadilla evolved into an interview with both Andy Polaine, co-convener of Creative Waves, and Rick Bennett, Founder and Director of the Omnium Project, the research group that both creates a software platform for online creative collaboration and sets up a number of research projects such as Creative Waves.

Régine Debatty: Andy, how did you, an interaction designer, get involved in Creative Waves?

Andy Polaine: I've been involved in the Omnium Projects since the very first one in 1999. The first project was a global online design project and I was one of the Special Guests and mentors. Since then I have worked with Rick on a number of projects as well as him being a colleague of mine when I was teaching at the College of Fine Arts, UNSW in Sydney.

CW1.jpg We had been talking for a long time about the often vacuous nature of the graphic design industry and wanted to do something that encouraged more thought, more action and was more inclusive in trying to deal with some of the problems that face the world. Designers spend a lot of time often creating material that seduces people to buy more 'stuff.' There's nothing wrong with that as a process if it can be used in a useful form - so seducing people into being more sustainably minded or to think twice about an issue or a problem can also be powerful.

Rick Bennett: I agree, and having attended a fair few design conferences in the late 90's and early 00's, I was getting saddened by the 'oooohhhing' and 'arrrhhhing' that fancy techno-graphics seemed to be causing amongst the avid viewers/delegates. It wasn't until one special day in Singapore when Stefan Sagmeister, and then Neville Brody, gave wonderful talks about the real issues affecting designers these days that made me walk away and really think about what we all do. That was the spark that led to Omnium changing to a direction of designing for a better cause and reason. Great to have those kind of first hand inspirations and subsequent chats over drinks and coffees with them both to really firm up ideas for the future.

vip1.jpg AP: Obviously we can't do everything - we're not doctors, fire-fighters, etc. – but the thing we can do in our discipline realm is bring people together from around the world in creative communities. So those two ideas became the basis of the Omnium Creative Network, which is an ongoing community that tries to put creative skills to good use. Creative Waves is a shorter, time-limited project that is based on the creative collaboration of the first Creative Waves 2005 project and combines the ethical/social issues of the OCN for the Creative Waves 2007 Visualising Issues in Pharmacy.

As an interaction designer and lecturer I have had my fair share of projects that are rather 'fluffy' - selling jeans, marketing projects, etc. I also noticed my students could on the one hand be quite activist, but on the other just concerned with the latest design trends. In the end that's frustrating. I also became interested in Service Design (most often exemplified by Live|Work and Engine in the UK), which comes out of the background of product design and interaction design. It explores complete systems as a design process, rather than design being the last part that makes a terrible system/service pretty. This way of thinking, influenced hugely by being part of a 'network brain' generation, is really apt for dealing with the complexities of sustainability, organizational change and networked communities.

RD: Creative Waves 2007 is "building on the success of Creative Waves 2005 - another global elearning and creative collaboration project." Which signs told you after the 2005 edition that you were following the right track? What were the result of Creative Waves 2005?

RB: Ok ... it's when you finish a project like that and you get student comments like ...

CW2.jpg “For me it’s been a really positive experience. Everything has been really amazing and I feel really lucky to have all these resources at my fingertips, in the form of readings, lectures, galleries, chat sessions, feedback from coordinators and also other participants. The way it has all been brought together is just great, in fact I struggle to think of any negatives. This site is totally addictive, I must admit I probably spend a bit too much time in it, but I can’t help myself, I have learned so much and can't wait to find out what happens next! I will miss it when it's all over…?

Now when this is someone talking about their education and learning experience, then that is pretty wild - being addicted to learning? - cool!

AP: Quite apart from some of the awards we got an amazing response from the participants of CW 2005. We're putting together a book of the project right now because the discussion board threads were really in-depth; not at all the kind of thing one usually sees online. I'm editing the thread that design writer (and Art Director on the New York Times Book Review) Steven Heller hosted came in at over 32,000 words. We had several threads of similar magnitude.

So really it was the conversations that we had online in 2005, the process, more than the graphical end result that was the biggest bonus.

RB: Everyone who sees the project says its great but i think we could have gone further! - and yes, we created wonderful discussions and interactions, but i would like to see the graphic output have more thought put into it ... thats the aim of CW2 ...

RD: What exactly is the social aim of Creative Waves (getting people to take their medicine?)?

AP: The first part of the project is going to be about finding this out and is one of the reasons for collaborating with the pharmacists and people on the ground. It's easy to say "well, let's make some posters" or something like this in a college design-course, but this might not be what is most appropriate or effective. It could be badges, stickers, bags, leaflets, huge banners - we don't know, and that's part of this process.

RB: I have no idea quite what the outcomes may be - and thats the exciting part cos the 100 or so participants within the overall online community with shape that very much. Getting people to take their medicine may well be an aim (as one of the issues we are covering is 'adherence') but more importantly I think the aim is to have a whole bunch of student designers and student pharmacists be helped by professionals in both fields to come up with detailed reports that don't just gather dust, and design proposals that can really be produced and delivered to the region in Kenya. To me it doesn't matter how much effort it takes to put the whole thing together, how much it costs, but its about making sure the end user is not forgotten in the process. Ultimately, the social aims are concerned with the end users in the very poor regions of Kenya, as well as the online educational community of students and teachers that we have established. Its really about getting one to understand the other and to undertsand totally different situations than those that we are used to. To design for that is the challenge - and that maybe the most difficult design task of all.

AP: The main medical issues we are tackling there are: adherence, malaria, tuberculosis, sexually transmitted infections, chronic disease, immunization

vip2.jpg Although there are, of course, many communities we could work with, it was decided that for this project to be realistic and effective we should focus on a specific location. The Nyanza Provincial General Hospital in Winam (NPGH) has been chosen as a main focus for this project due to its role as a referral point for over 16 district hospitals in western Kenya. One of the major problems NPGH faces is the issue of abandoned patients. Hundreds of patients are abandoned each year, and this is primarily based on a lack of appropriate knowledge within the community to deal with certain diseases. The VIP project aims to help raise awareness and knowledge within such communities, to ultimately reduce abandonment levels and ease the strain on the hospitals such as NPGH.

RD: How can specific innovations the team comes up with contribute to those issues?

AP: I've probably answered that one above - for us this is also a journey that we're on. We can't really start with answers, only issues and problems and try and solve them, which is of course the design process.

RD: How much is the local population involved in the process?

clock.jpg RB: When we started this planning and producing this project i don't think we really envisaged all that much involvement because when you publicize these kind of things it is still the developed world that hears the news and fills the places. The OCN was really set up to try and encourage more involvement from the developing countries but it is still difficult to achieve. However, in hindsight, we have had some stories about the project placed in some interesting areas and low and behold we now have many applicants wanting to take part from several African countries. We also have the involvement of a university in Nairobi (on the Pharmacy side of things) and also are trying to contact more art and design schools in Africa. Icograda have agreed to support the project as a collaborator and throughout them we are discussing involvement from more and more African representatives from the UN millennium campaign amongst other avenues. In essence it seems it will have a lot of local involvement from both Africa and Kenya more specifically.

Here is an interesting post which has brought many inquiries - very coincidental and good timing too.

AP: Personally, I would love them to be as involved as possible, even if this has to be indirectly through others in the project (as English is the common language of the project). The ideal thing, in these situations, is of course to visit the community on the ground and see what the issues are for ourselves. However, one of the ideas of Creative Waves and of the Omnium Creative Network is that we can achieve an awful lot without having to fly people all around the world (and with the added expense and carbon footprint that this entails).


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