A while ago I had this interesting  discussion with someone who is in the manufacturing engineering  business, partly in China. They are struggling with cultural differences  in the process causing negative influences on the user experience with the final  product.
What may shift is the design intent of the OEM and/or the product  designer (in many cases their clients use independent third party  industrial design firms to take the initial concept and product design  requirements and create the final files). This can be something as  subtle as the reflectivity of a coating on the retail packaging to as  fundamental as the amount of force required to actuate the hinge in a  pivoting LCD monitor. One of their major struggles (and the reason that  there must employ staff in China that possess significant western  cultural exposure) is to limit the seemingly minor changes that Asian vendors implement that are not considered measurable or even perceivable there.

This discussion stuck with me as it showed a problem that I think has not yet been addressed that much. What I see in the design field is that there is a firm belief in the feasibility of applying the diverse methods and approaches in almost any context or process (just see how Design Thinking is being communicated and promoted in similar fashion all around the world). However, they are the subtle cultural differences that create differences in outcome, perspective and application of methods.

The outcome can be a real problem such as described in the above mentioned example, but it can even be noticed at a much lower level, where in e.g. interviewing participants there are big differences between east and west in how detailed you are able to uncover insights. In a couple of the projects that we performed at MediaLAB Amsterdam simultaneously in two cities (Amsterdam and Bangalore), there were lots of differences in the process, approach and outcome; even though the initial challenge was formulated the same. At the MediaLAB, we found this fascinating and decided to expend on this notion, creating a new platform where cities, students, designers/ professionals can work together on challenges from different locations and within local contexts. We call it Design Across Cultures. Please find below a rationale and description of this initiative.

A platform for collaboration between multidisciplinary, multicultural design teams, using the undeniable force of cultural differences and similarities as a design strategy to locally solve global issues.

Global village, multiple discoveries and multidisciplinary design teams

We have seen the rise of the so-called ‘Global Village’, stating that our world has become like a closely connected village; local issues have become global issues and global challenges have become local challenges. Local ‘Jams’ are being organized globally, where new ideas are generated to solve current challenges. We are living in an idea-generating era, where innovations are following up on each other in a staggering pace, and even more so: simultaneously on multiple locations around the globe (also referred to as multiple discovery). As a result of the rising complexity of challenges, industry demands for highly specialized professionals that have the ability to apply their knowledge and skills in broader (cultural) contexts and fields.

These skills go beyond a single discipline, and are in my opinion best learned through multidisciplinary team- and project-based education. At MediaLAB Amsterdam, we have introduced a structured 20-week program with agile work forms, an extensive design and research methods toolkit, and a culture where making, applied research and design meet each other in multidisciplinary, multicultural team projects.


How does the increase of connectedness in the world impact multiple discoveries and how could we make use of this? In a world where multinationals have multidisciplinary design teams (MDT’s) on many locations in the world, trying to find general solutions for similar challenges but in different local contexts? Can we create a global, cross-cultural educational approach for MDT’s through which team members can collaborate, share insights, results and ideas in order to 1) compare cultural differences in the application of (research and design) methods, 2) find out how local, cultural context influences the process and the outcome of the solution, and 3) make sure that local knowledge is transferred internationally through the exchange of students?

We will try! MediaLAB Amsterdam’s initiative, the Design Across Cultures platform, connects cities, labs and multidisciplinary, multicultural design teams around the globe in order to locally solve global issues and improve ‘citizen empowerment’ around the world.


In the past 1,5 years, we have gained experience in running Design Across Cultures (DxC) projects with teams in Amsterdam (The Netherlands) and in Bangalore (India), both working simultaneously on the same challenge in collaboration with industry partner Cisco (for example on women’s safety in public spaces, and food waste). Recently, we have launched a DxC project in collaboration with Innovation Studio Fukuoka and Kyushu University on designing the future workspace. In all of these projects, citizen empowerment has been a main focus, especially in relation to the local context of the cities (Amsterdam, Bangalore and Fukuoka).

Citizen Empowerment

The rise of digital media and the advent of the network society have shifted the relations between citizens on the one hand and companies and governments on the other. Citizens have new tools to organize themselves around issues of communal interest. The relation between professionals and citizens is shifting. This means both citizens as well as institutional parties and companies are looking for new relationships and new roles in society.

A call for participation

Currently we are extending the DxC program and are looking for partners to run projects with. Also, we are working on organizing and designing the before mentioned platform of labs and cities where MDT’s can collaborate in DxC projects. Not only with Amsterdam but also with each other. Join us in this new endeavor and let’s Design Across Cultures!

Please have a look at the presentation we gave at TEDxSalon Shanghai on March 12th:

Illustrations – by Ilaria Zonda