Push & Pull: Design Forces in Colombia

Design is all about constraining forces – and how designers choose to address them. Here is some of what we have learned about constraints, and opportunities, in Colombia in our first year

“The form of an object is a ‘diagram of forces’, in this sense, at least, that from it we can judge of or deduce the forces that are acting or have acted upon it”

-D’Arcy Thomson from the book “Of Growth and Form”

As a specialist of any order, when one sees a representation from his or her field, there is an inevitable compulsion to analyze it and speculate on the drivers of its origin. A film director at the movies, a chef at the table. Thomson proposes that the forces; price, material inputs, market trends, for example, are all exemplified in the final execution, just waiting for the keen and curious eye to reverse-engineer and detect the challenges that the creating team contended with.

Design is all about constraining forces – and how designers choose to address them. Here is some of what we have learned about constraints, and opportunities, in Colombia in our first year.

Goods are expensive.

Colombia sits in the Andes mountain range and while this provides for beautiful natural scenery, it greatly limits the importation of goods from the coast to the interior. In addition to the terrain, transit into and around the country is difficult because infrastructure like roads and rail are lacking. These variables drive up the prices of consumer goods like clothing and electronics, as well as foreign big-ticket items like industrial machines.

When thinking about implications for design, we consider the hard numbers as well as take cues from the workaround solutions that Colombians have put in place in their everyday lives. Repair shops are plentiful as it is cost-effective to prolong the life of products. Cars are kept on the road longer, and custom furniture undercuts store-bought. In most cases, it is less expensive to hire labor than to pay retail. This is particularly interesting when considering the next constraint.

Labor is everywhere.

A low average wage and a large basically-educated workforce have provided a readily available and affordable entry-level labor pool. In turn, many industries are abundantly staffed, rather than technically automated. Retail stores and restaurants team with salespeople. Crews of workers maintain city parks with basic landscaping tools, where a single lawn mower might do the job in a fraction of the time (if time were the defining criteria). Even skilled professional and technical labor in a majority of sectors is low-paying. This dynamic is an important consideration both in cultural and economic observation, as well as in the solution space.

A seven-man road crew in Bogotá

Human cues establish trust.

A common sight in grocery stores and malls in Colombia is a man or woman in crisp uniform, standing behind a small table set with promotional items, engaging with the public, attempting to promote his or her company’s wares. This phenomenon is not new, nor exclusive to the country, but where in other regions of the world passersby might avoid an attired hawker, Colombians will stop and listen. People like to hear about new products and services in person, rather than from an advertisement or website, and if they like what they hear, they sign on.

From membership clubs to mortgages, a recommendation from a friend is trusted more than an institution. Talk radio is a powerful medium of influence as well. When designing for Colombia, making a personal connection is key to consumer trust.

Criminals are sly.

Although the country has made considerable national security improvements, and all but extinguished the fundamental threat of decades ago, the past culture of corruption lingers. Petty thieves are still a contentious force, with a craft that has been sharpened over time. Colombians have a word for the criminal technique, “avispado”, which would sort of translate to being an opportunistic wasp. From cellular phone theft (a whopping 4,000 per day)(1) to muggings, personal security is still at risk in urban and suburban areas.

Interestingly, when talking to a Colombian the notion of crime won’t even come up, it is just a given. In order to really understand the matter, it is important to notice the behavioral adaptations often unrealized by the individual, as well as devices put in place within the community. In developing products and services, building strong security features is required for hack-resistant, theft-resistant systems.

Smart mobile is not the go-to.

There is ample mobile phone penetration in Colombia and across Latin America, as well as growing Internet and media-package TV subscription. Smartphone market share, on the other hand, is still quite low (about 7 – 10%)(2), and many people who own smartphones don’t own data plans. Combine this with the security risk attached to flashing an expensive-looking phone in public, and the speed of adaptation is decreased even more. The numbers are growing and mindsets are shifting, but while most service design ventures will need a mobile application to compete in today’s market, designing for the middle class must include high-, low-, and no-tech capabilities and connectivity.

Prototyping is easy.

Bogotá is a hands-on city, where people make things, install things, and still fix things rather than just replace them. Within the city, you can easily find printers, painters, builders, and specialized fabricators of everything from plastics to PCB boards. This has been fantastic for us in being able to quickly prototype our ideas, and we have met networks of wonderful, friendly craftspeople. The speed, price, and low minimum order quantity has been invaluable to our lean development process.

These are just a few of the high-level forces that have surfaced within a short time on the ground. Distinct, they appear when minds are fresh and senses are sharp. It is interesting to think of how conditioning and integration will affect this vantage point, and what has already become part of the fabric of a keener understanding of the region. Thomson, a naturalist, and mathematical biologist examined growth patterns in the natural world and charted the underlying structures that drive them. Building new business ideas, grasping implicit constraints helps to better recognize behaviors and biases, and informs more thoughtful, deliberate design decisions.



(1) //blogs.ft.com/beyond-brics/2012/10/11/colombia-4000-mobiles-stolen-daily/#axzz2ZuvCGTIt
(2) Multiple Sources: