When writer Drusilla Modjeska invited architect Stephen Collier to work with her in Papua New Guinea (PNG), he jumped at the chance to collaborate with her.

It also meant that he would be revisiting a country where he had spent his early childhood when his father worked in PNG. Rather than cover all the topics in his absorbing presentation, it is worth focusing on the role of design in Stephen’s collaboration with Drusilla.

Creative possibilities were discussed in meetings and consultations before Stephen embarked upon the process of designing a unique educational tool intended specifically for the districts in which Drusilla was working. Over time the project gradually took shape with the working title of The learning box .

Construction of the box was developed further in Sydney with plywood and other, varied materials that could be adapted for use in many and diverse educational situations. Eventually, after many hours spent in the process of design and adaptation, a working model was ready to take to PNG.

However, the design prototype received a few unpredictable responses when the learning box model was presented to the community.

While Stephen had imagined receiving further ideas about the content and form of the model, some villagers just wanted to be told by Stephen how it would work. Despite the relatively clever design and Stephen’s altruistic approach,  judgments of the villagers were, of course, framed largely within their own cultural mores, which included the various experiences of colonialism which Stephen would have preferred avoiding.

Post-colonialism was still an idea that had little currency in the high lands of PNG. Some thought, for example, these boxes within boxes were just colonialism in another form: a trick by yet another white man with something to sell, and that maybe it was just another thing they did not need.

Comprehension of unique design projects depends more upon a shared cultural familiarity than designers realise. However, time spent with the villagers was time well spent. Reassurances were made about the ‘box’ and friendships were developed further.

So the possibility of an alternative reading in a cross-cultural project such as The learning box, is always present. Designers who work in the Pacific Islands learn to expect the unexpected.

The point to make here is that design systems and cultural products can have signifiers that might be read in complex and contradictory ways. Rather than be baffled by the issues of designing in the Pacific, it is realistic to recognise that there are always discoveries to be made and experiences to be shared in cross-cultural adventures.

We should consider that design is a process of continually learning to design for people, rather than products. Certainly, Stephen’s honest and intelligent approach to the process of design and his ability to work with the communities ensured that the collaborations were, in the end, worth all the hard work.

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