Editor’s Note: With this article we celebrate the third anniversary of the Design-Altruism-Project. Always intended as an outlet for the unheralded young who are doing good work for the unknown and forgotten, it is appropriate that we enter our fourth year with the following account by a Ugandan-born designer, now working in America, who is attempting to assist her former countrymen. DS

Julian Kiganda

I’ve always wanted to use design as a way to build bridges and literally cross borders. The development of the Designers Without Borders Online Design Exchange has allowed me to do just that. The program came about as an idea that I had to connect designers in Africa to mentors in the US and allow them access to knowledge, techniques and skills that they may not otherwise have in their sometimes less-than-ideal academic environments. Born in Uganda but raised in America, I have had the privilege of a very good formal education. Thanks to our African tradition, it was ingrained in me that education is almost sacred. A good education was just as important to me as it was to my parents because I knew that with it came the power to better control your destiny. I recently found an essay from my junior year of high school where I wrote: “As an individual hoping to pursue a career in graphic arts, I came to the conclusion that although I may never be one to step into the political arena, art—as an alternate means of communication—can still be very effective. Sometimes art is the best way to relay a message to the rest of the world for the mere fact that there are no words to contend with; only what is seen in the eye of the beholder.” I’m blessed to be able to say that I’m doing exactly what I’ve always wanted to do: using art and technology to communicate ideas and influence thought and action. What’s even better is that I’m able to use this same passion to enhance the education of Ugandan students across the Atlantic. Technology is a beautiful thing.

Andrew, Ruth, Michael, Susan, and Nicholas. DWB’s first online mentees. June 25 through August 15, 2007.

Having just completed its second year, the DWB Online Design Exchange has been an interesting learning experience for me as I’m sure it’s been for the other mentors who have participated. An out-of-the-box experiment in cross-cultural, trans-Atlantic mentoring, the program is starting to get its legs, but not without its growing pains. The Design Exchange works by matching up a US-based professional in the design field (with disciplines ranging from animation and video production to marketing and graphic design) with a design student at Makerere University in Uganda. The objective of the program is for the student to gain real world experience and coaching by a professional designer. Of the many lessons learned, clarity in communication is a major one. The cultural nuances of language on both sides of the Atlantic haven’t altogether been a barrier (all the students speak and write in English), but it has made it sometimes challenging to relay design concepts. Not to mention that some students may have had the wrong idea of what the program was about. One student’s request of his mentor went like this: “I am so greatful to have you as my mentor I promise not to disappoint you. Please I would really like to know whether it is possible for you to get me some clients.”

Student Michael Kasule worked with designer Raymond Prucher to develop this piece.

Access to technology that we take for-granted here was one of the challenges we also faced. It wasn’t always readily available to students and so often, students would respond late to assignments because the electricity had gone out or they didn’t have money to pay for access to a computer at an internet café (which are now a mainstay in the country). The hard part for mentors was that you couldn’t always tell if the students were truly in a predicament or if it was one of those “dog at my homework” deals. But all those challenges become less relevant when you receive feedback from students like, “I have totally changed beneficially in my designing. I used to let software do a lot in my designing…But now I use my brain and sketches to create a brilliant result on the computer… Really [the program] is good and beneficial to all. Thanks for your good work.” The students are very appreciative of the mentoring experience—even when their end-of-program evaluations aren’t altogether favorable.

A DWB certificate for President Museveni

For myself, and most of the mentors, the effort (and sometimes headache) is worth it. Knowing that you are making an impact in the life of a young mind is fulfilling. It’s that whole “teach them to fish” concept in action. Afterall, what good is knowledge of any kind if you can’t use it to help someone else better themselves and ultimately, their lives?

Julian Kiganda is a designer living in Washington D.C. Her work can be seen online at Vibrant Design Group.

4 Responses to “Mentoring Minds Across the Atlantic”

  1. Jemma Harris Says:

    Julian, great article! What can I say, but to keep up the good work and keep on keeping on. The last part of the article says it all, “After all, what good is knowledge of any kind if you can’t use it to help someone else better themselves and ultimately their lives.” You are my inspiration. May God bless you in all your endeavors.

  2. Asmayit Says:

    Julian Kiganda, I applaud your effort, in taking your time and talent to reach out to artists across the the Atlantic. Art is a form of communication, one that is appreciated by so many. Art makes your eyes dance and the mind and heart react and race. I love the article; keep up the good work.

  3. raymond Says:

    Thank you Julian and David for enriching my life and helping us connect with real reasons to keep on.

  4. Kasule Michael Says:

    Thank you Julian for giving me an opportunity to share, learn and discover myself. I used to think that Art wasn’t in me. But this opportunity opened my eyes and made me believe in myself. Also the Mentor you gave me, Raymond, he is an excellent person. I learned alot from him and I am so grateful for your efforts. I graduated last January 20th, 2009 and I am now working in a print company and hoping to go and study again and sharpen on the skills I now have. God bless you Julian and Raymond.