A Question of Design

Take two scenarios.

Classroom A and Classroom B- schools I visited on my travels a few years back.

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Classroom A is a government run primary school in Mombassa, Kenya. The average pupil teacher ratio at the time was 133:1 (yes, you read correctly). This is only half the class in the photo- a group of pupils who were coming in for some extra tuition in the run up to their final primary school exams. While numbers are large, there are signs immediately that this is a classroom: school desks, text books, notebooks, school bags, blackboard, teacher at the top of the class, uniforms.  Note too that this is a primary school and the majority of the students are in their mid-teens.

Now, let’s look at Classroom B. This is a primary school run by an NGO in Kolkata called Vikramshila. And again we recognise it as a classroom: children, learning, writing… But in Classroom B, things strike me, like in a game of spot the difference.


By painting the base of the walks in blackboard paint, each wall has become a copybook which children can write on directly. The rest of the wall is used to hang artwork and learning prompts. Desks and chairs have been eliminated, as too uniforms. With a flexible space, the teachers knell down to engage with the children. The teacher is not always at the top of the classroom and the class is working in small peer-to peer groups.



It strikes me that we have an ‘idea’ of what education should look like, but this pre-conceived notion does not equate to quality education, nor is it always the most cost effective.  Do you really need chairs for education to be good? Or books? Or uniforms? In developing contexts, these are expensive items. Having to buy a uniform or a copybook could be the difference of whether your child goes to school, or not. It seems to me that the thinkers behind classroom B have asked some fundamental questions about learning and were willing to toss the education blueprint. I suspect they asked questions such as; ‘How can learning be best facilitated? How can we eliminate barriers to entry? What economic contexts are the pupils coming from? How can we make best use of the space that we have? How can the children learn from each other?

Whoever designed classroom B are true design thinkers, in action. They know that the most effective is not necessarily the most costly. Instead effectiveness begins by asking the right questions and getting into the mindframe of not just the pupils, but their parents too.



And in saying all this, I also want to add how much I admire the teacher is classroom A. My goodness, she was doing her best. Her name is Madame Florence, and here she was coming in on her spare time to give extra classes to pupils who she cared about. It was not a lack of caring which is impeding on their progress but a lack of questioning at a design and systems level.

Creativity too is a process which begins with questioning. So weather you are designing your own classroom or workspaces, your business or even the flow of your days, you can take some inspiration from Classroom B and ask yourself… 

  • What can be eliminated in my systems to make them run more efficiently? 
  • How might the space I am in be used better to create the outcomes I am looking for? 
  • What context are my students/ clients/ customers/ beneficiaries coming from? 
  • What resources do I currently have which I can redistribute or reuse to create a better environment?


Change begins with a willingness to shake up the blueprints we have inherited and question afresh. 

Now, I am wondering, where can I get my hands on some blackboard paint….



Tonight I am facilitating a workshop on Education and Development for the Suas Global Issues Programme – which prompted me to write this post. I will be covering similar topics as well as looking at gender in education and new trends in global education. Find out more about the Suas Global Issues courses here.

Creative Islanders: Aoibheann McNamara

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The Creative Islanders is a new interview series showcasing some of Ireland’s brightest creative talent and enterprise. It is about people who are stepping into their dreams, purpose and possibilities and embracing their one wild life. 

The interviews give a rare ‘behind the scenes’ glimpse into creative practice, motivations and mindsets- shining a light on what makes people tick, and how collectively Ireland is alive with creative possibility.


Next up in the series we have some short, snappy and sweet responses from Aoibheann Mc Namera- mother, restauranteur, entrepreneur, art lover, and one of Ireland’s treasures.

No visit to Galway City is complete for me without a visit to Ard Bia Restaurant, founded by Aoibheann. Set on the harbour shore overlooking The Claddagh, Ard Bia is a hub of great food, friendship, art, connections and always a warm and vibrant welcome. 

More recently Aoibheann has also teamed up with Triona Lillis to bring The Tweed Project to life. Inspired the native fabrics of tweed and linen in Ireland, Aoibheann and Triona set about trying to revitalise the craft, creating contemporary handmade weaves and wears, while honouring the tradition and land from which they come.

Beyond that Aoibheann has recently renovated an old warehouse in Galway city as her and her son Oni’s home, and has opened it up to guests and even spoken word events.

With creativity and entrepreneurship coursing through her veins, I hand over to the lovely Aoibheann…

What makes you tick? What motivates you?

Opening my inbox every day and seeing the opportunities I am lucky enough to be offered and exploring them, and then seeing what happens. Travel. Aesthetic life.

What keeps you in Ireland?

My son, my work, my love of the country.

What do you do just for the love of it?

Put people together and help make things happen.

What does the creative process teach you?

I know no other process, so it just the way I live.

Where do you find inspiration? Any hidden gems?

Everything- travel, publications, people- too many things.

How do you get through tough times? What sustains you?

A good Scary Mary party normally re aligns everything! (- note- Scary Mary is Mary Mc Nally- who is known for her wild and wonderful parties, and is a fine creative entrepreneur too- must be something in that Galway water)

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What key lessons have your learned about doing business or being a creative practitioner along the way? What have you learned from your ‘failures’?

Have a core belief and develop that, listen to it and if you are really in tune with it there is no such thing as failure.

Do you have a morning routine? Or other creative habits or rituals?

I jog by the sea, do emails, drink green juice and then see what happens…

What books have inspired you?  Or what websites do you turn to?

Its Not How Good You Are, Its How Good You Want To Be – Paul Asture

Any Saturday edition of the Financial Times.

What advice do you wish you had received as you were stepping onto your own creative path?

Get a good accountant! Out source this.

And what advice would you give to your future self?

Have a nice sofa and sit on it from time to time!


Find out more: 

Ard Bia

The Tweed Project

Aoibheann’s home on Air BnB


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Creative Islanders: Superfolk

Folding Camping Stool 4 copy

The Creative Islanders is an new interview series showcasing some of Ireland’s brightest creative talent and enterprise. It is about people who are stepping into their dreams, purpose and possibilities and embracing their one wild life. 

The interviews give a rare ‘behind the scenes’ glimpse into creative practice, motivations and mindsets- shining a light on what makes people tick, and how, collectively Ireland is alive with creative possibility.


Next up in the series is Superfolk founded by partners in life and business Jo Anne Bulter and Gearóid Muldowney. Based in Westport, in the wild west of Ireland, Superfolk design and craft exquisite homewares. Inspired by the outdoors and with respect to the raw and rugged landscape and materials which surround them, both Jo Anne and Gearóid’s work exude craftsmanship with comes with much patience, practice and a deeply rooted passion for elegance and beauty. I greatly admire their decision to move out west, working to create a business in tune with the landscape while generating employment and opportunities for the region.

Jo Anne also inspired me recently to take up lino cutting again, and gave me some very useful tips and hints (thank you!) I also love popping into their Instagram feed to have a visual dose of the west… they take some stunning images.

Now over to some words from Jo Anne & Gearóid..

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Photo Credit:Henrietta Williams

What makes you tick? What motivates you?

Jo Anne: I love to understand the relationships and connections between things and am curious about simple things in nature, animals, our weather and our environment. In designing I always want to try to understand the core or the essence of a material, a process or a problem. I want to always be proud of the work that we do and I love sharing that with others. Some people connect in a very emotional way to the sensibility of what we make and really get it and that’s very rewarding. We want to build a business where we will be creating employment in the west of Ireland.

Gearoid: I like to identify problems and rectifying them. I enjoy fixing things. But at some point its best to start afresh and thats why I design new things. Being able to understand your built/designed/made environment helps orientate a person. Being able to tell a story through our products is normal; materials have a history, objects are created in a context, keeping that context part of the product is an integral part of what we do.

What keeps you in Ireland?

Jo Anne: Our families – My father passed away in 2006 and Gearoid’s father died in 2012. The sense of sadness and loss is profound, but, bereavement also brought a deepening appreciation for our family, our friends and the feeling of ‘at home’ we have with living in the west of Ireland.

Gearoid: I love Ireland. My upbringing and my education has given me a wonderful appreciation for this island. My parents and my primary school teachers introduced me to the rich cultural heritage that is ours to discover. Ireland’s geography, natural history and culture fascinates me. With Superfolk, we are trying our best to use all of these elements to our advantage. We don’t want to leave.

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What do you do just for the love of it?

Jo Anne: I love learning about what I am seeing around me and anything that involves fresh air and being outside – walking, hiking, climbing, kayking, snorkelling, camping. I love trying to identify wild flowers and plants. I want to understand how a single plant can tell the story of its habitat – the relationship between the climate, topography and geology of a place. I want to know not just the name of everything that grows in the wild but why it chooses to grow where and when it grows – the wider inter-connected story of habitat. And I love watching Homeland. And Vikings.

Gearoid: I like being outside. I use fly fishing as a legitimate excuse to roam the countryside, study maps jump fences and talk to strangers. Fly fishing gives me the license to stand in rivers in silence, whilst water rushes all around you. I can stand motionless in a ditch listening for a plop of a trouts lip as it sips in flies trapped in the water surface film. I like the silence of big open spaces. Hiking in the hills of Mayo energises me. We have a large dog, ‘Woody’, a Wiemaraner and he demands plenty of exercise, so he’s another excuse to be in forests and hills and beaches.

What does the creative process teach you?

Jo Anne: Good work will not be forced. We might push really long and hard trying to make something work and eventually have to admit defeat. Good work is more instinctive, more fluid and truer to ourselves. When we are slogging at something it can be hard to stop and accept that what is more easy, free and simple is the better work. The slog is an important part of the creative process but its not the work. I think this is described best in the phrase ‘the simplicity on the other side of complexity’.

Gearoid. How to be honest. Well made things are honest. There are no tricks, if you want to make something that will last, and function well there are no short cuts. Use good materials and do them justice.

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How do you get unstuck? Any secret tools?

Jo Anne: Turn it upside down. In my foundation art course my tutor Robin Jones would tell us to frequently turn the page of a drawing upside down to make us look at the drawing with fresh eyes. So I try to find similar ways to keep fresh eyes and perspective on whatever I am working on. Turn the page upside down, take a step back, take a break, go for a walk. Learn to change your position relative to your work and learn to see with fresh eyes.

Gearoid: I don’t get stuck much these days. When I was younger I might have been more precious about my  ideas and less willing to give up on something that wasn’t working. I’ve gotten better at scrapping something that isn’t working, ideas are two a penny.

Where do you find inspiration? Any hidden gems?

Jo Anne: We are designers but it is really important to us that we are always looking outside of ‘design’. When Gearoid and I travel to new places we always look out for the folk museum, the natural history museum, the odd strange decorative arts museum.  I really love any outdoor folk museums even really touristy ones. I love ‘Den Gamle By’, the outdoor folk life museum in Arhus in Denmark.

Gearoid: Humans have been designing and problem solving for thousands of years. Its only in the last few hundred years that we have begun to document some of these results. My interest in vernacualr life tools is endless. I love folk museums especially if they have an outdoor element and archaeology, you cant beat digging in the ground and speculating.

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How do you get through tough times? What sustains you?

Jo Anne: The memory of that first feeling of Spring in the air – at any time of year. And anything William Wegman ever made. Walking and listening to podcasts.

Gearoid: I used to smoke, rolling tobacco and I really enjoyed the peaceful time it gave. It allowed me time to meditate on things. It turns out smoking kills you, so I walk the dog now or go fishing.

What key lessons have your learned about doing business or being a creative practitioner along the way?

Jo Anne: Don’t take criticism personally. Listen and understand criticism as subjective insight.

Gearoid: Play the long game. Make good work. Don’t rush things. Give yourself time to do a good job. Be nice to people and don’t waste time on negative thoughts.

What have you learned from your ‘failures’?

Jo Anne: Never be afraid to cut your losses. Don’t keep going with something that in your gut doesn’t feel right because you are too afraid of losing what you have already invested.

Gearoid: Not to give up. Move on quickly and regroup. Moving forward and not dwelling in the past is important. Keep moving forward.

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Do you have a morning routine?

Jo Anne: Roughly along the lines of …Feed the dog, go for a walk, come back have porridge and coffee and have a short meeting about what work is needed to be done that day.

Gearoid: Porridge. Clean and tidy, start work as soon as possible. Morning is the best time to have clear thoughts and energy.

Or other creative habits or rituals?

Jo Anne: Walking meetings – when we are figuring something out together rather than a sit-down brainstorm we take walking meetings where we walk and talk through our ideas. For some reason when we are more active, walking, you can be more insightful and make big decisions more confidently.

Gearoid: I like to have a place for everything so I’m constantly trying to put my life in order or de clutter my life. It is a struggle, the world wants me to have so much stuff.

What books have inspired you? Or what websites do you turn to? 

Jo Anne: The Wild Flowers of Ireland by Carsten Krieger and Declan Doogue – It tells the story of wildflowers and wild plant life from the point of view of habitat – I love to think about the inter-relationship of factors that create an amenable habitat for plantlife– in a funny way it is really quite relevant to home-wares designing. Also ‘The Way That I Went’ by the naturalist Robert Lloyd Preager. When I’m drawing I listen to podcasts like ‘On Being’ and podcasts about slow food movement and plant life on ‘Heritage Radio Network’.

Gearoid: I have referred to the SAS survival handbook since I was a child. Its a guide to doing everything a human needs to do to stay alive, it has nothing superfluous of luxurious in it its a stripped back guide to living. Its not a bad place to begin if you are designing lifestyle or homeware goods.

What advice do you wish you had received as you were stepping onto your own creative path?

Jo Anne: Trust your gut. Don’t wait to be perfect (because there’s no such thing)

Gearoid: Be brave.



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Find out more over on their website Superfolk 

Follow them on Instagram here. 

Thank you so much Superfolk. You are, indeed, super folk. Clare x