Mapping the Magic

Kevin Shane

Keywords: Design Thinking, reimagining, career, values, sustainable counterpoints, Quicksand’s process

Living overseas and working for a “foreign” firm brings with it a slew of pretty universally heard questions. “How is it over there?” “Why do you do it?” “What do you do?”, are all bandied about in some manner. People’s curiosities seemingly boil over when trying to understand why someone is doing something that is different, or even contrary, to what is normal, acceptable, and standard. For someone who grew up in a very small town in rural America, living and working in India is akin to going to the moon.

Illustration image sources: Az-Osztrák-Magyar Monarchia (retrieved from the flickr commons on 27 Aug 2015) and two NASA photographs (retrieved from NASA’s free image archives on 27 Aug 2015). Shiraz Iqbal.

The how and the why are pretty personal, and completely subjective; one’s own individual perception of reality governs what is “good”, “bad”, “ugly”, and otherwise; one person’s normal is another’s absurd, and vice versa. Any time I am asked for advice on what to do, see, eat, etc. in any country I’ve visited, particularly India, I try to include the disclaimer that these are things I enjoy, or not, and to temper expectations accordingly. It is in the what, though, that there is a fairly concrete truth. It is in its explanation where issues tend to abound.

I came to Quicksand specifically to work on the sanitation initiative Project Sammaan. The project is a design-led, holistic reimagining of community sanitation facilities for India’s urban slums, attempting to infuse new, innovative solutions to issues that have caused existing models to fail, leading to hundreds of millions of people being forced to open-defecate due to a lack of any functional alternative. This project was built on the back of a full year spent studying perception and habits of end-users, along with existing sanitation options (e.g., infrastructure, business models, branding and messaging in communities and within the facilities, etc.), to adequately understand the context within India’s urban slums. It involved the participation of several organizations, including local government agencies, and several years’ of effort to get off the ground. The hope is that it will be a successful, sustainable counterpoint to the failed models plaguing communities throughout India, and serve as a driver for policy changes in addressing the country’s sanitation crisis.

“The breaking of a wave cannot explain the whole sea.”


Or, as my friends and family say, we’re building toilets. (This desire for simplicity has also led an aunt of mine to believe, and tell people, that I am a plumber, which is an insult to plumbers the world over). Apart from being a funny anecdote to share, it underlines the challenge of selling through Quicksand’s process and, by extension, the incredible value that we bring to any initiative in India, the global south, or beyond, and to do so simply and quickly.

Unlike generations that preceded us, our careers are not readily or easily understood. We are not doctors, lawyers, engineers, or plumbers. We are a motley crew of people unified by the belief in design thinking and its potential for solving some of the world’s most pressing issues, improving the quality of products and services for the benefit of both producer and consumer, and in changing the way we engage with the world and each other. Our ideology is our industry, which leads us down many seemingly divergent rabbit holes. This is why we can effectively work with Google, Nokia, Facebook, and Unilever to improve their approaches in India, while also engage with The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, World Bank, PATH, and others in areas such as water and sanitation, financial inclusion, education, and healthcare. Our process is what defines us. Defining that process, then, is critical to elucidate the value we bring to any organization or company looking to work in India and the global south.

“An idea, like a ghost, must be spoken to a little before it will explain itself.”


Simplifying this process in a manner that is palatable and easily understood led to a period of introspection, culminating in the creation of a brief deck for us to share with both new and existing clients and partners, as well as anyone interested in the design world. We arrived at three simple, yet powerful steps:

1. Meeting People – Engaging with end-users or beneficiaries in their context to understand their wants and needs, as well as the drivers behind such. This is critical for effective cross-cultural innovation.

2. Telling Stories – Converting anecdotal insights into actionable frameworks in compelling, aesthetically engaging rich media collateral. (This is the missing link in specialised research agencies and specialised design studios. The loss in translation as insights move from one team to the next is plugged by design thinking & human-centered design. Quicksand manages that transition by making sure that the loss in fidelity is minimum, plus the understanding is enhanced because insights are turned into evocative briefs and discussed in settings that are conducive to creativity and disruption.)

3. Crafting Experiences – Translating insights and ideas into products and services that people use and experience. There are two parts to this: “crafting”, which refers to craftsmanship, and “experience”, which refers to the intangible but the most defining moment which will determine which way the end-user makes up their mind. People find it hard to define “experience” and hence gloss over in the product development process. What it essentially means is that you have to find ways to articulate these experiences and keep taking it to users to keep your product development efforts grounded in user reality.

These steps are as much who we are as they are what we do. The value of Quicksand is in the very visible manifestation of a passion to change the world through honest, open enquiry, and doing so by stepping outside the traditional ways. We are proud that over ten years we have been able to preserve these founding values. So while we may not be doctors, lawyers, engineers, or plumbers, we are willing, hell eager even, to engage with those and more to learn how they think and feel and act, and then explore how we can incorporate those insights into innovative solutions to any challenge facing the world.

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