The Gift (2010)

The Gift Logo

In 2010 the Global Studio project was on the theme of The Gift. This project was undertaken in collaboration between 7 international universities located in Japan, Korea, Australia, Taiwan, China, UK and Canada. More than 245 students and 24 supervisors have participated in this international project. The idea for the theme employed in this Global Studio project was inspired by the anthropologist Marcel Mauss’ classic book ‘The Gift’. This text puts forward a theory which argues that ‘giving’, ‘receiving’ and ‘reciprocation’ are fundamental social activities linked to interaction between humans. These interactions are part of cultural practices and 'carry meaning[s] and value[s] for us, which need to be meaningfully interpreted by others, or which depend on meaning for their effective operation.' (Hall, 1997:3) One of the aims of the project was for participating students to begin to explore the ‘work’ artefacts ‘do’ in relation to social practices (cf. J. Johnson, 1988). The Gift project was exploring on how links may be formed between people from different cultures. The project aimed to encourage students to explore various questions related to intercultural communication and Design including:

  • How do relationships form between people?
  • How do bonds form between people of different cultures?
  • Should cultural differences be bridged or should they be celebrated?
  • What strategies might be employed in order to encourage relationships?
  • What are the material effects of Design?

In order to explore the above points project was undertaken between students from a number of following participating universities:

The number of participting studnets in the 2011 Global Studio: The Gift project

2010 The Global Studio: The Gift project map of participating universities


Students from one university will be designing a 'corporate gift' for a university which is located at another country (e.g. students based at Chiba University will design a 'corporate gift' for a university located in Australia such as RMIT). The research and project briefs will be developed by students based at the university for which the 'corporate gift' is intended. This would allow students from one university to perform a role of 'clients' for students based at another university who would be performing the role of designers and vs. See the project schedule which lists proposed activities for Clients and Designers. For more information see the Theme & Schedule section.


You will be visiting international university as an exchange student for three months and will be staying with a host family. What gift would be appropriate for you to bring that represents your University / School?

The Global Studio 2010: The Gift teams

The Gift project team at Nortumbria University

Northumbria University, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England

photo of the YunTech project team

National Yunlin University of Science & Technology, Taiwan

Foshan University teams

Foshan University, China

Group 20 from Hong-ik University working on the Gift project

Team 20 FloaTea from Hong-ik University, Korea

Chiba University

Chiba University, Japan


In the 1st week at Northumbria University we invited the Director of Communications, Jonathan Ray, to outline complexities in relation to the corporate identity that Northumbria might like to adopt and how various university stakeholders ‘read’ it in various and in many cases unexpected ways.

Jonathan Ray in the class

Jonathan showed a number of corporate gifts that he has received and commented on how they might be ‘read’ – what values they might be portraying. Jonathan is planning to come back in week 5 and then again at the end of the project to provide feedback on the project outcomes.

Jonathan Ray in the class

We have also provide all students with a short introduction to the on-line environment. We have used the first week of activity to demonstrate how to register and login onto a projects site. Enter text and upload a file such as a photo.

Students creating their online profiles

In week three, Daniel Reed, who is one of PhD candidates at Northumbria, has explored issues related to project briefs.

A week later David Parkinson who is also PhD candidate at Northumbria presented a seminar on the theme of storytelling.

Example of works

Poroject brief developed by one of the student groups based in Hong-ik University (Korea) for students located at Chiba University (Japan) [Group 32]

Gift Project Shadow Puppet

video produces by Thistle & Rose (team 18) -- Robert Muir, Ewan Fletcher and Lewis Roberts

FloaTEA: Leaves on the tea

Korean cultural tea for Northumbria University students in England

Produced by group 20: ©2010 Youndwoo Choi, Hee Kang, Hyojin Youn, and Jisean Lee

The general project theme was intended to focus on designing the gift for students from other countries when we attended the school as exchange students. Sometimes, visuals can deliver messages more clearly and effectively than words. We’ve decided to produce the video to tell the story about the valuable application of Floatea that is more important than its appearance. And it was a very good idea because we brushed aside the language barrier by showing the video.

First or all, we had a brainstorming session to decide what is the best message to attract the interest of students from other countries. And then, we wrote a film script and created the video in words and drawings. Each of us got started to find perfect images, draw a sketch and wrote witty expressions to describe the product. After all this process, we actually made a design sample and produced a film.

We could look back what we’ve learned and designed in a semester while we were producing this video. It was a very good opportunity to think about how hard it is to deliver the message without using language. By sharing ideas with students from different cultures, we’ve learned their cultures and ways of thinking. From outside the box, we could have new perspectives on our culture and the harmony with others.

Target: Interactive Speaker

Team 8: ©2010 Wooseok Heo, Yesuel Jang, Eunjin Jung, and Jihyun Park


These students from Hong-ik University worked with students from Nortumbria and they outline why they made the video below:

The theme of our project was Interactive Speaker which aimed to avoid awkward situations in an office when people share one's playlist listing together by playing a game inspired by dart game.

Our design is interactive so we thought it’s more efficient to understand our work showing people actually using it.
The scenario of user and working process take important part in this design, so making the video it was good way to assume what might happen when people use it. It also helped us to think more and reaching better solutions.

We learn that when we work under a theme, it’s important to communicate a lot because the goal of this work is designing a present that satisfying people from different background as we do design in real world. To understand and satisfy them communication is the most important thing.

We don’t usually make videos. Most of our work is not interactive design unlike this project. But, if we do interactive design again later on, then we would like to make video again. It’s a good way to make people understand the concept.


Nasser Maqsood and Po Ming Chou working with students from Chiba University develop the 2-in-1 idea which use an aquarium with Japanese fish and also incorporates a pot with English herbs is an example of how project outcomes attempted to look at cultural symbols.

2010 THe Global Studio: The Gift - Aquarium


2010 The Global Studio: The Gift 2-In-1 project


©2010 Nasser and Po described their learning experiences in the following way.

The gift project was a great opportunity to cross pollinate ideas and mix perspectives with different cultures from around the world. We were fortunate to collaborate with Chiba University in Japan, the group was very successful in communicating effectively regardless of the language barrier. We felt the project resulted in some very interesting concepts that were relevant to both cultures, this could have only been achieved through the effective communication we had. Culture and tradition was a key component of our design brief and the outcomes that both our universities presented had to have core traditional/cultural values within them in order to make our ideas and concepts more meaningful even symbolic in particular instances.

We had to be very critical about how and what we wanted to present in order to get our points across effectively. Quick sketches and visualization drove most of our communication since we couldn’t converse verbally as well as we thought, we found it incredible how people could immediately understand concepts and notions all through the power of visuals. Since either of the groups had very little experience of each others culture, we had to place all trust in the information we provided to each other to help steer us away from stereotypes that often arise when dealing with culture.

We gained a lot of cultural knowledge about the Japanese and we hope that they felt the same about what we presented to them. It was great when they would mention something that we would never find on the internet, the very small details that can make a huge difference in the direction of the project. It was these elements that informed our designs and concepts. We believe it helped us to develop our communication skills and hone in on what was relevant for the project. Scheduling and organization played a big role, as they were 9 hours ahead we had to carefully plan video calls and maximize our contact time together to make the most of the project. Through this project we managed to build a relationship with our collaborators and maintain the connection with the group members, particularly through social networks.

The Gift Logo 2

Reviews of the Global Studio project titkled the Gift by Masters students from University of Alberta


by Hailley Honcharik
Master of Design (MDes) Candidate, Industrial Design, University of Alberta
Relevance of Socio-Cultural Factors in Durable Gifting and Design
The durability of design is a subject of sustainability that strives to understand the hierarchy of characteristics that create lasting user-object relationships. This concept, provided with a further layer when considered within the global context, can work to understand the cultural differences associated with durable design. Hella Jongerius has been quoted as saying, “If you create products that have real meaning for people, they’re likely to last longer because they’ll want to keep them.” (Rawsthorn, 2009) But how can one create this meaning, and moreover, how do these meanings translate into a gift format? Through the study of The Global Studio: The Gift and its participant activity, I have found that while there are definite cultural distinctions that provide unique features of significance to gifted objects – aspects on which the students performed much research – there are also transcending characteristics that are of importance to all cultures in the gift-giving process. Memory, experience and the narrative were observed as valued by most all participants, but were often overlooked in the preliminary brief requirements in favour of cultural norms, distinctions and taboos. It is interesting then, to consider the longevity of the ‘gifts’ that were produced in The Gift process, and whether they would have indeed proved to be examples of significant and durable design for the recipient.
Richie Moalosi has done extensive research in the field of socio-cultural factors in design stating, “The pinnacle of good product innovation is when it is grounded on sensitive cultural analysis of users’ culture.”(Moalosi, 2007, p. iii) Many of the students were cognizant of the necessity to implement tradition, emotion and beauty in order to create design that the recipients identified with, and in turn would find pleasure in. By understanding the factors that create products with relevance to a specific societal domain, objects will be more applicable, thereby creating a more lasting connection. “Memorable design does not always depend on a clever idea or advanced micro-electronics, but can be born out of an honest understanding of human sensitivity and values.” (qtd. in Moalosi) As the gifts proposed in the project were to be culturally motivated, students’ research and analysis of the opposing group’s traditions and norms was seen across most all of the communication boards, enabling partnering schools to get acquainted, and in turn apply these learned characteristics to the designed gifts.
While these cultural indicators are excellent examples of how to design a lasting product, working within the concept of a gift gave rise to detectable themes across the project that were not culturally specific. One of such themes that became obvious in its cross-cultural relevancy was the significance of the memory that a gift represents. The relation between memory and design is a strong component of durable design and the longevity of an object (Norman, 2004, p. 88). A survey of the participating University of Alberta students indicated that many of the most lasting gifts were kept for long periods due to the memories that were related to the objects.
This survey as well as the numerous student discussion boards also generated references indicating that many of the students’ most revered and lasting gifts received were durable because of the gifting process itself and the narrative that accompanied the gift. When designing emotionally durable objects, Jonathan Chapman has stated that the narrative, or history of the object is vital in creating user bonds. In a study carried out comparing the value perceived of six experiential themes of an object, Chapman found that the most common was narrative, and that over half of those had received the discussed object as a gift (Chapman, 2009, p. 32). These findings indicate that the stories that remain of the gifting process are often what create a meaningful connection between the recipient and the object, in turn perpetuating its lasting nature.
Finally, it seemed many of the most interesting gifts exchanged were not objects at all. It was here that the concept of a sustainably durable object broke down, as quite often a gift was merely an experience for the recipient. But while it becomes hard to quantify the durable nature of a non-object, experience is indeed another notable feature of a meaningful product. Donald Norman explains that designers must ensure that the entire experience of a product is considered when designing, from initial contact to the end result. This in turn will deposit the experience into memory, which as we have discussed, is a fundamental factor of durable gifting (Norman, 2009, pp. 24–25).
But how can one design for such experiences? Liz Sanders discusses the means of ‘experience design’ achievement through the user-centred process. “If we have access to both what is being communicated and what experiences are influencing the receipt of communication, then we can design for experiencing.” (Sanders, 2002, p. 2) This is accomplished using tools to allow potential end users to create and express their thoughts, feelings and dreams. These toolkits provide a means to design for the essential experience aspect of products and gifts.
The understanding of cultural traditions, norms and taboos is important in the creation of a durable, culturally specific object designed for longevity. But it seems when the premise moves from a simple object to a given gift, cultural factors, while important to avoid misinterpretations, are not as imperative as the overarching themes found to be applicable to all cultures and societies. And it is these subjects of memory, narrative, and experience that are to be carefully considered by the designer and gift-giver in order to create a lasting present of value that will not simply be discarded in the way of our disposable society. Gifts not only provide an opportunity for object-recipient relationships, but also for giver-recipient connections, a connection that most often instills more significance in the gift than the gift itself.

Chapman, J. (2009), Design for (emotional) durability. Design Issues, 25(4), 29-35.
Dejean, P. H., De Souza, M., & Mourthe, C. (2006). Of the interaction of cultural and emotional factors on industrial design. Contemporary ergonomics: proceedings of the Ergonomics Society's Annual Conference. 184-188.
Moalosi, R. (2007). The impact of socio-cultural factors upon human-centred design in Botswana. Ph.D. Thesis, Queensland University of Technology.
Norman, D. A. (2004). Emotional design: Why we love (or hate) everyday things. New York: Basic Books.
Norman, D. A. (2009). Memory is more important than actuality. Interactions, 16(2), 24-26.
Rawsthorn, A. (2009). A designer who takes things personally. New York Times. Retrieved from, October 20, 2010.            
Sanders, E. (2002). From user-centered to participatory design approaches. In J. Frascara, (Ed.), Design and the Social Sciences: Making Connections. London: Taylor & Francis.

by Adolfo Ruiz
Master of Design (MDes) Candidate, Visual Communication Design, University of Alberta
The Cultural Other
As a graduate student in Visual Communication Design I am interested in notions of the cultural other. Throughout The Global Studio: The Gift project I was involved in the organization of weekly activities for undergraduate participants at the University of Alberta, and also had the opportunity to explore aspects of this international collaboration which relate to my field of interest. The first area involves the overcoming of stereotypes, and the second consists of the notion of identity as a dynamic concept. I will discuss how these two areas of inquiry relate to the student experience of the Gift project by referring to first-hand observation and research conducted with participants, information gathered from group sites, and intercultural communication theory.
                From stereotypes to cultural fusion
                During the initial stages of group interaction, students exchanged cultural information using text, imagery and video footage found on the internet (Wikipedia and YouTube were commonly used) which often provided stereotypical representations of a student’s own culture. These representations are a form of “essentialism” as described in intercultural communication literature and involves “imagining there is a universal essence, homogeneity and unity in a particular culture” (Holliday, Hyde & Kullman, 2010, p. 1).
                As the Gift project evolved however, each group member’s need “to see through images and fictions” was facilitated by the communication requirements of the weekly activities (Holliday, et al., 2010, p. 42). These requirements involved blog posts, Skype meetings and the development of creative concepts. It was through the creation and interpretation of conceptual work that some students came to appreciate the full complexity of their overseas counterparts. When asked about her experience of the Gift project, a University of Alberta student indicated that “trying to translate what the other means through drawing” brought her closer to the overseas team.
                The results of this international collaboration indicate the extent to which participants managed to overcome popular notions of their overseas counterpart. The finished designs illustrate the fusion of two creative cultures: as, for example, the Aquaponic + Hydroponic system created by Group 14 from Northumbria, which brings together British herbs and Japanese fish into the same design; or the stationery set created by Group 39 from Foshan University, which combines visual elements from Cantonese opera with aboriginal Australian art.
                Another interesting aspect of this Global Studio collaboration was the shifting of identity each student experienced by playing the role of both designer and client. Identity as described by Holliday, Hyde, and Kullman (2010, p. 20) is not a stable concept. During the Gift project, this idea became evident, not only through each participant’s simultaneous task of creating and critiquing, but also through the rapidly expanding knowledge of the other team’s personalities and methods of working. Within each group pairing a new “middle culture” was created that brought together a multiplicity of background influences from each student, along with the cultures of each school and country (Holliday, et al., 2010, p. 29). Language barriers, working around different time schedules, along with the dual role of designer/client took each participant into an unfamiliar cultural zone where knowledge from “interconnected perspectives” often took over popular discourse in creating mutual understanding among foreign students.
                The Gift project can be described as a virtual “culture of dealing” which embraced the complex and multi-faceted nature of identity (Holliday, et al., 2010, p.29). While talking about her experience of working in this international collaboration, an Edmonton-based student working with Yun Tech in Taiwan spoke positively of the “in-depth discussions of shared problems and understandings of the project”. These discussions along with the “culture of dealing” are reflective of the “system of total services” described by Marcel Mauss (1990, p. 6) in his book The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies. In such a system, the author writes, “everything is complementary and presumes cooperation between the two halves of the tribe” (Mauss, 1990, p. 6).

Holliday, A., Hyde, M., & Kullman, J. (2010). Intercultural Communication: An advanced resource book for students.
New York: Routledge.
Mauss, M. (1950/1990). The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies. Translated by W.D. Halls., 1990
London: Routledge.

by Andrea Van Der Ree
Master of Design (MDes) Candidate, Visual Communication Design, University of Alberta
[Ex]changing Briefs: Display and Interpretation
At the beginning of The Global Studio: The Gift project, the students were told to do research and create a project brief based on the university for which the “corporate gift” was intended. This project brief was meant to allow the students to equally perform the role of client and designer. Because of a few misunderstandings between universities, the outline of the project was revised and another way of approaching the project was introduced. In this case the students would create a brief and search for background information for their home university, meaning they would design a gift from their university to give to a host family in another country, eliminating somehow the role of client and creating the role of consultant. After this change of direction some of the participants, including students, instructors and project managers, were still uncertain about how to proceed, but everyone worked to make sense of the project.
                Research Intent: Public Display + Interpretation
Due to my interest in the area of exhibition design, I worked with the distinctive characteristics that take part in a public display, such as space, time, movement, communication, theme and type; and used these characteristics to evaluate and analyze the process of developing briefs and designing gifts for this project. The interpretation element was defined as the audience, in the same way that takes place in public displays. Gender, cultural background, and personal history have a great impact on how we communicate and how the information is interpreted. The evaluation of the interpretation element was related to the exchange of briefs and cultural information that students had with their team partners, and the effectiveness of using this method.
                The Gift Research
To explore how public display and interpretation had a connection with the Gift project, I delivered a questionnaire to the University of Alberta students. This questionnaire related the process of designing and the design artifact to my area of interest – exhibition design – and specifically the display and interpretation of the information. Student responses varied widely and it was difficult to analyze the information and create a consensus between each area as the data was specifically related to each group’s unique design.
The effectiveness of using a brief for this project was also evaluated in the questionnaire and reflects on the area of interpretation and collection of information. This compilation of data is meaningful for any design project and Frascara describes this as a second step in the process of design: “This stage aims at gathering information about the client, the product, the competition (if it exists), and the public.” (Frascara, 2004, p. 94)
The results from the questionnaire could be described as a reflection of the process and the circumstances that occurred throughout the project. I can conclude that many of the students found the use of a brief effective as it helped them with a good starting point and also to generate ideas and narrow these ideas into more thoughtful and conceptual ones. However, many students noted that the constant changing of the outline of the project affected the clarity of the design briefs, and project goals and outcomes, with problems resulting, for example, from not receiving correct information. Frascara says, “The information obtained about the project, although it can provide essential criteria for the configuration of the visualization, is never sufficient to generate a solution.” (2004, p. 98) Students from University of Alberta and their partners adapted to the changing requirements, developed methods that they could work with and ended up having excellent concepts and designs.

Frascara, J. (2004). Communication Design: Principles, Methods, and Practice. New York: Allworth Press.

Lawrence Wong
Master of Design (MDes) Candidate, Industrial Design, University of Alberta
Rules of Engagement
New experiences are difficult to categorize. On the one hand, we might often think of the joys of learning, of creating social bonds and of tangible meaning. On the other hand, these new experiences can also be threatening, hard to define, and often threaten failure. With these two opposing views in mind, I would like to compare new experiences to conflict. I would also like to define conflict as the instantaneous but tangible interface or engagement with an unfamiliar external agent. In an attempt to understand, to make sense of, and to mediate these conflicts, we often seek to define or control this interface. Thus with respect to The Global Studio: The Gift project, it is my interpretation that each school involved initially represented a collective set of socio-cultural rules.  Each collective, faced with the challenge of engaging with another and being engaged by one another, also inherently faced expectations of conflict.
Projects similar to the Gift are not uncommon in educational practice; in the past, students of all levels have been encouraged to have correspondence with or travel to places inhabited by peoples of other nations. In these instances, hospitality, etiquette and cultural sensitivity were indeed crucial factors in the resolution of conflicts both internal and external in the pursuit of a mutually desired outcome or experience.
In an age of ever-accelerating mobilities, the Gift project shed an entirely new light on the idea of conflict and engagement. Instead of travelling, instead of meeting each other face-to-face, students corresponded via a linear series of texts, images and videos. Instead of specifically designing with only one set of criteria, students were asked to take on multiple roles, and inhabit multiple modes of reality.
In another sense, conflict is very much a political act, a translation of power carefully mediated through formal structures, such as language. It is interesting that despite the common use of English, the danger that arises when we find that English is not wholly without cultural interpretation. Conflict thus brings with it the danger of assuming familiar posture, of engaging with others assuming a set of rules not mutually known, understood or accepted. When multiple sets of formal structures truly engage for the first time, it is difficult to know whether one should be excited or fearful.
Typical of internal protocols, which mediate conflict within structures of power, there exists an order of operations. In the case of the Gift project, the order of operations came with its own mirror image. It was often observed that students were not only confused about what their roles were, but also confused as to when to take on these roles, when to accept the rule of another, or to set a rule in motion. The simple questions of, “Who is the client, who is the designer?” mixed with, “Who is the student, who is the family?” and “Who is at home, who is visiting?” each combined with a second layer of questioning, “Who makes the decision”, “Who wants to do what”, “Who are we actually responsible to”, and “What exactly do we represent?”
As each school group already represented a diverse mixture of ethnicity, we come to realize that the definitions of cultural engagement have indeed changed. Increased mobility means not only having been well-travelled, but also means having had contact with people from other countries on a completely individual level. What then do we make of an interaction that engages multiple geographic groups of already engaged individuals? From observation and testimony, it seemed that many students were frustrated with the idea that they were ‘culturally’ being defined by a set of rules that they either did not understand or were unaware of. How is one now defined as being Canadian, British, or Australian?  How are we differentiated when technology flattens our identities, and promotes individualism over nationalism or ethnicity? From testimony, it seemed as if the students simply required a concrete clarification of the rules (not a desire for culture expression), and despite encouragement to move forward and be reflexive, the collective sense was that this was not part of the agreement.
So it is somewhat ironic that, in an age of accelerating mobility, of forms, ideas and information, there exists the threat of confusion and a loss of awareness in definition and position, culturally speaking. The Gift project was an interesting experience, which revealed itself as not necessarily helping to clarify and embellish traditional cultural contexts, but as presenting us with the image of the world as seemingly distorted by a multiplicity of factors. However, it is not solely the image that is distorted. It is also we who are distorted, and thus it is our ability to see and to make sense of this image, that also needs to be re-defined. So perhaps the Gift project showed us that across the globe, people are much more similar than even they understand, and it is the expectations from each other that represents the difference. Perhaps therein lies the true conflict.