How One Company Transformed a Toy Into an Educational Tool

Design that Matters creates products that make the world a better place. Partnering with an organization called World Education, Design that Matters took the technology inside the Fisher-Price View-Master toy and turned it into a teaching tool for classrooms in Mali.
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Design that Matters creates products that make the world a better place. Partnering with an organization called World Education, Design that Matters took the technology inside the Fisher-Price View-Master toy and turned it into a teaching tool for classrooms in Mali.

Timothy Prestero began his mission to make the world a better place in the sixth grade in New Hampshire. His class took a field trip to a nursing home, where he made a startling discovery: not all old people are beloved grandparents.

“It was a big realization. I hated it. It didn’t seem fair. We really loved our grandparents,” Prestero told Not Impossible Now. 

He began going to the nursing home to spend time with the residents once a week and realized there were ways he could work to correct a little of the unfairness in the world.

“They loved the attention,” Prestero said. “I loved the attention.” 

After college, Prestero entered the Peace Corps, and set a record for building latrines. He felt that he knew less about Africa when he was leaving than when he arrived, and had a second realization: a lot of charity work is an exercise in ego. He began to ponder how to make the world a better place without delusions or ego.

“The Peace Corps was a rewarding experience,” he said. “Rewarding, but also frustrating and confusing.” 

Design that Matters

Photo courtesy of Design that Matters

Eventually, Prestero founded Design that Matters. As an organization, DtM partners with other groups around the world to find problems that design might help solve. Design is not particularly helpful when it comes to certain problems. Water filtration, cookstoves and latrines are three perennial problems in developing countries, but most communities have had the opportunity to evaluate those problems and technologies exist that could solve them. 

“Adoption rates are very low. There are profound social factors in those areas. As a design company it’s hubris to blunder in there and think you can solve those problems,” Prestero explained.

Figuring out what types of projects to work on can be challenging. After all, there are plenty of problems in the world to choose from. DtM uses a set of goals developed by the United Nations called the Millennium Development Goals, which focus on eight broad areas. Once they have determined an area where it seems design could make an impact, they seek out organizations that already have strong track records and offer to help.

One of DtM’s first big successes was with the Kinkajou Microfilm Projector. Improved adult literacy has far-reaching effects, yet in rural areas in developing countries lack of electricity and materials are barriers to effective adult education. DtM partnered with an organization called World Education, which was already making headway in the area of adult literacy in 22 countries.

Prestero says that when DtM first approached World Education, they said that what they really needed was more money. DtM is not a foundation, and fundraising is not their area of expertise. However, product design can often make processes and products more efficient. DtM decided to take a look at the work World Education was doing in Mali and see if design could play a role in saving the organization money.

Design That Matters

Photo courtesy of Design that Matters

The DtM team visited a resource-strapped World Education classroom in Mali, where they found that most of the students worked during the day then attended classes at night. Due to the lack of electricity in the classroom, kerosene lanterns provided the only light. Kerosene lanterns stink and smoke as they burn, so only two lanterns could burn at any one time or people would become ill. Only two students at a time could approach the chalkboard to learn, while everyone else waited in the dark, so lighting was the first major problem DtM identified.

The second issue was books. Books were printed in Boston, where World Education is headquartered, and then shipped to Mali, in West Africa, and finally distributed to the rural classrooms. The process was quite expensive. Although books may seem like a one-time expense, the climate in Mali is not conducive to the storing of books, so they needed to be replaced often.

DtM began considering various projector designs. Instead of taking 10-minute turns reading a chalkboard by the light of a smoky, stinky kerosene lantern, a projector would help everyone in the class see the lesson together at the same time. It would also eliminate the need for books to be shipped as often.

The team experimented with digital projectors, but the fragile, expensive bulbs in digital projectors made them unsuitable.

“What we needed was a projector that could be thrown off the back of a truck and still work,” Prestero said.

In addition to needing a product that was tough, DtM needed a project that was inexpensive — to the tune of less than $120. One of their early prototypes had a bulb that cost $100 alone. 

Then, one day, one of the volunteers showed up with an armload of Fisher-Price View-Master toys. The team broke them apart and took a look at the lenses inside. It turned out that the company that manufactures the optics used in the View-Master was housed just down the street from DtM headquarters. Tim paid them a visit and asked for help in designing something that would eventually become the Kinkajou Microfilm Projector.

Design that Matters

Photo courtesy of Design that Matters

The Kinkajou projectors use microfilm, because it’s amazingly tough. Each $5 cassette will hold a library’s worth of information. The cassettes will survive freezing and scorching temperatures and are rated to last 150 years. It is the perfect technology for the challenging conditions in rural Mali.

World Education already had the distribution system in place. In 2004, Kinkajou projectors were implemented in 45 adult literacy centers in Mali, making it possible for over 3,000 adults to learn to read. In 2005, World Education reported that Kinkajou classrooms were far out-performing non-Kinkajou nighttime classes, and surprisingly, even exceeding the organization’s daytime adult literacy classes.

Top photo courtesy of Design that Matters