Malaria Gets a Healthy Dose of Design

One of the most positive trends sweeping the professional graphic design world, and the world of design education, is a commitment to use the power of design for the public good. A superb and inspiring example comes from Rule29 and its head Justin Ahrens, who recently tackled two issues at once: helping a slum in Kenya overcome the threat of malaria and helping develop future design leaders.

Kibera in Kenya is the second largest slum in the world. Home to one million people, Kibera has no drainage system, so standing rainwater becomes a breeding ground for mosquitoes, thus spreading malaria. Sanitation issues are rampant, too; there is so much trash that it is literally part of the ground people walk on. Those suffering from malaria often aren’t able to understand the overly complex directions about dosing and treatment provided by the drug companies. They also don’t understand how to improve their sanitation habits and systems. How could a design firm and a group of students, located on another continent, ever begin to make a difference? Rule29 was determined to find a way.

Partnering with the nonprofit organization Life in Abundance, Ahrens and his team began to brainstorm ways to create simple visual tools that could be used by both children and adults. They also had another vision: helping develop future design leaders. With that end in mind, Rule29 approached Kent State University School of Visual Communication Design and several senior graduate students chose the project as their course work for the next two semesters. They began a rigorous design research process with Ahrens as an advisor. Everything was completed free of charge with the help of donations and grants. In addition, Life In Abundance agreed to distribute materials for free.

The students relied heavily on ethnographic information to help develop an understanding of the specific cultural context of Kibera—from the people’s language and religious beliefs to the inner workings of the latrines and facts about how malaria is spread. Photo ethnography was also vital, since traveling firsthand to Kibera was not possible for this team. During this time Ahrens traveled to Africa to work on a different project, and while there, he was able to field test the team’s findings in a similar community in South Sudan.


The team focused product development on two key groups: children and adult community leaders who could help spread accurate information and were seen as trusted sources by their fellow Kenyans. When the research phase of the project concluded, the students then engaged in an intensive prototyping phase, which enabled them to design and iterate multiple prototypes. They created a leaflet with information about malaria and dosage guidelines, color-coded for different age groups. Eventually these will be distributed through clinics that treat malaria victims. Because the symptoms of malaria are often misunderstood and ignored until it’s too late, they also created a series of “symptom cards,” using simple visual icons to communicate instead of complex narratives.


To educate the children of Kibera, the team designed an interactive board game and activity book, meant to complement what is being taught about heathcare in school and also to combat the rumors and misconceptions children pick up outside the classroom. An ongoing visual campaign, Familia Kuburi (Swahili for “family pride”) promotes the idea through a pledge wall and other printed visuals that by becoming educated about malaria and sanitation, Kibera citizens can build healthier families and stronger communities.

At the end of the two semesters, the Kent State team had the opportunity to make a presentation to Cleveland’s design community, and Ahrens gave a keynote address on our ongoing work in Africa.

Justin Ahrens tells GDUSA: “Our projected goal is to release these tools throughout Kenya and South Sudan by Fall 2013. But this is only the start — we hope to see similar visual tools made available to other suffering nations: Asia, India, South America, and beyond. Rule29 strives to make what we create matter. We love collaboration with others who can provide what we lack, and we care about making a difference. Being able to partner with the design leaders of the future and inspire them with a bigger vision has been an incredible and humbling experience. Our collective work in Africa is only a small drop in a very large bucket of need, but it’s amazing how many ripples can be created by small contributions.”

You can read more inspiring design stories in our feature on Green People: Lifecycles + Lifestyles