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Almost lost in time: College of Design students preserve local histories and social practices during study abroad project in Greece

Photos and mementos of the residents of Kefalonia, Greece

Students like Deni Lewis have been traveling to the island of Kefalonia, Greece to participate in a study abroad program focused on design and social innovation – the concept of meeting a social need more effectively than existing solutions by leveraging underutilized resources and using co-design principles in the community. Scott Townsend, a professor of graphic and experience design in the NC State College of Design and leader of the program, saw the potential to connect design students with social practices in a different culture.

Townsend’s work and teaching delves into the issues of globalization, using ethnographic methods, visualization of audience interactions and storytelling concepts that work across languages and cultures. For his work in Kefalonia, he collaborated with Dr. Maria Patsarika, an Institution Associate in the Social Design Institute of the University of the Arts in London and community stakeholders to address intergenerational learning of local histories and social practices. 

“The student involvement in Greece grew out of a larger investigation of examining issues about national identity and EU membership,” says Townsend. “The opportunity for our students to think about their role as participating designers in a culture they are not a part of is a way to reflect critically on their education and assumptions about ‘users’,” he adds.

Through the program, students expanded their perspectives beyond Greece, exploring the intersection between Europe and the Middle East-North Africa (MENA) region. Students are able to engage with people who have different viewpoints and histories than their own, and explore design histories that aren’t as well known as the western viewpoints frequently taught. 

Townsend and cohorts of students have been building up connections in the region over the last few years. This year’s cohort of students, including Lewis, began work on a Living Histories website to house the oral histories collected from native Kefalonians. 

In 2017, the first group of NC State students arrived to work on community design projects. Working with Dr. Patsarika and connected to the Social Design Institute in London, a second group in 2019 explored how to connect younger generations to local history and sustainable regional practices that have developed over time. From this exploration, an archival website that could be continually added to and shared was born. In summer 2022, nine students began laying the foundation of the website and organizing the growing database of historical accounts.

Scott interviews native Kefalonian
Photo: Jordi Stephenson

The interviews captured are from residents who were alive to witness some of the island’s major historic events, including a devastating earthquake in 1953 that destroyed almost all standing structures and led many people to leave the island in search of a better life. “The histories of Kefalonia are being lost to time,” says Lewis. “Many younger residents are leaving the island, and we hope that our website can record cultural practices and histories to be accessed by future generations.”

Students each brought their own skill sets to the project in content, photography, layout and coding. Architecture student Kunal Bhardwaj created a section on local building practices that uses local materials and adapts to the climate and geography. Two students, Jordi Stephenson and Noah Pataky, took on the task of coding the site, despite little previous experience. The result is a well-thought-out design which introduces a larger history contextualized by local and personal histories and practices responding to needs in the community.

Screenshots of the website

“Their resiliency astounds me,” Lewis adds. “One man in particular described his experience – after the earthquake struck the island in 1953, he traveled to New York City with nothing to his name and became a successful business owner of a restaurant. After gaining success, he returned to Kefalonia to support his remaining family.” 

Stories like this one continue to emphasize the significant value that the people of Kefalonia place on family and community. 

Now, students in future study abroad programs can build and expand on the work showcased on the Living Histories website. Capturing the oral histories of Kefalonians and providing broader access to them as a historical resource continues to get easier over time, and it is this work that Townsend will continue. 

Student participants in the project included Deni Lewis, Kunal Bhardwaj, Caila Bridges, Emma Carter, Lilly Gonzalez, Joe Lingo, Noah Pataky, Anabel Russo and Jordi Stephenson. 

Faculty participants: 

  • Scott Townsend, professor of graphic and experience design, NC State College of Design
  • Maria Patsarika, PhD, Institution Associate, Social Design Institute, University of the Arts, London, UK
group photo of Scott Townsend's students in Greece
Photo: Jordi Stephenson

This post was originally published in College of Design Blog.