Brazilian walkabout reflections: A Prototyping Mindset

I’ve come to see Brazil as a huge prototype! With the lack of formal structure in the way things are done and the lack of resources, everyone does things for themselves, which results in a lot of chaos and lot of creativity.

I learnt from Voël that businesses have to pay taxes every month in Brazil (rather than every 6 months like we do in the UK) and there is so much complexity to opening a company – when I told them you can open a company in a day in the UK they were really shocked! And I was quite surprised by what they receive in exchange for their taxes as compared to the UK.

For example when I went to Manaus, a city in the Amazon to work with INDT I was really interested in the pathways which weren’t very well kept – when I asked why this was, I was told it was because everyone has to look after their own because there is no government support. This made sense of the sights I was seeing, of everyone using a lot of water to wash their pathway.

Another example is the favelas which are areas of informal houses that build up on hillsides outside of the main city walls, as there is no social support when people lose their jobs and homes they have to build these illegal favela homes. Throughout Brazil, you see illegal cabling along the road to get power to people’s house; people carrying so many of their belongings on the backs of bicycles, securing it in unusual ways or mending their bikes in a unique way. The example are endless, you can see them everyday.

All of this is evidence to me of how Brazil is a nation of natural prototypers. This means that you can have a plan, but it will never go to plan – you can only put the plan in to action and see how it works in the context. You have to be in the moment, have a good relationship with the people you work with, and communicate clearly. Because of the chaos you can never do anything quickly, and all that you can be is relaxed during the process. An example of this is if you want to open a bank account in Brazil: it is not a simple process, it is up to the bank manager if he likes you are not as I found out from reading this article called Understanding Brazil: Bank account.

At DesignThinkers in Amsterdam I had been exposed to the prototyping way of thinking, and had taken it on board. When I supported the facilitation of service innovation workshops with large corporates, we always had a plan but we never knew what was to happen until it happened. We would always have to stop after each day to reflect on the design and change the plan for the next day – so you had to be in the moment, and be prepared to let things go and it also gave a sense that you had freedom to move and change in response to the context. Working alongside large corporates you can see they are too big to move and have a need to develop settings where prototyping can happen, and they need to move fast and not develop a service that cannot be changed before it gets to big to fail.

At first this kind of approach did scare me, but also I found that it came naturally to me. Before joining DesignThinkers my PhD training had taught me to plan everything with rigour and present it that way. But also my design training led me to develop thinking tools to foster designer’s visual practices through a prototyping approach. However on joining DesignThinkers I found that I was overdetailed in my approach, and that was something I definitely let go of while working in Amsterdam when working in a context that is changing all the time.

This fountain of knowledge that I gained from DesignThinkers, provided me with a freedom I have never had before, and also the confidence to create what I want, knowing that if it doesn’t work when tested, I can now let it go much more easily, and move on to the next idea. Looking back on my experience of Brazil, this new mindset was essential to my work there and without this way of thinking, I would have really struggled to find out how things work in Brazil and they would have been difficult to deal with. But in a world of increasing complexity and global connectedness, I understand that a prototyping mindset will be one that we will all have to engage with, and if you don’t experiment you will not grow and letting go of control is most productive for everyone around you. So a big thanks to Arne and Marjo at DesignThinkers for teaching this to me! And also to Alfredo the DesignThinkers Partner in Chile for showing me the approach in action – I was very much inspired!

I would like to give you an example of when this new mindset was really put to a challenge: at the workshops we were running it normally took 2 hours to get the room ready and create the materials. For one workshop we arrived two hours before the workshop was due to start – and the materials had not been delivered! I asked Marcos from Voël: ‘What do we do if the materials don’t turn up?’ He said, ‘Well then we cannot do the co-creative workshop and we will go to the beach!’ Most of the materials actually turned up 1 hour after the workshop had began, so it meant changing our plans all of the way through until getting to the end of the day. When you are facilitating you truly don’t know what will happen, as you have to create ways to enable conversations, and trying to control what happens would be counter-productive.

During my time with Voël, I found that they changed their office every day, and I also noticed that the designer I was staying with changed their furniture around all of the time. What I have now realized is you need to see everything as a prototype, make it early to create and then you have the freedom to explore; and you can let go of things that no longer fit the situation. When I interviewed the Minas government in Belo Horizonte for the Design Transitions book, this was the key mindset that allowed them to prototype public policy before it got too big to fail. Since I’ve been back in the UK I have been sharing this approach of seeing everything as a prototyping process with other designers – and the people I’ve presented this too have said that it sounds like a ‘lean process’. I think that if you see it like this then you can explore everything in an easy way and not confine yourself, and it also becomes easier to try out new things and let serendipity play a role. Step back and see, and fall out of love with your creation and see it in new eyes, knowing that you will never get it 100 percent right.

However although it is a mindset I have gained which has made me more flexible, I also know that you do need to learn and reflect from your prototype and create an effective plan – plan is still important. It is knowing when to use each mindset. A prototyping mindset makes you more responsive to the situation, which leads to a more appropriate approach. But I would go further on how I see Brazil, saying that Brazil is a prototype on top of a prototype, on top of another prototype, as everyone working along has come to a point when the whole context has not been taken into consideration. When they design they do too much prototyping without considering context and collaboration, a lot of things are unfinished and there is a lot of chaos in the process, and as the population grows there is a big need to plan. But in this context where there is so much chaos, there may be a need for new ways of planning! Have a Plan B and then you will see Plan A.

Resources for the prototyping mindset:

Prototyping as a habit – NESTA

The Power of the Prototyping Mind-Set


  1. I did like the “prototyping approach” understanding of what happens here in Brazil. It’s true that we DO need people who see the big picture and think about how this all could work better together. It’s a big challenge still to overcome, but on the other hand I believe that good design thinkers and startup people have a lot of space to contribute creatively for changes to come, and I’m happy of being part of it. :-)

  2. Hi Emma,
    as I said, it is interesting
    one for the outsider perspective you present
    and other by the fact you noticed what we call “jeitinho”, though i was really looking forward to see you talking more about improvisation and prototyping
    what is a mess in a society, i mean, what we do
    because of lack of oficial planning or support and people have to take their action on it, it is a very chaotic, but is what works in this situations
    many times we (more educated people) look at simpler solution less educated people have. I have done this myself a lot for where i live there aren’t a lot of these fixes.
    Then we see the fixes people less educated do in poor areas, but it happens as a natural evolution, they been doing it for year, so it`s an emerging chaotic organization i would say.
    it is also very interesting as you mentioned for creative purposes, but also in environments you need flexibility. When i was in russia I used to study with some chinese, 4 brazilians and 4 chinese in the russian class. You could see how we used to use the “jeitinho” all the time, and how it helped us communicate much faster, although not in perfect russian, and how the chinese would struggle by following the rules, just an example
    i think this can be also useful in terms of organizations

  3. It’s fantastic to hear about your experiences of Brazil and how they live and work there. The thing that gets me though is hearing so much discussion in the design community about protoyping, and very little about next steps after prototyping – where can we take it next? Maybe consider how to grow/sell a service that is a perpetual prototype? But then can you really just prototype forever? You mention that in Brazil they often prototype out of necessity just to get by, because of the lack of stable infrastructure – but I’d guess they might take stability over the way they have to live/work at the moment? I could be very wrong! Just pondering… :)

  4. Hi Emma.

    Firstly great post! This is the thing I like about getting immersed at other culture, you see what they can’t (actually, this is an old anthropology mantra).
    I think in general this is whay happens, I remember many times at insitum when planning something we always had at least until a plan c (if not more). When planning something (plan a), right after “finishing” it, our ideal way that things were suppose to happen, we revised the plan searching for “what if the worse happens here?” (Yoel is especially good at it) an than we traced some backup plans until we felt ok.
    Another thing that helps a lot is to prototype the session with anyone you have free on the staff (secretary, ppl from other projects, etc). You may not have the right “sample”, but it is great to test the times, tools, if it is as simple as you though it would be, etc…
    Now about the “big picture”, talking about politics there is a huge “not invented here” or “not invented by our party” problem. Usually when someone from a party get elected they try to end previous programmes, specially if they are good, or at least change a lot and “rebrand” it. It a shame but is true.