“World change starts with educated children” is the slogan of Room to Read, an NGO helping children in developing countries break the cycle of poverty by acquiring literacy, and helping me fulfil my dream of storytelling.

I was born and raised in Mekong Delta, Vietnam. I was lucky to have quite a few children’s books to read during my childhood. My mom checked many bookshops and newspaper stands for children’s books. I still remember some of them in brown jackets with thin pages filled with stories of foreign places I had never heard of. They brought me great happiness and companionship and a knack for imagining stories.

Twenty years later, I had the chance to write stories for children myself in collaboration with Room to Read (RtR), the organization founded by former Microsoft executive John Wood. In 2000, on holiday in Nepal, Wood visited a school in a remote village. When the headmaster showed him the ‘library’, the cupboard contained just a few books.

The rest is history: Wood quit Microsoft to start Room to Read for the dispersion of books and literacy. RtR now has operations in ten developing countries, where local staff stimulates the local production of children’s books.

Last week I had a chance to talk to Phong Le, country director of Room to Read Vietnam, about this publishing program.

“RtR has a program to publish picture books in local languages,” he explained. “Targeted at children who start learning to read, the stories have to be interesting, engaging and pleasant to read. Only when children like what they read, their reading skill and capabilities can be improved. At first we prioritized stories relating to Vietnamese culture, but we found that children’s engagement with the story must be the first and foremost requirement. It is not good if the story is forced within a theme frame of culture or tradition, but fails to captivate the children.”

Being an organization for development, RtR works with local authors and artists. “The picture books that RtR wants to make are a new concept to the Vietnamese authors and artists,” Phong Le said. “By organizing workshops and seminars for them, we want to extend their skill set, so that they also benefit in long-term. That is the ideology of RtR.”

The country director is motivated most “by the visible result and perceptible effects on the pupils and the schools,” he told. “For example, I feel very happy whenever seeing a new school library being opened. The same happens with the Book Publishing program. Each year I am very proud to see new picture books being published in great quality and with good content.”


RtR book fair on literacy day in Vietnam


Girl’s education program in Bangladesh

This post was first published on What Design Can Do blog.



The Amsterdam Center for Entrepreneurship put art and design students together with students from other disciplines in Grit Project to tackle real societal problems.

I came to Amsterdam six months ago to study Design Cultures. Around the city, I have discovered many things to see and enjoy, but few things to do. Part of the reason is the language barrier, since I do not speak Dutch — not yet anyway. Another part is the lack of a platform for people like me to engage with the local community. My classmates and I usually meet at school for lectures, but rarely elsewhere. Sometimes we hang out at cafés and bars. Communication with students from other disciplines and other schools occurs even less often.

By chance or some mysterious force, I found the missing puzzle piece in late February: the Grit Project, where students from various disciplines in Amsterdam worked collaboratively in teams to solve community problems.

Project manager Femmy van den Elsaker explains: “The Amsterdam Center for Entrepreneurship initiated Grit Project from a thought: Let’s bring creative students from Amsterdam School of the Arts and Gerrit Rietveld Academy together with students from other disciplines like business administration, medicine, marketing, and see what happens when they work in a multi-disciplinary team and talk about designs, concepts and entrepreneurship.”


Among the assignments we could work on were: bring vibrancy to Amsterdam Science Park, expand the mobile application iKringloop, and design playful products for the elderly. For the first two days, the teams attended workshops and received support from coaches. On the third day, each team pitched its ideas in front of a jury and other participants.

Solving any of the proposed problems in just three days surely sounded impossible at first, but we managed. We were highly motivated due to the perceptible goal of the project. Working on a real societal problem, not some sort of hypothetical case, with so much support from the multi-disciplinary teammates and organizers, created the kind of framework I think any designers or design researchers would love to have.

My team consisted of five members with five different nationalities studying five different disciplines (Design Cultures, Jazz, Pedagogical Science, Design Lab, Interaction Design & Unstable Media). It was an example of diversity at its very best. We took on the assignment of designing playful products for the elderly.

The result was a line of products called ‘Ballie’ made especially for elderly people suffering from dementia. Each product takes the shape of a ball with different properties, in which you can see the expertise of each of our team members. We were very happy with the results. And what is more, our team was selected as winner of Grit Project 2014.


This post was first published on What Design Can Do blog.