A Migrant Child's Journey

How design, research, and technology can address issues faced by unaccompanied migrant children

Elizabeth Chin and Sean Donahue
Migrant children awaiting their humanitarian visas draw at the UNICEF-supported child friendly space at the Mexico-Guatemala border in Ciudad Hidalgo, Mexico
29 August 2017

Last year, Art Center College of Design and UNICEF Mexico signed a 2-year formal agreement to work together – exploring how design, research, and technology can offer new paths and innovative approaches to address issues faced by unaccompanied migrant children and adolescents in Mexico. As part of this partnership, Art Center students will be conducting a series of knowledge sharing sessions which will range from workshops on design principles, design thinking and prototyping to field engagements that user test potential design led interventions.

Jumping into the workshop design challenge
Bianca Nasser
Jumping into the workshop design challenge!

Last 15th of March 2017, a half-day workshop with UNICEF staff and local organizations was organized by ArtCenter faculty and students. This workshop introduced participants to how design-led research and people-centered approaches can enhance the development of innovative solutions that address the needs of migrant children.

ArtCenter facilitators shared with the participants their approach to design – recognizing the considerable abilities and capacities of people on the ground, addressing issues from the bottom up, and engaging with the complexity of specific contexts.



The workshop also introduced the concept of “lead users,” and “journey mapping.” Participants first identified their “lead users”, in this case, lead users were specific migrant children whose journeys they wanted to explore.  One group identified their lead user as a 14-year-old Honduran girl, escaping violence in her home along with two younger sisters.  The journey map was a detailed exploration that began with leaving home and ended with arriving at a migrant shelter.  Along the way were various moments: crossing a mountain range, losing travel money, walking across borders. Another lead user was a 16-year-old boy traveling alone from Guatemala.  Developing detailed journey maps is a vehicle for understanding the people, contexts, and systems shaping a lead user’s experiences.


Team members explaining their journey map
Bianca Nasser
Team members explaining their journey map
Elena Cullen demonstrating how to use design as tools for fostering and facilitating conversations.
Bianca Nasser
Elena Cullen demonstrating how to use design as tools for fostering and facilitating conversations.



In the next step, each team chose a specific moment in the journey as a focus point. Interestingly, both teams chose to focus on the experiences of a migrant child when he or she arrives at the migrant shelter. Teams identified this moment as pivotal for both migrant children and those who interact with them.  What kinds of prototypes could teams create that might improve children’s experiences when arriving migrant shelters?Using easy-to-find materials like pipe cleaners, clay, and wooden sticks, most teams created prototypes that would facilitate communication –allowing children to express themselves nonverbally and fostering an environment that invites collaboration and conversations the moment they first arrive.


These prototypes had a common theme that highlighted the need for migrant children to communicate in multiple registers. One prototype provided a way for users to show their current emotional state by manipulating pipe cleaner flowers that represented different feelings.  Tall, upright flowers said, “I’m happy!” Droopy flowers indicated sadness.  Another prototype, a piece of paper in a decorated frame, was designed to welcome new residents to the shelter.  Each current resident would write a welcoming message or draw something.  This prototype was designed so that the new resident could take it with them into their personal space, a reminder of the new community they have joined.

Using this approach, participants from both UNICEF and local organizations were able to learn about each others’ knowledge of this complex problem, and collaborate on thinking through how each could contribute to addressing the moment they had identified.

As UNICEF and ArtCenter continue into the second year of this collaboration we look forward to iterating on these and other prototypes, with the goal of creating a set of strategies and materials that can be used to establish connection and trust with migrant youth, and getting  to know their unique stories, so that UNICEF and local organizations can better serve their needs.

About the partnership:


About Art Center College of Design, Grad Media Design Practices+Field:

Art Center College of Design’s Graduate Media Design Practices Field track students tackle social issues in a networked global context. Find out more: artcenter.edu/mdp & artcenter.edu/designmatters


UNICEF Mexico works with Government institutions and NGOS to strengthen protection mechanisms for migrant children. Projects have ranged from implementing a protocol for Mexican consuls to conduct interviews with unaccompanied migrant children and adolescents to identify protection needs. Along with this protocol, the Country Office has implemented the use of RapidFTR by Mexican consulates to register information from migrant children in order to provide a tailored plan for their protection. Learn more here:  unicef.org/mexico/spanish/

Detail of one journey map showing the natural and human dangers of traveling for migrant children (rivers and coyotes)
Sean Donahue
A detail of one journey map showing the natural and human dangers of traveling for migrant children (rivers and coyotes).