The Vision: Gray Garmon and Shadrack Frimpong on Culturally Sensitive Design

Emma Sunog
December 13, 2018
Alumni Stories

In the summer of 2015, Shadrack Frimpong, then a recent graduate of the University of Pennsylvania with a dream of making education and healthcare more accessible in his hometown, participated in CSIS’s Social Impact House; that same year, Gray Garmon, a designer with a background in socially conscious design projects, was an instructor there. Frimpong was getting ready to open an organization in the farming community of Tarkwa Breman, Ghana, and Garmon stepped in to provide design guidance. They shared what their experience–and collaboration–has been like.

Frimpong’s organization, Cocoa360, houses a school for girls, a community health clinic, and a cocoa farm. He was familiar with the location where the organization was to be located, having grown up there, but still needed a plan for what the campus would look like, and someone to design the buildings that would go there. Garmon had recently partnered with a colleague from Penn Design, Donald Zellefrow, who had studied landscape architecture and also had an interest in civic engagement. As a practitioner of Human-Centered Design, Garmon kept the needs and habits of the community in mind while making building plans.

Taking into account the landscape and location of the village, in addition to the needs of the community, would prove to be important. Tarkwa Breman is both rural and remote, located on the Ankobra River. It was initially difficult to recruit teachers, Frimpong says, because of how remote the village is; he recalled their first recruit, who had been excited after reading about Cocoa360 online, showing up and asking where she could get cell service to make a phone call. “And I was like, ‘You’ve gotta climb the hill, the mountain,’” he says, laughing.

In the summer of 2017, Garmon and his team traveled to Tarkwa Breman to meet with community members and to see the space. As Frimpong puts it, Garmon was “cognizant of the value of community perspectives and input in construction design,” and valued the opinions of the people who would benefit from the buildings. The buildings were designed to be “culturally sensitive and locally conducive.” “Everyone in Tarkwa Breman has a stake in the campus,” Garmon adds. He wanted the core values of Cocoa360 to be “front and center” on campus, not pushed to the sidelines or background.

Garmon and Zellefrow had two main objectives when it came to Cocoa360. The first was concrete: they provided plans for the campus’s first building, a community library. The second was more abstract and expansive. Cocoa360 didn’t just need a series of buildings; it needed “a vision or understanding” of what its “spatial, architectural, [and]…landscape future” would look like, in Garmon’s words. “As a designer, it’s not for me to tell them what should be made, it’s the reverse,” Garmon says. “I want to understand what they need, and then we can turn that into best practices for design and campus building.”


One thing that Garmon noticed when he visited Tarkwa Breman was the importance of sports and play as a unifying factor in the community. Building off of this, he made sure to keep the soccer field central to his vision of what the campus would look like. Now, teachers, students, healthcare workers, and other community members play soccer games against each other.

He also considered the community and the context when planning the buildings. He notes that a multi-story building has “a certain connotation or impression of quality, and success, and purpose,” so instead of planning a series of smaller one-story buildings, he decided that the buildings should have more levels. Keeping in mind the future growth of the organization, he included dormitories for students in his plans, with the expectation that  eventually they would be used by middle and high school students. 

After creating these plans, and providing guidance and direction, Garmon passed the responsibility onto the local contractors and architects to continue the work. He never intended to be in charge of the project forever–“I believe there’s a limitation to how much work you can do, especially from a human-centered perspective, in another faraway place,” he explains. But, he adds, “the door is always open”; he would be happy to work with Cocoa360 again.

Today, students come to the library that Garmon and Zellefrow designed to learn about the importance of literacy and to practice their English reading and writing skills. It is called the Sarpong Family Community Library, after Dr. Kwabena Sarpong, a Ghanaian pediatrician now based in Texas who serves on Cocoa360’s Board of Directors. The beautiful building fits neatly into Tarkwa Breman–both the contours of the village and the habits of the community. “[Garmon] is the embodiment of Human-Centered Design,” Frimpong says. “It is no wonder that the community library…is one of the most cherished buildings on our campus.”