Emily Pilloton-Lam: (Anti) Manifesto – A Call To Action For Humanitarian (Product) Design

I think we can all agree that manifestos are over-written and under-executed. So call this a rant or a pep talk, a sermon if that’s your cup of tea, or maybe most appropriately, a call to arms.

Here’s the rose-colored glasses version: We need the design world (particularly industrial design) to stop talking big and start doing good; to put the problem-solving skills on which we pride ourselves to work on some of the biggest global issues; to design for health, poverty, homelessness, education, and more.

And here’s the brass tacks reality: We need to challenge the design world to take the “product” out of product design for a second and deliver results and impact rather than form and function; to reconsider who our clients really are; to turn our tightly-cinched consumer business models and luxury aesthetics on their heads; to get over “going green;” and to enlist a new generation of design activists. We need big hearts, bigger business sense, and even bigger balls.

Taking the “product” out of product design
Unfortunately, the word “product” has become a hindrance to what we can really produce. We need to stop making things and start making impact. Our real goal should be to design the biggest impact with the least amount of product. What this means is going against every design instinct we have ever been taught. Let’s forget momentarily about form and function, and consider what we could deliver that isn’t defined by an object: catalysts and engagement.

A great way to make this distinction is by using a function vs. impact assessment. Take a hammer, for example. Its function is what it immediately provides: it drives a nail. Its short-range impact is what that function enables: it builds homes. And most importantly, its long-range impact is the context-based application of its function and short-range impact: it provides shelter to those who need it.

Separating function from impact is a critical step in the design process, encouraging us to look for consequences beyond the obvious, and grounding us in considerations beyond the often-irresistible distractions of form and function.

Because appro-tech relies heavily on on-site, local assembly and materials, the design that goes into it is less material-driven and more results-driven. It is typically process-centered, and systemic. And perhaps most importantly, it turns end users into co-designers, making pride and participation key ingredients in the success of the object. Alan Jacobson, who spearheaded an inspiring environmental design project in Rwanda (part genocide memorial, part community arts initiative), talks about the “pride of creation” as an underutilized and underestimated tool in design, one that creates longer-lasting user relationships and a sense of ownership.

One of the finalists in last year’s INDEX Awards: Design to Improve Life competition, for example, was essentially a rubber cap. It was a simple object–no feat of engineering, and not even functional as an isolated product. But in developing communities, the cap can be attached to any aluminum soda can to create a sharps collector–a tightly sealed receptacle for the safe and proper disposal of hazardous medical waste. One part manufactured product, one part local material, and one part human interaction combine to create a product of undeniable value.

And here’s where appro-tech solutions have traditional product design beat: User engagement, local materiality, and context-sensitive assembly are built into the process. Appro-tech products don’t need to be full-service objects embedded with all the first-world technology; they can be systems rather than objects, requiring user participation and local expertise and production to make them functional, relevant, and economically viable.

The who of it
One could argue that design is only as good as its clients–the people and market that demand what we provide. So by shifting our client base, we’re shifting the nature of design. If all our clients are corporate, we’re only perpetuating the profit-driven machine. In order to move design toward a more humanitarian and global service-based industry, we’ve got to redefine our client base.

It’s not rocket science–if we’re using design to improve lives, let’s look to those who are suffering most, to the global citizens who have been under-represented and underserved by the design community. Let’s design for every person we’d never expect to have as a client at our drawing table–squatters living on $2 a day, the growing number of millions of people suffering from HIV/AIDS, post-disaster victims, the homeless, the handicapped, inner city children, prisoners, and more. Let’s recognize that clients do not mean “the people who are paying us,” but rather “the people whom we are serving.”

Let’s also recognize that our work for these clients is not charity or a handout (of course, good will is always part of the motivation), but that these under-represented clients are an integral part of our global future; that by designing viable, life-improving solutions, we are catalyzing economies, enabling a more productive world, and investing in the prosperity of posterity (our clients’ and our own).

Indeed, one can hope that the term “green design” disappears in 5 years–not because design will no longer be green, but because it won’t need to be called out as a value add or as a particular distinction; all design will be green design. But let’s also imbue the next frontier in sustainability with compassion, where our ultimate judge of “goodness” is humanist rather than consumerist.

With analyses in recent years around the untapped “bottom of the pyramid” markets and the success of the microloan, it’s becoming clear that design practice can be just as profitable designing for masses of low-income clients as it can designing for a sliver of the very rich.

But there are different business models at play here, and there will be risk involved. Unfortunately, many humanitarian design solutions are designed for markets in which the end user cannot afford the end products. The target customer is not necessarily, and sometimes simply cannot be, the purchaser. Products designed for the BoP often have to be subsidized by grants or donations, and speaking as the founder of a non-profit, these are not financially sustainable models.

The celebrated Hippo Roller, which my organization, Project H Design, has supported and funded in South Africa, is a great example of enabling design. A rolling barrel-type water transportation device, it allows users to fetch 5 times the amount of water they could with traditional buckets and Gerri cans. The result is more free time–for school, business, personal healthcare, play. But each unit costs $100 to produce and deliver, which is close to 2 months’ income for most potential customers. To date, all hippo rollers in use have been subsidized by donations, corporate sponsorships, or private grants. What’s wrong with this picture?

We’ll have to apply our design creativity to push new business models–ones that deliver fundable and profitable solutions. Funding structures like micro-lending, community-lending, community profit and fund pooling, and cross-market distribution are possible strategies to more effectively put these design solutions into the hands of the people who need them most. And this requires the partnership of innovative business thinkers, who are now realizing that they need designers just as much as we are realizing we need them.

What the microloan really provides is the capital to enable future prosperity and self-sufficiency. Design can provide that same capital–in the form of tools that bring efficiency, productivity, and yes, even wealth. If we as designers make wealth our end goal (not our own wealth, but the wealth of our clients and users), we become designers of capital instead of designers of things.

Most of us have heard of the MoneyMaker micro-irrigation pump–an appro-tech design success story that enables rural Kenyan farmers to pump water and harvest crops even in dry seasons. Aside from being highly functional, it’s a tool with direct financial results that catalyze economies. With 45,000 pumps currently in use by rural farmers, 29,000 new waged jobs have been created, and 37 million dollars a year in new profits have been reported.

I’d hate to say it’s all about the money, but for so many developing countries, it really is. The success of the microloan demonstrates a little going a long way. But design can precede (or even replace) the microloan by providing a tool instead of a check that brings enough income to catapult users into economic stability and community prosperity.

The shameful part of this all-too-common story is that what students want to learn is often not what teachers are teaching. Student populations, as we all know, are communities of activism–one walk through a picket-sign-filled college will evidence this point. But that type of activism gets checked at the door of most design studios–a huge missed opportunity. Design is inherently political, subjective…even subversive. And most importantly, it’s at base an effective tool for solving problems big and small. In other words, it’s both a perfect arena for activism and an actual process for turning that activism into change.

Just as some architecture programs have design-build studios that teach hands-on, real production techniques with a real client, we need complementary industrial design programs that give the same type of human-centered opportunities, business partnerships, and real client relationships. Let’s teach passion and collaboration instead of fashion and ego-centric indulgence. Let’s make activism a design asset, putting aesthetics in the back seat for awhile.

I’m challenging designers to commit to their own ROTC program–one weekend a month, 2 weeks out of the year–to apply design thought toward real design problems. We can do this locally or globally–design is a tool as much needed in Uganda as it is at urban homeless shelters. And I’m not talking about clocking community service hours, serving soup or cleaning up beaches. I’m talking about doing what we do best, solving problems–in places that desperately need better human-based solutions.

The H in Project H Design refers to “Product design initiatives for Humanity, Habitats, Health, and Happiness.” But you’ll notice that Humanity comes first.


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