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How Design Can Save the World

Images credit: Rhode Island Community Food Bank

Cedar Anderson loves bees. So much so he spent 10 years developing a product called Honey Flow that allows beekeepers to easily extract honey with little to no intrusion on the bees (or the beekeeper). In 2015, Anderson raised over $12 million worth of backing (over 17,000% of his goal) on Indiegogo to develop his Flow Hive; by using design to make bees’ lives a little easier, he might just contribute to the preservation of an entire species.

Anderson’s design is just one example of a growing conversation around the power of design for social good. Increasingly this conversation is extending far beyond the aesthetic value of a product or campaign. Business leaders are leveraging design to innovate, differentiate, and ultimately build equity and meaning into their brands. But design can offer so much more than share of mind and wallet. At its essence, design is a medium for solving problems, through empathy, iteration, and understanding. Designers and the community to which they contribute are increasingly aware of how design impacts communities, the environment and the social landscape. As the conversation broadens, so too does the importance of ideas such as Mr. Anderson’s, one of many examples of design contributing to a more sustainable world.

Design for Sustainability

It can be argued that design for sustainability is a bit of a paradox, considering that most products or innovations are actually extracting resources from the very planet we are trying to sustain. Designers today have to work backwards from the brief and think about how to achieve the same solution through sourcing local, repurposed, renewable or biodegradable resources — equally important, how to drive waste out of the lifecycle through reusability or upgrade-ability. Consider the Enoco home radiator, which was designed to heat a home with warmth from a computer server. Design is what adds meaning and value to the products built from limited resources. And when the challenge is how to solve for increased urbanization, renewable energy or reduced waste, design is at the core of the solution.

Design for Social Good

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Kenguru is a first-of-its-kind car developed exclusively for wheelchair users. This innovative automobile solves a major challenge for wheelchair users who drive: getting out of the wheelchair and into the car, only to drag the wheelchair into the car behind you. Equally important is how this example illuminates the power of empathy in the design process. This is a key ingredient for socially centered design, which begins and ends with the intended user. 

Australian-based Family by Family recognized that Australia was spending close to $2 million a year addressing the long-term impact of child abuse. The Australian Centre for Social Innovation co-designed a process with hundreds of local families. The mission? To ideate solutions aimed at reducing the amount of family-crisis services. Prototyping and iteration drove incremental benefits: Not only did they achieve their objective to reduce crisis services, the added benefit came when they noticed that other groups of people were leveraging their solution to establish neighborhood networks, and others harnessing the community for education and employment opportunities. 

Design for Situation

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In the book, Jugaad Innovation, the authors begin with a story of Mitticool, a clay fridge that is low-cost to produce, works without electricity and leverages the founder’s skillset as a potter. Context-centered design such as this shows how innovation can come from a combined understanding of scarcity, problem-solving and lateral thinking. Doing more with less is one of the concepts that “jugaad innovation” is rooted in, along with simplicity, flexibility and inclusion. Traditional innovation processes and methodologies tend to be resource-intensive, long and laborious and biased to risk-aversion. A more “jugaad approach” forces understanding and appreciation of the environment and context along with the user need. While designing a self-propelled street cleaner might be one way to control litter on city streets, designing a campaign to encourage less litteringin the first place could save time and money to drive the same effect. In either scenario, design is the differentiator.

Design for Provocation

In 2011, the Rhode Island Community Food Bank ran a statewide campaign to sell the community one thing: Nothing. Facing a sharp increase in demand due to the 2008

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recession, and a growing apathy for a problem that “never goes away,” the Rhode Island Food Bank sought to demonstrate the scale of hunger in the community in a manner that would get the attention of donors where it mattered the most. The solution: Brand hunger like a food product. The team designed not only a logo but products, packaging, in-store and out-of-home displays, essentially “marketing” nothing. The award-winning campaign put the conversation of hunger right at the center of where it has the biggest impact — the supermarket.

One of the most powerful attributes of design is the ability to change perception and attitude. The Obama “Hope” poster branded the 2008 election with iconism and a direct, simple message. It changed perception. Information design breaks through the ever-expanding dirge of data and messaging the digital era has brought. Design can cut through the clutter to ensure important social messages can be heard, felt and understood.

If design exists to solve problems, assign meaning and enhance society, then one of its many jobs surely can be the betterment of the world and its inhabitants. Design can bring to life smarter lightbulbs, smartphones or electronics, or emphasize the need for resource conservation. Design alone cannot deliver our aspirations, but it can have great influence on making our aspirations more attainable. Design might just save the world, or at the very least make the world worth saving.


Chris Ertel is Managing Director at Kaleidoscope.

[Read more about Chris Ertel]

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