Industrial Design Picks Up the Slack of Social Responsibility

After years of lagging behind architecture, industrial design begins tackling some of the world’s most vexing problems.

It may not be entirely fair to call industrial design a slacker at social responsibility. But it’s certainly true that the discipline has struggled to figure out how to do good while still doing well. Architecture has had an easier time with green design, stroking its social conscience with solar panels and geothermal pumps while stoking the bottom line with lucrative commissions. And whether funded by governments, NGOs, or private donors, the world’s poorest communities still need hospitals and bridges and homes. It’s harder to make the same case for iPods. It’s not that industrial designers haven’t wanted to take a break from building a better MP3 player, but until recently neither they nor their employers could see how they might save the world without going broke.

“Altruism is a good reason to do something once, but not to repeat it,” says Timothy Prestero, founder of Design that Matters, a nonprofit social-enterprise design company based in Cam­bridge, Massachusetts. The organization teams student volunteers, professional consultants, and aid agencies to tackle some of the world’s thorniest design and distribution problems. The company’s current collaborations include a low-cost, low-energy microfilm projector to promote literacy in West Africa and an intuitive intravenous-drip flow controller to allow nonmedical personnel to assist ailing family members. “There’s a reason design isn’t beating a path to the doors of nonprofits and aid agencies,” Prestero says. “They don’t tend to have a lot of money.”

Of late, there has been a modest stirring in the field. Design students at top schools clamor to work on projects in which they can express creativity and concern. A few seasoned design firms contribute their employees’ inactive but billable “white time” toward the greater global good. Consultancies now partner with NGOs and aid agencies to redraft their field-service and delivery strategies. Even major foundations have been swept up in the flurry, sponsoring workshops and research that explore the role design can play in fighting poverty, disease, and social injustice.

More from Metropolis

“There’s a real hunger to work on these projects,” says Sami Nerenberg, a 2007 Rhode Island School of Design industrial-design graduate who now teaches the Design for Social Entre­preneurship studio at her alma mater. Her students designed, among other projects, a backpack to be manufactured by the homeless, and reorganized volunteer services at a local inner-city school. “Two years ago I was part of a minority at RISD interested in these issues. Today students are looking at our economy, looking at where consumerism has led us. They want to shift away from producing excess and do something that makes them feel useful.”

Organizing the homeless in Providence or teaching adults to read in Timbuktu may seem like unlikely roles for a trade long associated with releasing products into oversaturated markets. But the early innovators of socially responsible design believe they can make a vital contribution. “In development work, you tend to get jaded, which limits your thinking,” says Graham Macmillan, senior director at VisionSpring. The New York–based NGO partnered with IDEO to produce and design affordable eyeglasses for children and some adults in India. The project was sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation. “And business consultants tend to focus on generating the greatest possible returns, which doesn’t work very well for clients at the bottom of the economic pyramid. Design is about the ultimate solution, about elegance. Designers tend to have more open minds and can approach a challenge without being exclusively driven by profit.”

Foundations active in social-sector research have also begun to tap the latent energy and know-how of the industry. “Design thinking can offer a series of new approaches and solutions for social issues,” says Maria Blair, associate vice president and managing director at the Rockefeller Foun­dation. The group has funded several socially responsible design initiatives, including a workbook produced by IDEO that provides a framework for design firms entering the social sphere. “Working in the social sector is often about complex systems that need to change, about aligning multiple stakeholders with multiple interests,” Blair says. “Design is an empathic, user-centered discipline. It has enormous potential in the social arena.”

As development actors usher design into the race, the profession still faces several entry hurdles. One is distribution. “Our first eighteen products went nowhere,” Prestero says. Design that Matters was born in 2001 as a student-led seminar at MIT, and its most recent project is an incubator that aims to save some of the four million babies who die each year shortly after birth. The device is heated by a pair of automobile headlights. “I didn’t understand that the distribution channel was our real client. Keeping babies warm isn’t rocket science. But you can’t just make some gadget, drop it out of the back of a helicopter and say good luck. The true design work is in understanding the system in which the incubator will be produced, distributed, maintained, and used.”

The second and even greater challenge facing design is how to pair with nonprofit agencies. “It’s the aid piece of the equation that’s the problem,” says Tim Brown, CEO and president of IDEO, recalling an epiphany he had after a 2007 meeting at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, in Seattle, about smallholder farmers. “The end users have traditionally been given things. After the meeting, it occurred to me that there might be a way of getting more leverage out of the design process if you could hand over the net and not just the fish. Initial development efforts can still be funded by grants and staffed pro bono. But somehow we need to generate an engagement that builds the economy and sustains wealth.”

The Seattle meeting—and subsequent Gates Foundation grant—led IDEO to create a human-centered design kit to help aid agencies fathom the needs of the communities they are trying to serve. With the kit, agencies learn to understand production and consumption systems, not just how to deliver aid or objects. “We want to treat smallholder farmers as customers, not as objects of charity,” says Al Doerksen, CEO of International Development Enterprises, an agency that field-tested the IDEO kit with smallholder farmers in Ethio­pia, Zambia, Vietnam, and Cambodia. “But in order to do so, the goods and services you produce have to make sense in their paradigm. You need to be extremely creative to sell stuff to poor people, to make things you can afford to produce and they can afford to buy with extremely meager resources.”

There is a critical mass of aid and development professionals convinced that design can help further their mission and, ultimately, help those living on the margins of society. But the profession also stands to benefit from its new direction. “We ask human-resource managers to send us their best and brightest for a week,” Prestero says. “People who are burnt out on snack crackers and golf bags. We send them to India or Bangladesh or Nepal, and they come back saying it was the greatest experience they ever had. It’s the design alternative to white-water rafting.”

Brown is convinced that focusing on world problems will generate not only happier designers but more innovative ones. “To be honest, design has just as much to gain from this as it has to contribute,” he observes. “There are clever people in these environments, and the lack of resources often leads them to original and ingenious solutions. For us, not working in these environments means running the risk of not being in the places where the most interesting design work is being done.”

What Is Good Design

Good Is Sustainable
Good Is Accessible
Good Is Functional
Good Is Well Made
Good Is Emotionally Resonant
Good Is Enduring
Good Is Socially Beneficial
Good Is Beautiful
Good Is Ergonomic
Good Is Affordable

The New Reality

Motor City Blues
Graduating Class
Surviving the Storm

Recent Projects