David Stairs | Essays

Why Design Won't Save the World

Design for the Other 90%, catalog cover. Photograph by Vestergaard Frandsen; design by Tsang Seymour Design.

The well-documented efforts of other professions to assist impoverished nations is already a part of the legend and legacy of global altruism, but designers often seem woefully behind the times. After ten months in Africa, I recently visited the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum to see Design for the Other 90%. Here, I thought, was an exhibition I could enthusiastically embrace. Unfortunately, I soon learned the culture shock I experience every time I return to America was in no way diminished by an exhibition supposedly sympathetic to the plight of billions of the world's poorest people.

Design for the Other 90% is largely underwritten by the Lemelson Foundation, a direct financial supporter of several of the anchor participants, including KickStart, International Development Enterprises and WorldBike. Such sponsorship seems benign enough: after all, the curators had to begin the selection process somewhere. The list of exhibition consultants, however, includes instances of previously favored exhibitors. Despite the need for consultants, as a starting point these liaisons do not bode well for an exhibition claiming to document a sea-change in both method and practice.

Design for the Other 90%, exhibition in Cooper-Hewitt garden. Exhibition design by Studio Lindfors; graphic design by Tsang Seymour Design. Photograph by Andrew Garn.

The show itself is installed in the Museum's Fifth Avenue garden, and some of the objects will be familiar to museum-goers. There's the ubiquitous, INDEX award-winning LifeStraw, a not inexpensive personal drinking device that accomplishes the same thing as boiling water but in less time. (Unfortunately, it doesn't protect the people using it — shown here standing in rivers — from infection by bilharzia worms swimming in the water.) There's Big BodaBoda, a transport bicycle with an extra-long carrier to handle large loads. (The transport bikes I've observed are often pushed rather than ridden, and the Big BodaBoda's derailleur would unlikely stand the strain of huge loads — the reason why most bikes in Africa are single speed.) Then there's the One Laptop Per Child, the celebrated $100 wind-up computer championed by Nicholas Negroponte of MIT's Media Lab. Ignore the fact that the price has ballooned to $195, or that a minimum order of $250,000 must be placed first, putting them out of the reach of any organization smaller than Oxfam. (As an aid to literacy I tend to doubt that the devices are more useful than flashcards. And flashcards, which cost 40 times less, are impossible to find in Africa.)

Essentially, Design For the Other 90% is shot through with well-intentioned nostrums, familiar statistics, and a messianic calling to open peoples' eyes to the disparities of the world. A cross section of new design products and services is "showcased" and some, like the Kenya Ceramic Jiko charcoal stove which dramatically improves fuel efficiency, have been very successful. Others, like Operation Village Health, which makes remote clinical online consultations possible for rural Cambodians at Massachusetts General Hospital, are more questionable. Even participating legends like Peter Polak of IDE and Martin Fisher of KickStart come across somewhat conflicted with Polak contending that cheap wrenches are more desirable than expensive ones while Fisher argues that centrally mass-produced durable goods create jobs and reduce costs.

David Latim at home in Gulu. Photograph by David Stairs.

Such problems can be hard to crack. Not long ago I visited Gulu, the epicenter of northern Uganda's twenty-year insurgency, with my friend David Latim. David was born in Gulu, but fled to Kampala after escaping from the Lord's Resistance Army in 1995. One day, I recounted a particularly gruesome scene in the movie, Hotel Rwanda. He responded by describing a similar massacre he had personally witnessed as a young man in Gulu. Before he was half-finished with his story, I blushed with shame at the realization that I was comparing my movie-going experience to his life experience. My well-intended faux pas is emblematic of the challenge facing outsiders, who cannot begin to imagine the vicissitudes of life in such distant places.

Remote experience is, consequently, one of the issues curators face in mounting such an exhibition, and it is a price we, in the West, pay for our mediated existence. Too often design solutions are remote solutions, even by those with years' work in the developing world (myself very much included). The only reference I could find in the catalog to this problem was Martin Fisher's observation that poor families like to prepare their main meal indoors in the evening, when solar cookers are considerably less effective — an issue contradicted in exhibiting a solar stove made from bicycle parts. Remote experience also leads to naïve criticism — like design futurist Natalia Allen's concern that the exhibition does not pay enough attention to aesthetics: "Is it that beauty should not be considered when designing for poorer communities?" When considering these communities, such a rhetorical question might explain why many Western design initiatives are not sustainable.

PermaNet by Vestergaard Frandsen. Photograph by Palle Peter Skov, ©2005.

A second fallacy afflicting design thinking is what I call instrumentalization, or the notion that technology can, more often than not, provide the solution. Designers are especially susceptible to this delusion, perhaps because they are often trained to solve immediate rather than long-term problems. By way of example, inventions like the Hippo and Q water rollers work well at alleviating hard work over level ground, but are less effective than a jerrycan headload over meandering, hilly, narrow footpaths. Or, the exhibition's catalog shows an Indian man in a workplace illuminated by a solar lighting system, but ironing clothes with a charcoal-heated iron. Similarly, the PermaNet — a specially-treated mosquito net — repels bugs for twice as much time as conventionally-treated nets. Regrettably, as it was displayed in the exhibition, it did not reach the ground; this is precisely the real-world oversight that heat-seeking vectors take advantage of in Africa.

Gargantuan thinking is a third error: the need to house the world's population, eliminate disease, and reverse global warming. (Here I much prefer Wes Janz's onesmallproject to Bruce Mau's Massive Change.) The United Nation's Millennium Development Goals have been cited with increasing frequency of late, and — not surprisingly — the Design for the Other 90% catalog refers to many of them. "International humanitarian crises" and "sustainable projects...to help people meet their most basic needs" have grown into the new form of secular tithing. But, while we slavishly reiterate these laudable targets, they become more distant and unrealistic every day. This is not to say that such goals aren't important as ideals, but while the MDG goal of 0.7% of GDP might be achievable by countries with small populations and high standards of living (like Norway or Denmark) the current donation level of the world's wealthiest economy (guess who?), at 0.01%, makes MDG implementation a dream deferred.

Design for the Other 90%, exhibition in Cooper-Hewitt garden. Exhibition design by Studio Lindfors; graphic design by Tsang Seymour Design. Photograph by Andrew Garn.

Is there a realistic response designers from developed countries can offer? A starting point might be to recognize that in many cases, we don't need to remake other people or their societies in our image and likeness. The idea of design intervention — sustainable or otherwise — may feel very intrusive to people who are still reeling from 150 years of colonial intervention. (You don't just waltz into a patriarchal society and aggressively advocate equal opportunity for women, or deliver pumps and boreholes to peasant farmers without understanding the sociology of migratory herdsmen). Living among other people and learning to appreciate their values, perspectives and social mores is an excellent tool of design research. (To their credit, both Polak and Fisher have spent considerable time abroad, not just user-testing, but living and working with their client-partners.) Education is also a wonderful access point, as is a required second language. But how many design curricula are supporting, let alone implementing such global initiatives? The first product design curriculum in Uganda is being implemented at Kyambogo University. More designers are needed to develop and launch such initiatives.

I wish there were more answers offered — and more questions posed — by the Cooper-Hewitt's Design for the Other 90%. As it stands, this design showcase on Fifth Avenue in New York City seems removed from the exigencies of the world's poorest five-sixths. Until designers and design curators spend more time in self-evaluation they'll remain far from encouraging the dialogues or the learning that would bring about effective change for the billions who really are in need.

Design for the Other 90% is on view at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York City through September 23, 2007. The catalog for the exhibition is available from Amazon.

David Stairs coordinates the graphic design program at Central Michigan University. He is the founding editor of Design-Altruism-Project, and the executive director of Designers Without Borders.

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Product Design

Comments [74]

"You don't just waltz into a patriarchal society and aggressively advocate equal opportunity for women..." Why not? Why should patriarchal society be challenged in the West but accepted everywhere else? While I agree that the world doesn't have to be remade to look like New Jersey, I don't think we should be unwilling to promote, even aggressively, those values which we hold to be fundamental. Otherwise, we end up doing the very thing we are trying to avoid: treating the other 90% as The Other, foreign, mysterious, unknowable. Are we really one people or not?

Simply brilliant post.
Marcus Leis Allion

This was a wonderful article that very accurately resonated my thoughts on the Cooper-Hewitt exhibit, although I could not have written them as well. As a citizen of a "third world" country (India) working in USA, I have seen how practical everyday solutions can vastly improve people's lives. Unfortunately, Americans have no point of reference to relate to how really poor people live in the rest of the world. The exhibit itself seemed to focus on design that was cool to look at, rather than tried and tested solutions. The selections seem to be an afterthought especially when crammed into the tiny garden space. It would have been much more interesting to see these "not-so-pretty" objects displayed in the lavish interiors of the Museum, alongside neon Kidrobot monstrosities in the Design Life Now show.
Amishi Parekh

The exhibit itself seemed to focus on design that was cool to look at, rather than tried and tested solutions.

That pretty much sums up 90% +/- of the problems in our entire industry today.
Doug B

I applaud that these objects have brought our attention our focus to these issues, but I agree we don't need to remake everything to fit our ideals. Designers don't have to be heroes all the time.
Richard Rodriguez

Awesome post. So good.

OpenCity Projects was working with students from the industrial design program at the Ontario College of Art and Design, here in Toronto, Canada. The basic tools we taught in our workshops echo very much what David is saying: We must value local knowledge, if not worship it. We must teach the kinds of design research tools that allow these local "values, perspectives and social mores" to inform and inspire design solutions.

David, thank you for being so honest and self-reflexive. Just the kind of discourse we need.
Michele Champagne

"I don't think we should be unwilling to promote, even aggressively, those values which we hold to be fundamental."

Our country was founded out of a need of our ancestors/predecessors to avoid such political thinking. We can help foreign countries and peoples, the 90%, AND respect their cultures. While I disagree with the practice of patriarchal societies, per your example, I do not feel comfortable in instituting my western beliefs that "aggressively" onto a culture that does not see eye to eye with that. There is a need to aid and understand the 90% of the world in need of new technology and design. We can and should do that free of prejudice and act with pure intentions to make living healthy lives a possibility for as many people as possible despite their different value structures.
I feel it comes off as elitism or condescending to imply that the western values are the "right" values. We are one people, but that is not to say what is right for our society is right for another and to imply this is, I am sorry to say, quite naive and ignores thousand of years of a people's history.

This was a great article. We have a lot of work to go, as this exhibition has proven, but it should not be lost that while, although not perfect, there are altruistic people out there trying to come up with affordable and efficient design solutions and while there is much work to do, we should encourage more people with means and ability to join the good fight.
Jim Thomas

Excellent excellent.
More articles like this please
Joseph Coates

Maybe next time Natalia Allen is sleeping on the ground exposed to the elements, she can enrich her starving children with some Harvard philosopher's opinion on the inherent value of beauty.
Dean Collins

::"Our country was founded out of a need of our ancestors/predecessors to avoid such political thinking.":: was it really Jim? our country was founded on the right to life,liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I hardly find anything political about that. These are the building blocks and core values of this nation, and I can't fathom how anybody could be opposed to any of it. :"I feel it comes off as elitism or condescending to imply that the western values are the "right" values.": if by western values you mean the ones I write about above, I fail to see how they can be wrong. The notion that we are all entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness REGARDLESS of sex, race, or religion is humanity in a nutshell. I contend that to be opposed to these ideals, you are thus opposed to humanity, compassion, and morality. :"We are one people, but that is not to say what is right for our society is right for another": Obviously, not everything in our society can be right for another. But these core values, these moral truths we hold, that all are created equal - why aren't they right? and what makes the oppression of women right? the oppression of other races, religion? how could this ever be considered acceptable? To be complicit in the oppression and degradation of another people according to their sex, race, class, or religion is to be complicit in the uptmost betrayal of humanity. People who practice female genital mutiliation, people who stone young women to death in honor killings, people who arrest women for not wearing headscarves do not believe in humanity. I say the treatment of women and minorities in a country are an excellent meter of the health of a society- the more down-trodden, abused, and oppressed these groups are, the less successful these societies tend to be across all boards.:"We can help foreign countries and peoples, the 90%, AND respect their cultures.": Yes, and I do help, by donating to RAWA and supporting other home-grown activist groups who fight for freedom. Equality is not a political issue - it is our responsibility to live up to our creed and act like human beings, not animals. of course, using force to advance the idea of equality is out of the question. but it is our duty to advocate for it, promote it, aid it as much as possible.

I was amazed by the Afrigadget link, I live in Mexico and I found it weird that while "first world" citizens might be amazed that people have to do these kind of inventions, here in the "third world" I bet they could be helpful for some people, and it's sad that an exchange of those ideas might be even more helpful than the artifacts from the museum exhibition.

For example, here in Mexico we've had these knife-sharpening bikes for years!
Ricardo Reyes

futhermore: the implication that freedom and equality are somehow ideals forced upon poor nations by us imperialists (westerners) is really outlandish. The call for equality crosses all borders and all political spectrums- the call for equality is a calling for other nations to join us as partners in advocating freedom, not conquering them and brutalizing their cultures and beliefs. In fact, the very notion of equality is obviously in direct defiance of everything imperialism stands for- equality is the single greatest unifier for human kind. It has the power to transcend religion, race, nationality, age and sex- it is perhaps the one single concept that can save the human race from itself. my posts are lengthy, my apologies, but clearly this has struck a nerve. imposing our designs and economics on another country is one thing, but advocating for equality and freedom is something entirely different.

In societies where there is a high degree of segregation of labour, whether by sex, tribe, caste or other category, different design problems are (I take it) likely to be visible to different subgroups of the society, depending on what sort of work they are doing. If a low-prestige group -- one not normally given much of a voice within the society -- happens to be responsible for childcare, or the disposal of waste, it is probably going to be hard to reduce infant mortality, or the spread of disease, without giving that group more of a say in the design process than it normally gets.

It's been a loooooooooong time since I last looked at John Chris Jones' Designing Designing, but I have a feeling he had much more to say about this sort of thing than I can thrash out in a comment.
Helen DeWitt

excellent article.
but let's not forget that an exhibitions like this one that can help bringing design back in touch with its cause and origins. -- it i not about the style - it is about the constraints (and should be much more so).
this exhibition addresses a wide audience mostly used to design as a term of mere beautification and it tackles questions far from your average phil starck lounge experience... -- and this as such has a value in itself.
all questions answered? all solutions provided? -- obviously not! -- and i would actually not have hoped so...
so let us take it for what it is: a statement in an ongoing development: FAIL, FAIL AGAIN, FAIL BETTER! -- after all: this is what design is about: honest try, honest failure, honest improvement.
i am sure, david, your criticism is of extreme value for the organizers -- and indeed it should be... -- on the other hand we should also leave our perfectionism aside for a while and applaud the small steps. --- after all this is what it is all about: small steps.

Good post. I like to see delusional/altruistic design taken to task. Even that title is pretty cringe-worthy. The others? Seriously? Lots of room to fail better I guess!

For Mike, regarding "are we really all one people or not?", I think the least oppressive answer is a definite "no, we're not all the same." Before Westerners get on a high horse about opposing patriarchy in the darker nations, I think it is really important to do some anti-oppression homework.

It's helpful, at the very least, to be aware of how complicated it is for former/present imperial forces in the world to go offering enlightenment and help to communities that we have directly damaged with past/continuing exploitation, usually without much acknowledgment of the amount of damage and oppression we've perpetrated.

A title like "design for the other 90%" tries to confront the absurdity of 10% of us taking up all the attention, but perpetuates the exact same imbalance by presenting a bunch of first world designers working with first world ideas about our position as potential saviours and leaders, instead of, say, presenting design BY "the other 90%."

Anyway. Good things to talk about.

One of the few design and engineering solutions related to aid and development is the excellent mobileschool.org project. It is focussed on offering free education to street children. Using smartly designed classrooms on wheels local social workers can go out on the street and reach kids in their own environment, teaching them basic counting, reading and writing skills. It might not be a project on a large scale, but where ever it has been implemented, it works.


I obviously struck a nerve. As I said in my post, I of course do not believe in patriarchal societies. I stated that quite clearly. I did not say the societal constructs other than our own are correct or perfect. Cruelty to women, or persecution based on religion and race are of course horrible and I would want them to not occur in any society. My point was trying to say, contrary to Mike's original post, was that despite cultural differences, it is our duty as a first world country to help those in need, regardless. You of course go to the big differences, and yes these exist. But once we start imposing OUR beliefs on the big issues, where do we draw the line? At what point do we stop and say, you can keep these values, but not these other ones.
My point was to not say that persecution is A OK, but at some point, regardless of the differences it is our duty to offer aid to those in need, not just those in need that agree with us or that we agree with. You are much more versed in this than I, and I would never mean to offend or suggest cruelty to women is something to be ignored, a point that I didn't do. I am sorry if you felt that it came off this way.
Jim Thomas

Excellent post. I'm not familiar with the exhibit but this reflects my thoughts exactly. Addressing these problems is not as easy as many designers make it out to be. We have to do better.

excellent post, however, it divides me. is the glass half full or half empty? i have not seen the exhibit, but am familiar with most of the works featured, and most of them got me pretty excited...until further scrutiny left me wanting for more. the content of the exhibit and your post definitely begs more questions than answers. i'm not sure that anyone truly thinks design can change the world, but the presence of design (in first and third worlds) certainly expresses the presence of thought, attention, and effort. therefore, i cannot be too harsh on the limitations of the various design solutions featured, but can only hope that it generates more and more interest in these domains. how we are lulled into a kind of aesthetic obedience with our day jobs making products look so sexy. i would imagine that if we all devoted mere 10% of our day to thinking about issues home and abroad and how our skills can solve real life-threatening problems, to promote a personal conscience-driven design idealogy, rather than giving all our best ideas to "the man", i think that would be a good start toward a design ethos that is activist in nature. ultimately, it is activism that drives change in domains where the status quo tends to suck life and progress from the equation. but i must support your arguments that many of these design projects fall short in reality and it is thanks critics like you that prevent us from simply going "rah rah", when it may very well be true that the emperor indeed has no clothes. thanks for your insights.
Gong Szeto

The problem with your post is that it attempts to critique the exhibition but it's more about critizing the larger frameworks that govern designing for/in the developing world. To that effect, I think it gives a misleading impression of the exhibition and its intentions.

Remote experience is, consequently, one of the issues curators face in mounting such an exhibition, and it is a price we, in the West, pay for our mediated existence. Too often design solutions are remote solutions, even by those with years' work in the developing world (myself very much included).

True, curation is often (or almost always) a remote experience by its very nature, but it's done for a local audience and context, which is a bit different than designing remote solutions for distant problems. This exhibition is a tremendous step forward not only for museums of design but also for the public whose conception of design let alone the developing world is often rather limited. It's perfect on Fifth Avenue!

A second fallacy afflicting design thinking is what I call instrumentalization, or the notion that technology can, more often than not, provide the solution.

The funny thing is that technology has been the solution to most of the world's problems. Technologies flourish throughout the world, across history. It is not the exclusive domain of the first world, as you well know. The exhibition includes a range of technologies, some high-tech, some low-tech, even ancient.

Gargantuan thinking is a third error: the need to house the world's population, eliminate disease, and reverse global warming.

The exhibition does not advocate gargantuan solutions, but certainly encourages us to think bigger and broader. You're confusing ambition and goals with solutions and strategies. I left the exhibition with exactly the opposite impression, in fact: that a myriad of contextually specific solutions is needed to even begin to tackle such gargantuan issues.

Fantastic article, more like this please!

David Stairs has used his formidable knowledge and direct experience to slam the team who created "Design for the Other 90%." I call this fallacy the smugness of the expert. I'm afraid that many people will read this critique of the exhibition and say, "What a relief. Now I don't have to bother. Leave poverty to the poor people."

David critiques the notion that remote solutions are untenable, that no one can achieve anything from any kind of distance--cultural, geographic, economic.

People who accept that point of view can allow Fifth Avenue or their hometown to be the boundary of their ideas and actions. Yet clearly, our world has been transformed for centuries by tools that enable people to communicate across distances, from the printing press to the Internet and many steps in between.

Museums are local insitutions made of living human beings. They have long served to illuminate distant times, places, and points of view. Rather than slam people for not having experiences as authentic as one's own, it would be more productive to see where commonalities actually lie.
Ellen Lupton

“People who accept that point of view can allow Fifth Avenue or their hometown to be the boundary of their ideas and actions.”

People who accept that point of view don’t allow Fifth Avenue to be the boundary of their ideas and actions. They leave the comforts of the studio and museum. They travel. They ask questions and do research. They learn before they act. David Stairs’ critique shows where the true smug experts are promoting their folly.

This critique offers some invaluable, first-hand understanding. I appreciate David's insights on these matters. But I also feel that the underlying message seems to be self-defeating.

On one hand, David clearly sets would-be design-saviors straight in that we can't simply sprinkle design dust on a problem from afar, leaving the real dust to be swept under the rug. He's correct that our Western references naturally limit our ability to understand the very nature of the needs we're trying to meet.

What troubles me about this critique, however, is that nothing seems to be good enough (except, perhaps the Kenya Ceramic Jiko). David does little to suggest that this attempt is a good idea, it just needs to be pushed further. Or, that this will work in this situation, but not in that one.

David rightfully points out that design needs to be tuned into local needs with an understanding of local values, perspectives, and social mores. Yet he critiques the designs in the exhibit (such as the Q water roller) as if they should work universally, no matter what specific situation they may have been intended for.

Furthermore, at least one of his comments skips over a critical issue. David describes the Lifestraw as "a not inexpensive personal drinking device that accomplishes the same thing as boiling water but in less time." This implies that it's an expensive gadget that accomplishes nothing more than boiling water (while failing to protect from bilharzia worms). However, a lack of fuel in some regions makes it very difficult to boil water. So while not perfect (or inexpensive, for that matter), the Lifestraw can be useful as a temporary, targeted solution to a very real need.

While we have to be realistic about design's limitations (and David's critique is useful in that matter), we have to be equally realistic about its expectations.

I hope that we hear more from David, because he brings a first-hand experience that is hard to come by. I also hope, however, that his critiques don't snuff out the very efforts that he voices concern for.
Daniel Green

i am a graphic designer who is a part of 'the other 90%', i live in india, and i think your article is simply brilliant and extremely true. i would request all the people who have heavily criticised your article, to actually live in a third world country for a long stretch, experience it as a citiizen. not as a rich white man who can move around in an air-conditioned car, live in a five-star hotel and preach to us out here.
and by the way, we 'the other 90%', also have strong beliefs about equality etc, which have been existing in our philosophy for 2000 years or more. the problems of the third world can best be resolved by those who experience and live through them each day.

Thank you for this, David.

I've spent the last 14 months traveling through many areas considered to be a part of the "other 90%," and this article helped tie together a lot of the random thoughts floating around in my head this past year. As designers, I think we too often forget to fully question our perceived versus actual impact on the world around us — be it in the third world or in the first.
Ryan Nee

from bartleby's:

The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

or, in other words...

Merely intending to do good, without actually doing it, is of no value.
Gong Szeto

I agree with much of what this article has to say. As someone who was born and raised in the third world and now living in one of the richest, I often feel like there's this tendency in the West to inject "Design" into some of these deep-seated problems as the magic cure-all. I haven't seen this exhibit so I can't comment on this event specifically, but I've seen similar notions posed in various design periodicals over the years. While well-meaning and intellectually stimulating, many of these solutions tend to treat only the visible symptoms of much bigger root issues - Problems that "Design" in the traditional definition can't solve (just like the title of this article states). Most of the problems of poor regions are the result of much larger, on-going issues - unfortunate financial policies, damaging political stances, and occasionally geographical disasters. Once a country's system changes favorably, huge shifts in the welfare of it's citizens can be the result, as has been evident in recent world history.
Kevin Perera

Merely intending to do good, without actually doing it, is of no value.

Very good point, Gong.

But it's important to distinguish between solutions which functionally or contextually fail, and solutions which are knowingly meant to "satisfice." When problems are complex and have many unknowns, people may be better served with a temporary, affordable, or short-term solution instead of being made to wait for an optimal solution to be developed.

That's no excuse for completely missing the mark. It does acknowledge—with sufficient understanding of the needs of the user—the occasional need to find a workable compromise until the optimal can be achieved.

I'm personally in no position to judge which of the designs featured in this exhibit fail, succeed, or merely satisfice. But to be fair, a full critique needs to acknowledge the difference.
Daniel Green

Ellen, We expect criticism from our enemies, but are often 'offended' when our collegues point out our possible shortcomings. But we should ask ourselves, who we would rather embrace-the voice of a 'cruel' friend or that of an indifferent enemy.

Thus-counter to your assertion-museums are places of power contained by regimes. They have long served to designate our understanding of distant times, places, and points of view. Rather than congratulate people for having commonalities, it would be more productive to engage in critical reflection. This, as I understand it, is what David and this article has done.
Dominic James

Context is King

There are so many interesting threads to untangle resulting from this post. As a design anthropologist, I really appreciate David's sensitivity to the limitations of design itself and the potential hubris that is always lurking in "armchair" altruism and philanthropy. Context is king, and it becomes "your chosen Deity" when you design for a context you don't truly understand.

Daniel Green's framing of the potential sources of failure for a design being sometimes functional and sometimes contextual is useful here.

Design always needs to be a true partnership between those embedded deeply within the context (yet knowledgeable of other relevant contexts where the problem exists) and those embedded in the design solutions. This is true whether it's a Fortune 500 client who understands her business context (functionally and culturally) or an Indian peasant who understands his fields (functionally and culturally as well). This has to be an equal partnership, which is sometimes the challenge as pointed out by J., Akh, Ryan Nee, and others.

Yet, satisfice is a dangerous proposition when you are dealing with people's basic survival (whether economic or cultural). When I conduct research, I have to complete a detailed Human Subjects Review to show that I am approaching my project with an idea towards (1) respect for persons through informed consent, (2) beneficence by listing the benefits and the risks associated with the project, and (3) justice in the selection of research participants. Design, given its potential functional and cultural impact on societies, should be held to the same ethical standards. (See the Belmont Report of 1979)

Of course, something akin to this is listed in AIGA's Standard for Professional Practice, but there is no review board to stop potentially unethical designing.

Thank goodness for Daniel Green and his intelligent response. I am not nearly so mature.

In this sense of outrage, let me add one more nail to Mr. Stair's unfortunate coffin of ramblings. Mr. Stairs forgot many key fallacies in his presentation, one being the conceit of the nattering nabob of negativity. Indeed his is a half empty glass.

Personally I enjoyed the contrast between the Design for the Other Half show and the Triennial. In fact I remember a lot more of the Other Half show than the Triennial. I found it to be much more challenging and engaged in the issues of the world. Bravo to the Copper Hewitt for putting both on at the same time. Also, my recollection is that many of the objects that were shown in the garden were sponsored not by the US Government directly, a government that perhaps one could argue with as some above do not choose to, but by NGO's, private organizations and entities with loose ties to national governments. The whole rhetoric of cultural imperialism or western imperialism in this context seems very questionable and old fashioned. The show's stance is hardly the traditional stance of the white man's burden, or delivering tractors to Africa, or corn to wherever. In fact I think some had U.N. sponsorship and much on the ground research behind them. I am left to wonder why one person's, Mr. Stairs' opinion, gathered during a trip abroad, should count more then the collective wisdom of many of the people and organizations behind the objects in the exhibit. There is thus a conceit of essentialism and universalism in Mr. Stairs' critique that reeks of the very elitism that he condemns.

Finally, do poor people and third world people really not care about beauty, elegance, function and the efficacy of objects and things. I think not and that is another conceit of this pretty conceited critical effort. Design can not save the world but designer's can contribute to it's improvement and this was what I at least thought the show projected with clarity.

Ellen Lupton's critique was also right-on thank goodness but she probably should mention her long standing association with the Cooper Hewitt.
bernard pez

I couldn't help but notice the first comment in response to this post. I cringe at such absolute certainty in one's value system and the need you feel to impose it on others. I feel sorry for you and those around you - for you because you have no idea just how annoying you are, and for those around you for not knowing how to tell you in a way you would understand.

I couldn't help but notice the first comment (Mike) in response to this post. I cringe at such absolute certainty in one's value system and the need you feel to impose it on others. You have no idea just how annoying you are, and it's worse for those around you because they don't know how to tell you.

The idea that "Doing something is better than doing nothing" pervades much of the general understanding of 'problem solving'. David's post, quite simply suggests that we need to introduce an additional aspect to that thinking - continual reassessment.
For without critical reflection how will we know that each particular something is performing its desired value? Indeed, despite comments to the contrary, a praxis that actively engages with its own presumptions will be much better equipped at supplying the 'somethings' that are so desperately needed.
Dominic James

Yet, satisfice is a dangerous proposition when you are dealing with people's basic survival

I absolutely agree, Dori. If I implied that "saftisficing" was an easy excuse for misinformed, intrusive or disfunctional design, it was not intended.

Your idea of holding design to ethical standards is very interesting. I'm curious if any design programs have such an approach.
Daniel Green

"I couldn't help but notice the first comment (Mike) in response to this post. I cringe at such absolute certainty in one's value system and the need you feel to impose it on others. You have no idea just how annoying you are, and it's worse for those around you because they don't know how to tell you.
Posted by: Patrick on August 22, 2007 01:20 AM"

I cringe at your visible lack of a value system. Are you uncertain of the value of a persons life, of the unalienable right to freedom? why are't you absolutely sure every human deserves the right to live their lives free of persecution and discrimination? is it ok for patriarchal societies to beat their women? is ethnic cleansing ok? genocide ok? caste-discrimination ok? exploitation and slavery ok? I hope I am extremely annoying to you, I hope my posts grate on your nerves. I will not sit still while my sisters in the middle east are beaten, raped, and all you want to do is accuse us of being annoying in our demand that humans treat other humans with some compassion, dignity and respect.

Touching issue, designer per se has to address issues at the global level which is going to benefit the society as a whole
Design for MySpace

I think there are some very valid points here, although I still respect and applaud anyone who is trying to design something that can help the global community on the whole. Obviously, in an anthropological sense, it is imperative to know and live (at least for some amount of time) with the people for whom you are designing. We can never assume that the same things that work in our society would work in another--it's the same as pressing our political system upon them because it's the "right way" to do things. The solution must fit the environment.

I also feel that if you want to help the less fortunate, sometimes it makes more of an impact to work on a more personal and smaller scale. It's nice to talk about big change and national aid, but in the span of our lives these big changes can get caught up in red tape or take years to come to fruit. Complementing these endeavours with our own hands-on service is where immediate change begins. My family emigrated here from India and my siblings and I were born and raised in this country. A few years ago my brother went back to India for several months to engage in community service. Being a well-educated, MIT graduate, my cousin advised him to serve in a government office so he could make "sweeping reforms." But in the end, my brother decided to teach children in a small village supported by a charity. He wanted results he could see straightaway; to know that he was making an impact on people's lives, not just talking about it.

So basically, I'm saying that we should not forget we are people first, and we can help in more ways than one. And if one engages in such work, it will make it much easier to understand the society and people for whom we are designing. It takes both massive and small changes to make a world of difference.

**I found a site (www.statattak.com) where designers are helping in both ways: personally going to Mozambique to build an orphanage as well as designing shirts to raise public awareness.
Swathi Ghanta

I think Andrea Fraser's Museum Highlights is a useful reference here. I don't know if it was the notes in the October write up, or writings I came across at the same time, but there are interesting details about the nature of charity in the 19c. One generalized belief was that the underprivileged were unable to lift themselves from penury because they were ignorant or shielded from inspirational culture that blessed their affluent brethren. And thus there was a spate of library and museum building, and societies of women who wanted to lecture about housekeeping to people who were sleeping ten to a room.

But mostly the underprivileged need money. Why do we need a better mosquito net when there is already a perfectly adequate one that costs less than a dollar? There is a need to educate on the value of the netting, but the problem there isn't a 'first' world problem of, say, a badly designed tax form.

The affluent, as a rule, don't like to accept that the most effective tool for remediation of inequity is income redistribution (even though that funnily enough is a coherent and concise problem and solution in a single sentence). The Economist will give a you very clever explication of how much money has been 'wasted' in aid to underprivileged countries. But they never give credit for devalued labor benefiting western companies. Don't let hedge fund swindlers fool you: exploitation of labor and natural resources is still the key creator of wealth worldwide.

Of course we will get instrumentalist complaints about corruption, but that is nominal compared to GDP-level corruption in the form of predatory colonial and post-colonial agreements regarding mineral resources.

Give up on your clever clever solutions to problems you've never addressed first hand Give up on funding for exhibits showcasing it. Give your money to MSF and Oxfam. Once they stop asking for it, you will know they are fully funded for their operations and you can start worrying about designing trinkets.
miss representation

Well done. Now if we could only get design schools to hire more social scientists who may not necessarily be designers (such as anthropologists like me!) but who have the tools and interest in providing applicable perspectives and insights...

If Stair's critique had appeared in the pages of Time or artforum, I might be more sympathetic to these complaints of negativity.

If he stops people on the street to say, "don't bother going, they got it all wrong," then I might take issue.

If his critique here at DO and these ensuing posts suggests to someone "What a relief. Now I don't have to bother. Leave poverty to the poor people," then I think we can wish them on their way--they'll not find meat to their taste here anyway.

A member of the design community is critiquing a design exhibition on its merits. If we're not going to have this conversation here, where is it going to happen?

Time to pony up and eat your wheaties boys and girls!

To Ellen Lupton I must say: Nope, my barely three years' experience on the ground in Africa does not qualify me as an "expert", just a lowly field worker.

Although responses from readers in the developing world are seeming to bear me out, to be sure I sent the link to a Kenyan friend working in Capetown asking if "I got it right?" He said I did. So "thank you" to Ryan Nee, miss representation, Daniel Green, dori, Swathi Ghanta and others who have contacted me. You too are getting it right.
david stairs

Excellent points, Mr. Stairs. And fascinating discussion from the rest of you.

I think it's critical that "the other 90%" play an active role in developing the solutions that will bring them out of poverty. New technology is unlikely to be utilized to its full potential when cultural bridges aren't made. Unused and unrepaired solar panels scattered across Africa can attest to what happens when technology is placed out of context. It is best when new technology can be made indigenous, as in the case of Afriq Power, an enterprise started by the non-profit Practical Small Projects. They were trained in solar technology, and are now the first company in Mali, Africa to fabricate solar panels locally. Because they have an understanding of the technology as well as local materials and culture, they have found innovative ways to reuse available materials in making the panels. When Afriq Power goes into a village to do a humanitarian installation for Practical Small Projects, villagers are inspired ("We thought this was the white man's technology. If you can do this, what can I do?"), and Afriq Power has plenty of culturally appropriate ideas for them (solar battery charging station, etc.) Local development ensues.

As a designer, my involvement in this project was to help design a framework that empowers Africans to develop their own country. Our resulting hybrid non-profit/enterprise development model has made a difference in many Malians lives, but it's nothing you could put in the garden, or on the wall at the Cooper Hewitt. Designers should broaden their view of potential contributions to global issues. Maybe a tangible solution isn't necessary. Maybe a hands-off approach is more appropriate. Maybe you aren't the best equipped to judge a solution. These and all the other comments made above are something to think about before you design another trinket for "the other 90%".
Kristin Johnson

The problems that are given above are just extreme examples of the biggest problem that always faces any design community. Designers don't actually understand the problem and they don't actually understand the context in which there solution will be implemented.

The first thing any designer should do is go and meet the person who they are designing for in the situation that person will in when they use it. The must understand the person and the context.

I am as bigger culprit of not doing this as anyone else. I know the feeling - you come up with an idea out of the blue, you think it is the best thing since sliced bread and you spend the rest of the design process convincing yourself and others that you have the perfect solution to a problem that does not exist. We have to spend more time training designers to solve the right problem.
Ian Turner

Great article

Ian Turner, your pulling what I have understood as David's critique back into simplified design approach-this is not just about design, clients, solutions, or material situations. The original post highlights the very real lack of reflexivity within the design community and the subsequent inability to recognise when are designs fail-outside of a design imposed assesment.
Dominic James

sorry for error, should've been-The original post highlights the very real lack of reflexivity within the design community and the subsequent inability to recognise when our designs fail-outside of a design imposed assesment.

Dominic James

I wonder if the issue with the exhibition stems from the fact that the Cooper-Hewitt is a design museum? And I have a couple of related questions for David Stairs:

1) If the solutions in this exhibtion were largely out of touch with the reality of the situation, are there designed objects fit for a design museum which are not out of touch? What are they?

2) If an object fails, what is the missing piece? Is it money? Is it education? Is it design?

I guess what I'm ultimately wondering is what the Cooper-Hewitt should have shown instead? Or based on Stairs' critique, I'm wondering if it should have shown anything at all. After all, what is any object ("designed" or not) without the right pairings of education, distribution, volunteers, or money behind it? Is there any way a design museum could curate an exhibition of this variety and not be subject to the same critique?
Andrew Twigg

While design is important, the problem is essentially political. When there are people who cannot say "no", there is no problem to solve. Why develop an efficient rice harvester when you can force women to harvest each blade individually? How can water distribution be a problem when you can order someone to haul the water for you? Who needs a better axe handle if one has a slave to cut your wood? Traditional societies impose a pecking order in which most people cannot say "no". Africa was like that before the Europeans, before the Arabs, and before the Bantu.

One of the big problems in helping the third world, as opposed to respecting their societies, is figuring out how to get help where it is needed. It is usually those who cannot say "no" who need the most help, but are also the least likely to be able to accept or retain whatever they are given. Sure income redistribution would be nice, but in a traditional society a big chunk, if not all, of anything one gets belongs to someone a rung or two up the ladder and will be taken. Abolitionists fought to eliminate slavery, not to make hauling cotton easier. Some even argue it was the well designed cotton gin that helped American slavery grow and thrive.

If you look around the developing world, you see all sorts of innovation and clever design. People are not stupid, but there is no point in designing if one cannot benefit or let others benefit from your work. The technology does not need to be home grown. In India, fishermen find cell phones invaluable in allowing them to meet market demand by calling in their catches while at sea. Few, if any, of those boats has ever had a radio. Radio works radially. Cell phones form a web.

There is no reason to discourage designers who want to try to help. Most of their work will have little or no impact. Sometimes they can seem frighteningly naive. Now and then they will surprise themselves and everyone else, and maybe things can get better, and traditional culture will be weakened.

P.S. Slaughter isn't something that only happens in exotic places. Don't romanticize it so. Sixty years ago the blood was still drying in Western Europe, and years later, growing up, I heard enough first person accounts of narrow escapes and tragedy.

Brilliant article - ironic that the 90% exhibition is showcased on a typically overmaintained american lawn. A step in the right direction ... really appreciate the constructive criticisms here. It's easy to be cynical and rant about it, but the neutral proactive tone here is really refreshing.
Kyle Fletcher

RE: Kaleberg. I don't see that anyone here is thoroughly ignorant of some of the political dynamics at work; you are vastly overdrawing the role of cultural difference in some of the issues addressed above. The argument here is effective allocation of resource, and David's point was that developing solutions at such a far remove is only beneficial in perhaps reducing personal guilt in the face of an inequitable world.

I think the question about the Cooper-Hewitt is a good one, because it is an institution that takes a more more active view of education and showcase, and there is very much a place for that. Giving people an opportunity to see the works of something like the Rural Studio can inspire donations, volunteers, or perhaps leading people to emulate the model.

The problem here is technologically slick items present a particular narrative about solutions that is perhaps misleading or ideologically skewed , or at least far more complex than one would like to deal with on a 6x6 wall card (witness the recent kerfuffle about whether or subsidized American corn should be passed along to relief agencies because it was undercutting struggling but viable local farming).

So the curatorial challenge to presenting in a compelling way other extant solutions that don't need Ron Arad's input, but are still crucial to aid programs. That would make for a more robust curatorial effort and more useful education program.

I haven't seen the show at hand, so I can't say first hand it that was attempted at all. I'm trusting David's insight and my experience with similar Cooper Hewitt programs to make this conclusion.
miss representation

Excellent article! I was visiting NYC the last day of the Triennial, but was unable to take in Design for the Other 90% because of heavy rains. The points you raise are similar to those I encounter. I teach a Design Studio in the Community Arts major at CCA. And, although the scale is a lot smaller (local, underserved communities), similar issues are experienced and discussed. Most of my design and art students come in with well meaning intentions, often with a savior complex. In the class we do projects for real clients. It's mandatory for my students to visit, observe and interview individuals from the community - to avoid the "remote experience" you discuss. As designers, we often assume we know what's "right" for the underserved. In actuality we need listen, question, communicate with that audience, - to be a filter to process the needs/wants of the community.

The posts to the article have been great as well - some of the best dialogue I've read on DO in a while. Maybe it's my third world (Jamaican) outlook, but I found the comments by others from the third world (Amishi Parekh, Ricardo Reyes...) to be right on. Did the Cooper-Hewitt program a lecture that corresponded with the show? The points you bring up would make for great panel discussion.
Steve Jones

I agree with the points brought up here by David. While I did not have the opportunity to view the exhibit first-hand, I received the catalogue from a dear friend who had. The projects featured--though well intended--missed the "core values" behind the creation of appropriate and sustainable technologies. The LifeStraw, is a perfect example of one such technology. If the straw breaks--how might it be fixed? Can the indigenous users replicate the technology? The list goes on...

My biggest concern, however, was not the technology itself--nor it's design: the implementation of the design in the form of integration with the community fabric, community empowerment, and education is just as important as the technology's design. From conception, designers must consider implementation.

I am looking forward to seeing a movement in design for the "other 10%" that is--at its core--focused on collaboration, cultural sensitivity, partnership with grassroots individuals, education, and appropriate and sustainable technological application.

Some years ago, during the Bosnian-Serbo-Croatian conflict, I read a piece in the New York Times by a temporarily-resettled refugee. Asked by her host what she needed, the woman's answer was "lipstick." And the response wasn't pretty. Apparently, refugees (and by extension, the poor) are supposed to live by bread alone.

This story came to mind when I read these thoughtful postings. Design may not be lipstick, but can we agree that adds a humanizing dimension to things? Thinly veiled jabs at Elaine Scarry's theories of beauty and justice aside, design, as I understand it, has a communicative function that distinguishes it from sheer fabrication. And while dignity may have more relevance in this context than beauty, coolness or style (pick your pejorative), design, if we are to continue to practice and teach it as an endeavor with its own sets of values, is obligated to deliver more than just functionality.

Much (but not all) of what I saw in Design for the Other 90% seemed solely engineered. I'm thinking specifically of the cement latrine footing in the exhibition with rough gouges indicating where to stand. A simple impression of an over-sized footprint would have offered a little levity (read lipstick) not to mention a measure of dignity. (Think of the game children play in dancing on their parent's feet. Or what it would be like to stand in another's place.) I find it frustrating that the nature of design (no matter who it's for) is still viewed schizophrenically. Form language is now the "lipstick" of so much well-intentioned design, when, in fact, it's always inextricable from experience.

Of course, in emergency situations, design qua design may not be needed and expedient solutions are. Perhaps instead of calling the exhibition, Design for the Other 90%, the curators might have titled it Design for Extreme Circumstances. As Kaleberg pointed out, this massive, if ill-defined, constituency also benefits from mainstream design in the form of cell phones and, no doubt, countless other artifacts not conceived for the "other." It seems the curatorial intent was to focus on designers' response to crisis, in which case my hair-splitting about the nature of design may be beside the point.

That said, there is still the nature of advocacy at issue. Given curators', educators', and designers' desire to insure that their audiences and students think of themselves as fully-vested citizens, there ought to be a new kind of junior-year abroad program that allows for a full immersion and offers a genuine cultural learning curve. Perhaps it already exists. The common alternative of dipping into the unfamiliar waters of different communities (to accommodate other scholastic requirements) risks the very problems raised by David Stair. Namely, perpetuating a less than intelligently informed design process and the risk of paternal intervention.

Full disclosure, I am a veteran of Cooper-Hewitt.
Susan Yelavich

Following Susan Yelavich's comment on title choice, should the title of this post have been "Design In Itself Won't Save the World"?
Dominic James

I have read and reread this critique because I have not been able to square the global critique of the show as relayed in the post with the reality of what I experienced when I saw the exhibit in July.

The post left me a bit confused; did the museum and its curators fail in fact o consider "remote experience", "gargantuan thinking", and "instrumentalization" in their selection of objects? While I can't say that I went back and looked up each object in the show before I made my ramblings to DO tonight, I did look up the Lifestraw ($14.50 per straw is expensive in a third world situation though I can imagine how in specific situations of water failure it could be a life saver for many), the Hippo Water Roller (designed in South Africa for Southern African countries), the Big Boda Bike (again designed with the contribution of people in Eastern Africa and made in Africa), the One Laptop per Child project (flashcards notwithstanding includes networking capabilities which might prove useful if you want to organize politically, admittedly is expensive at $195, but will greatly increase access to computers in many parts of the developing world and for a time was feared by Microsoft, might be like cell phones - it can't be all bad), the Lemelson Foundation (the website seemed pretty altruistic to me - not exactly an agent of imperialist evil), and the sugarcane charcoal project in Haiti (developed in part on the ground in Haiti by students in a design studio at MIT to create a local energy source from vegetative waste in a country that is more or less deforested).

With the possible exception of the Lifestraw, in each of these cases the sponsors, designers and users as well as the exhibitors seem well grounded in precisely the terms that the post warns us the show somehow misses. Perhaps the many other objects in the show fail the test but my sense is that most of them do not. For me at least the show was/is permeated with small scale thinking mostly being supported by people on the ground seeking to address issues outside of the context of the normal nationalistic foreign aid conundrums. Most people walking up and down Fifth Avenue are probably not aware of these efforts, indeed most designers are probably not aware of these efforts or ways of thinking, and in this sense the exhibit seems to me at least successful.

The conclusion of the post suggests that a starting point to deliver us designers from remote thinking etc. is to create more intelligent and responsive design curriculum (again, interestingly in this last regard, the charcoal project in Haiti emanated from a design studio at MIT that embraced precisely the type of framework that the post suggests). But isn't an exhibit of this type, whatever it's flaws, in fact a start in inspiring precisely the type of dialog that would lead to such curriculum reforms? Again, I understand and agree with the global critique, I am just confused as to how it applies in the case of this effort which seems to embrace this very critique.

The post also concludes that more self-evaluation by designers and is a critical necessity. Yet, I am not sure, given what I learned from the show, that more critical design evaluation in and of itself would lead to anything much different then the type of actions that the show in fact presents.

The author of the post is clearly frustrated, and rightly so, by the difficulty of addressing resource issues and the ethics of consumption within the context of design. But I feel, based upon my experience of the show, that he has unfairly dismissed an exhibit that seeks to embrace the very values that he is offering as an alternative viewpoint.

We would not be having this discussion, nor debating these issues, if the show itself had not already performed an educative function that in a small way already demonstrates that some designers (not most designers) have looked into themselves and sought out alternative modes of practice.

Do these designs make a difference? I suspect that at the micro level that most of them do. Are they a substitute for political organization, discourse, and political change on a continent by continent and locality by locality basis? No. Did the show fail to make this distinction. Perhaps the show did not make this point as strongly as it could have but my sense is that by bringing forth the information, it allowed a few more people through the medium pf design to decide for themselves that things as they are are not acceptable and for this small gift, I at least, found the show both illuminating and educational.
John Kaliski

As John rightly points out, the exhibition has succeeded admirably as a critical catalyst. One's tempted to say it proves the adage that small is good; yet I can't help but think if it had more real estate (and videos of people interacting with the products) that it might have been even more convincing.

My post had more to do with the subtext of the posts, namely, the character of such design interventions. Anthony Appiah's book Cosmopolitanism offers one hopeful philosophical response.
Susan Yelavich

Great post. You guys should chat with the people over at www.oddpodz.com they always are looking to tackle topics such as the one you just mentioned. I totally agree with everything you mentioned.
meredith Ring

My english isn't perfect so I decide to translate this post. And as I'm very interested about humanitarian subjects and political ways to practice design, I couldn't forget to post the translation on my blog.
So, you can read a french version here :-)

Great ideas has to be transmitted!
Adrien Zammit

As someone who grew up in one of these "developing countries", and who intends to return in a few years, I tried to look at this issue from the perspective of a "consumer" of these design ideas. Then I put my user experience & design hat back on to make sense of it all, and I have the following response to David's views. Even though I appreciate his viewpoint and he is clearly passionate about his own altruistic efforts, I do think he is being too critical of the Design For The Other 90% effort, for the following reasons:

* Designers rarely get it right the first time. Unless you're Apple, you're very rarely going to design a product that works perfectly as soon as you put it out -- no matter how much upfront design research and anthropological work you do. Design research is mostly qualitative in nature and until a product is "stress-tested" you won't know all the flaws and areas for improvement. And let's be honest, misfires happen! So if some of these designs don't immediately seem to hit the mark, that's ok. Bad ideas are ok as long as they lead you to better ideas...

* Leading by example is not a bad thing. When designers from developed countries show an interest in the developing world and apply their skills to better the lives of the world's poor, I think it's a good thing even if mistakes are made along the way. Yes -- these countries should develop their own curriculums for design and raise up designers who can tackle the unique problems they face, but you need someone to spark the flame, right? Designers interacting with users in these countries can do just that, and even if it might feel paternalistic to some, this "teaching people to fish" approach is what is needed. You need experts to train upcoming experts...

* Let's take what we can get. I think any good-intentioned attention the developing world gets is positive in its own unique way. Is it weird to see Brad and Angelina talking about impoverished nations? Yes -- but they are raising awareness and getting people interested in the plights of these nations. Can someone who lives in these countries be inspired and touched by flawed yet good-intentioned efforts by designers who take the time to apply their skills to these unique problems, and build long-lasting relationships along the way? I think they can...

Can design save the world? Probably not, but I think it can do its part, as this exhibition clearly shows. And besides, who are we to stand in the way of those who are trying...

For me, the debate about consciousness isn't about how much or how little - a judgement - but about far we are willing to cast our nets (spatially) and for how long (in time) - an exploration of sorts. 'Unearthing new material', 'seeing and interacting' with the world - can only be fully realised if you also take into account and find some way to measure their effects - what use to which the new materials are put, how the interactions play out. I would say that the design industry largely has awarded intentions (there is always consciousness and thoughtfulness at play here) but found little way (or interest in?) measuring its effects. The Design Effectiveness Awards in Britain were always the least glamorous ones to win.

Sure, there are stats for sales, bums on seats, feet through doors and so on but these are only the tentative first steps in the life - and the impact that work might go on to have. Awards are given, photos are taken before the first grimy digits thumb the print. They cluster around the intentions of designers because this is easy and safe and elevates some to heroic status and allows others (those who blandly reproduce rhetoric) - always others - to be made scape goats of or become the exceptions that prove the rule, or the dumb majority that make that intelligent and conscious minority worthy of their award in the first place.

But supposing we ignore all this, because rather than defame the industry it makes it tick, and think about the effect that a design might have and all becomes less cut and dried, less safe, certainly not easy. An Award Winning Design might have little or negative affect. A design that starts out humbly, even shamefully, or unacknowledged as 'design', might be find in the run of things an interesting role to play. More likely any design's effect will fork off on both these trajectories and many others.

A criticism of this might be that this is surely out of the control of the designer. Yes - and gloriously so, but it's out there that design makes and re-makes the world. A consciousness that is generous enough to attempt to look beyond the self and the act/materials/tools of creation might take note of some of these ripples, to enlarge their possibilities for engaging/manoeuvering.

The last 20 or so commentators have been so intelligent, that I felt I ought to respond to some of them.

First, let me say that I am a CH supporter, take my students there whenever we're in New York, patronize the bookstore, and generally recommend it to others. I have seen many good shows there. But something about the smugness of the cliché about how nine-tenths of the people in the world don't benefit from design just made me mad. Consider the beauty of the work of John Kitutu, a traditional 'Gisu potter in eastern Uganda. Ain't nothing John needs from any of us formally trained designers.

Susan Yelavich- A friend of mine covered his pit latrine in Bombo, Uganda with a cement slab in the shape of a face. One defecates into the mouth, then covers it with a plug. If that's not levity... Also, as regards a JYA experience, a student of mine just returned from 11 weeks working at a Community-Based Organization on Mt. Elgon. He had an incredible experience. As for crisis scenarios, a couple years ago some grad students at a middle-western design program contacted me asking if I could refer them to a real-life crisis. It seems they or their instructor had the idea to design way-finding signage for refugee camps. As a response to a the concept of "crisis" this still strikes me as typical of how designers can be absurdly beside the point.

Andrew Twigg- I think cell phones in the oral societies of sub-Saharan Africa are a good example of design that "is not out of touch." As to the complexites of what makes an object fail, maybe it's just too optimistic of us to assume that all objects ought to succeed.

John Kaliski- Your thoughtful remarks gave me pause. You're right, I am frustrated. Rob Peters, past President of ICOGRADA, once called me a "malcontent". Problem is, the Cooper-Hewitt recently initiated a mini-debate on these issues, but it's a discussion I and others have been carrying forward in the design press, both on and offline, for the last five to seven years with little effect. If "some designers" are "evaluating alternative means of practice" it is still a very small number. When exactly will the design press pick up the "trend?" Was the show "permeated with small scale thinking" or punctuated with it? A number of the projects were small, I agree, but the OLPC, for example, pretty handily supports my contention of "giganticism." Happily, the MIT Haitian charcoal project makes more sense than way-finding in refugee camps! I don't think I'm advocating "critical design evaluation" so much as critical cultural evaluation for designers.

Kaleberg- I agree with you; the problem is political. And economic. But many of those who can't say "no" are happy to be employed picking rice, or tea, or coffee because it's better than doing nothing. Unemployment is a very different creature in the developing world, and most people are happy to be employed in small-small ways.

Finally, thanks to Kristen Johnson for her links to Practical Small Projects. Designing technical solutions to benefit people in the developing world is not sustainable without follow-up. My donation of a computer to FDNC would have been hollow without Fred Quillin's on-site efforts.

To each and all of you, thanks for helping my argument resonate.
David Stairs

Will design save the world? Of course not. Not alone. I work for one of the organizations featured in the exhibit and we provided a lot of content for them. For us the exhibit has been a great success, but I would agree there are some important lessons that the exhibit did not convey.

The exhibit was about design and design is about the "thing". The problem is that designing the "thing" is the easiest part of the process. The hard part--the really hard part--is designing all the processes to get the "thing" made and distributed in a way that is fair and sustainable.

So much of what is being designed for the worlds poor is just wrong. Well-intentioned, of course, but still wrong (e.g. solar cookers). These are designed by people who don't understand the people and places they are designing for, or worse, they are so blinded by their cleverness they refuse to acknowledge fundamental realities. This is just arrogance masquerading as "saving the world".

K Weimar

We have to start realizing that the only people who can solve other societies' problems are the people who belong to those societies. In many ways, we are irrelevant to their situation. Only when we accept this fact can we begin to create positive change - by empowering people within those societies to design their own solutions, not forcing our own solutions upon them.

Can I design a successful campaign aimed at advertising studio executives, which aims to impress upon them on the value that graphic design could potentially provide if used for socially responsible projects?

This is an outline of my topic for exhibition in my last year of a Bachelor of Design (Graphic Design) at AUT, Auckland New Zealand.

I aim to target a mindset that feels political or social concerns are of secondary importance to the work of graphic design. My challenge I am facing is how to graphically or visually represent this without designing a direct example of socially responsible work. Help!
If anyone has any ideas on how to approach this subject visually, I will be eternally grateful.

Awesome post.

Can I design a successful campaign aimed at advertising studio executives, which aims to impress upon them on the value that graphic design could potentially provide if used for socially responsible projects?

This is an outline of my topic for exhibition in my last year of a Bachelor of Design (Graphic Design) at AUT, Auckland New Zealand.

I aim to target a mindset that feels political or social concerns are of secondary importance to the work of graphic design. My challenge I am facing is how to graphically or visually represent this without designing a direct example of socially responsible work. Help!
If anyone has any ideas on how to approach this subject visually, I will be eternally grateful.

Awesome post.

Bravo! David successfully reveals the profound political economy and cultural bias that underlies "design", that has rarely been problematized or challenged.

As an Indian designer/academic who works with grassroots organisations, this is a fact even within the Indian context, and the realization that design is a cultural WMD is sobering indeed. My current effort is to study core aspirations & values in a non-western society and speculate what that might mean for "design".

I recommend Ivan Illych's (1968) "To Hell With Good Intentions" [http://www.swaraj.org/illich_hell.htm] on the problem with "goodness".
Arvind Lodaya

hi David,

concerning the water problem you talk of, this link could interest you: http://www.nedapnaiade.com/


How does the harm created by an aid project launched by an NGO compare to that of a non-profit design project?

How do the methodologies of these relate?

With multi-nationals jumping on the market of "other 6 billion people" (http://www.idsa.org/design_about/report.htm), what shifts need to occur in design education?

I have found design education and literature to be glossing over the issues and self-congratulating on their "solutions". While other disciplines work for years attempting to understand a glimpse of what is happening. Design seems to jump in, claim a catch phrase, act, and spread a marketing campaign of methodologies to be used. The product focused methodology in an educational setting blocks in the student to thinking of problems as being fixable by an object, therefore ignoring the more complex social structures involved and how education in itself can serve to solve problems without a plastic cover.

I'm mostly perplexed, and have many questions on what is actually happening from many perspectives. If anyone is interested in continuing a dialogue through email please write:

[email protected]

I'm not really a design guy. I'm a programmer just looking at this blog post and saying, "Wow, that's how I felt about this exhibit, too." But I'm not just a programmer, I'm from the Philippines too. And my friend who accompanied me to this exhibit, is from India. I think we would both say, what the hell are you talking about, that we in the Third World are somehow so backward that we can't understand your fancy Western ways regarding equality for women? Both our countries have had female leaders -- where's America's? Oh that's right -- still playing around with Hillary's candidacy. We understand sexual equality in the Third World -- it's just that equal rights for all is a function of annual income just as it was in this country too. Why Westerners don't understand that is beyond me. Americans aren't so far removed from their chauvinist past themselves. Let's see one generation removed from abortion rights, one and a half from birth control and two to three generations away from suffrage.

We understand design too, the question here is that unlike yourselves, we were looking at the exhibit as if it was a Target store for our relatives. We still have farming relatives unlike most of the people here on who were responding to the original post. We still have relatives who subsist on $3 or $4 a day. We're just lucky enough to have immigrated and "made it". And like most items at Target, most of these items just didn't fit what our relatives needed, except for the mosquito net.

You know what my relatives REALLY need? Good sources of potable water and Lonely Planet books. Yup, LP is so informative for most of my relatives that I have to leave the books there every time I visit. And of course, potable water is a huge problem. I've noticed people would rather have this:


My relatives think that device is excellent. It's expensive but if someone could make it cheaper, it'd be great for young children so they could have clean water.

Oh yeah, we need cheap pap smears for women and everything in a first aid kit that you can buy at REI. Ahh, the Philippines, lots of nurses but no first aid supplies. We liked the idea of a super mosquito net but we really hated most of the shelter designs. We couldn't imagine our relatives using them or worse, roasting inside them.

Now that said, I put my immigrant Westerner hat on, and I liked the solar satellite dish thingy. It would be used to fry ants and scare the hell out of the neighbors with your newfound solar death ray. It's useless in a kind of funny useless way. Plus, it's too damn hot outside to be able to use it at its full potential.

Anyway, this isn't really about race or your particular life history in this world. Ultimately, it's about how sensitive you are to other people's plight. And that sensitivity works best if you're really informed and knowledgeable about a particular culture. Ethnography and design need to be merged together. All IT guys know that design solutions are better if driven by the users. I don't see why designers don't do that as well.
Allan Benamer

Political technologies advance by taking what is essentially a political problem, removing it from the realm of political discourse, and recasting it in the neutral language of [design]. Once this is accomplished the problems have become technical ones for specialsts to debate...we are promised normalization and happiness through [design] and law. when they fail, this only justifies the need for more of the same.
Dreyfus Et Rabinow

Design can't save the world, people can try to save the world and design is only one of the tools. If not used well, then you're not going to be able to do much. Design used as a part of a bigger, clearer picture can end wars, kill people, save lives, and make life more enjoyable. It just depends on who has the vision and who can execute that vision better than the next man.

Just because bad design exists doesn't mean good design can't be used to save the world :) don't be jaded!


David Stairs is a very smart and intelligent man. But, is the other 90% something we should really worry about? How about the 30% poor who live in our part of the world? How about letting the people in Africa figure out a way to help themselves rather than destroying themselves? Is design the answer or is design + science + democracy the answer? Questions to ask oneself.

David Stairs David Stairs founded Designers Without Borders in 2001 while on a Fulbright research grant to Uganda. In 2006, he became founding editor of Design Altruism Project, an online experiment dedicated to addressing the shifting character of professional design practice. Stairs’ latest portrait was taken by his son Chris one morning at the City Market in Bangalore where he was a Hindu for three hours. He teaches graphic design and design history at Central Michigan University.

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