“Designers have been failing to humanize their work for years,” explains Brian Collins, president of the New York-based design firm COLLINS:. “The problem is that they apply a top down approach, where they impose their design onto something or someone. Yet what they should be doing is thinking of word ‘design’ as being synonymous with ‘empathy’ and working from the bottom up.

Bottom up design is actually more prevalent than Collins lets on. In fact, there’s a growing social awareness among designers, many of who are using their own empathic techniques to tackle some of the world’s thorniest problems. Collins for instance, designed the campaign around Al Gore’s Alliance for Climate Protection earlier this year, while Martin Kace of Empax heightened awareness of stem cell research, and World Studio Foundation partnered with AIGA (American Institute of Graphic Arts) to launch its Urban Forest Project. “My definition of good design is hope made visible,” explains Collins. “Which means, you want to do something that is responsive to people’s needs, ambitions, and dreams, but you also want to do something that makes things happen.”

Perhaps the most successful firm working in this area is also the biggest: the Palo Alto-based IDEO (eye-dee-oh). David Kelley, Mike Nuttall and Bill Moggridge founded the company in 1991 after designing the first mouse for Apple, the first laptop for GRiD and the first smart phone for Palm. But these days IDEO’s staff of 550 designers are working on such complex issues as childhood obesity, illiteracy, water distribution, and the energy crisis. “The role and responsibility of designers is changing,” explains Jessica Hastings, an IDEO designer specializing in social impact and organizational transformation. “It used to be enough to gracefully respond to identified customer needs for a moment in time. But now it is both a privilege and a responsibility to consider a wider array of system elements, including social and environmental ecosystems and a timeline that considers the entire lifecycle of objects and infrastructures.”

Hastings is not alone. Along with IDEO, Empax, COLLINS: and World Studio, there are now dozens of design firms looking to work with NGOs (non-governmental organizations) on equally significant projects. But they aren’t always very effective. In fact, most fail miserably. As developer Krista Donaldson recently wrote in Ambidextrous Magazine, too many designers parachute in and create products that fail to work properly, connect with users or find distribution. “If the goal is to sustainably improve the livelihood of people who do not have their basic needs met,” she writes, “then we need to talk more than the product.”

That’s why the Rockefeller Foundation recently hired IDEO to rethink the entire relationship between designers and NGOs. “Rockefeller’s idea was to get IDEO to help the design industry move further into the direction of social impact,” explains IDEO designer Jocelyn Wyatt. “And to give them tools to help them work with social sector organizations.”

The tools IDEO provided were in the form of a how-to guide and a workbook, which are available to designers worldwide. The contents, which were based on interviews with design firms, consulting firms, NGOs, and foundations as well as IDEO’s own success in the field, were designed to help designers visualize and realize a wide array of socially relevant projects – from web-based initiatives to new business models. “What we wanted IDEO to do was to take what they’ve learned about innovation in the realm of non-profits over the past 10 years,” explains Maria Blair, Associate VP at the Rockefeller Foundation. “And see which models work and which ones don’t, and then apply the best more comprehensively to the non-profit world.”

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Partnership for Clean Water Transport for Acumen Fund: Uniting businesses to solve developing world water issues
Image courtesy IDEO

IDEO did much the same for the investment firm Acumen Fund, which supports progressive, socially conscious businesses worldwide. Once again, IDEO’s team devised a series of workshops for Acumen Fund investees, which helped them visualize and implement the products and services that they might need. As Acumen’s Yasmina Zaidman explains, “the idea was to transfer IDEO’s design knowledge to designers [in the developing world] so that they could incorporate those ideas into their work and grow their businesses.”

If IDEO, which has offices in San Francisco, Palo Alto, Chicago, New York, Boston, London, Munich and Shanghai, is more suited than most to proscribe a new methodology for the design community as a whole, it’s because IDEO’s own methodology virtually revolutionized the design field in the 1990s. They call it “human-centered design thinking,” and it basically argues that a designer shouldn’t see him or herself as the creator of a product or service, but as the customer, or end user.

That means looking – really looking – at how people act and behave in a completely unbiased way. When asked to revamp St. Louis’ DePaul Health Center in 2005, for example, IDEO’s team checked into the hospital and remained there for weeks at a time. That wasn’t radical or revolutionary in itself, but by understanding the hospital entirely through the patient’s eyes, the design team could come up with design solutions that not only enhanced each patient’s experience, but improved the hospital’s overall efficiency. (They suggested making the rooms more comfortable by adding murals to the ceilings and healthy “mini-bars” to the cabinets; giving out “waiting kits” to outpatients, which were full of games, activities and water; and most importantly, they created a system to help staff members remember the names of each patient and family member.)

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Cockpit for Eclipse Aviation
Image courtesy IDEO

IDEO’s team has pushed the envelope of immersion techniques in thousands of projects since, often finding inspiration in the unlikeliest of places. (They spent time with NASCAR pit crews for instance, when looking for design solutions for an emergency room). That has produced an impressive array of elegant, user-friendly products that have garnered more awards than any other firm of its kind. They range from better kitchen appliances to more exciting DJ tools; from interactive dressing rooms to revolutionary hospital equipment; from friendlier bicycles to more ingenious cockpit designs; from more comfortable train cabins to more intuitive guidebooks. “Our belief in design thinking,” explains Hastings, “is that by taking an empathic approach you make the product relevant to yourself, which in turn, makes it relevant to others.”

Nevertheless, as Collins points out, user-based design solutions do have their limitations. “It gives you a very efficient incrementalism, which is valuable,” says Collins of IDEO’s methodology. “But it won’t give you Disneyland, the Guggenheim or Lord of the Rings. That takes vision and imagination on the part of the designer. After all, Parisians didn’t walk around Paris in the early 1900s saying, you know what we need? We need Cubism!”

That may be true, but historically speaking, designers such as Frank Lloyd Wright, Buckminster Fuller, Charles and Ray Eames, and the members of the Bauhaus, had more than their share of imagination and vision, and they too hoped to solve the world’s ills through design. If they failed – and many believe that they did – it’s because they and their Modernist peers put too much faith into science and technology, and not enough into regional needs, social behavior, economics, infrastructure and real world applications.

By contrast, today’s designers are now required to not only invent beautiful objects but to understand markets, behavior, publicity and awareness. As Empax’s Martin Kace points out, “the shift began in the 1980s,” he says. “That’s when branding became an essential business strategy, and as such required designers to take a larger systematic view of the world. It also required them to combine aesthetics with psychology, anthropology, and other social sciences to insure a stronger connection to buyers.”

Indeed, personalization – where the consumer identifies with the product or service on a personal level – is absolutely essential to great design. Yet, what may be more surprising is that designers working for NGOs and non-profits alike are now adopting the same branding strategy for themselves. Collins for instance, is working on “branding” the water crisis for the American public, while Kace is “branding” sustainability issues in Israel. “When you’re dealing with large, abstract issues it’s crucial that you make them as concrete, immediate and personal as possible,” says Kace.

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MoneyMaker Deep Lift Pump for KickStart: A human-powered irrigation pump
Image courtesy IDEO

That’s also why IDEO’s own, human-centered design approach has worked so well for companies looking to have greater social impact. By applying design thinking to troubling social issues, they’ve been able to come up with surprisingly effective design solutions. In 2003 for example, they helped a social entrepreneur perfect an inexpensive water pump called the Money Maker Deep Lift Pump by ApproTEC (now KickStart), which has had an extraordinary impact on both the design field and developing countries. “It was designed to help African farmers grow vegetables in the dry season,” explains Hastings. “And working with that organization awakened us to the power of applying human-centered design to some of the toughest problems in the developing world.”

Some of those tough problems include educational issues in Bangladesh (where the student-teacher ratio is 63 to 1), mixed-use housing designs for The Community Builders (the largest non-profit urban housing developer in the U.S.), and childhood obesity problems for Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Obesity is a complex issue that has a variety of cultural, medical and socio-economic drivers,” says Hastings. “But at a basic level it is a problem exacerbated by the fact that culture is suffering from over-consumption. Sustainability and obesity are similar issues in that they are both consumption problems threatening our survival (as individuals and society) stemming from our culture of abundance and our individual disconnectedness from the impact of our micro behaviors.”

While one would be inclined to give credit to IDEO for seeking out such projects, some of the credit should also go to consumers who are forcing changes within corporate culture. Hastings cites a number of clients who are doing just that. “Patagonia’s web-based Footprint Chronicles,” she says as an example, “marks a trend toward making transparent the development process by tracing the global manufacturing path of a product and highlighting what the company is doing environmentally as well as where they can improve. Another example is the Nau clothing website, which provides education about sustainable fabrics and hosts a customer blog site, Thought Kitchen, to invite collective inquiry.”

More importantly, corporations and foundations alike are turning business issues into social ones. As Zaidman of Acumen Fund points out, donations may help the poor get on their feet, but they aren’t as effective as investing in start-up businesses. “In the best case scenario,” says Zaidman, “the beneficiary [of aid] is a customer. The farmer who buys a KickStart pump as opposed to receiving one, will make further demands and refinements, which leads to the growth of an entire system. And that’s what we’re trying to promote.”

Meanwhile, First World countries are quickly realizing that the reverse may also be true. As Hastings argues, “I believe that social issues are becoming business issues. For example, obesity is a business issue, as seen by manufacturers of 100-calorie packs and the airline industry, which faces rising fuel costs due to passenger weight.”

According to Wyatt, that kind of awareness has not taken the business world by storm— but it’s starting to. “I started at IDEO a year ago. In that time, I’ve met an astounding number of people who genuinely want to use design to make the world a better place. And that’s not just designers,” she adds, “but also philanthropists, NGOs, and foundations, where there is genuine passion and excitement about doing this kind of work.”

Homepage and top image: IDEO worked with Shimano and Trek on their Coasting bicycle design strategy. Image © Trek, courtesy IDEO.

Posted August 11, 2008