If you want to design for true impact, design for the neglected 90 percent. That’s the call-to-arms communicated through the current exhibition Design for the Other 90% which is nearing the end of its run at New York’s Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum.

Design for the Other 90% is organized around affordable designs that aid in helping people out of poverty, but it focuses squarely upon a degree of poverty most designers can’t even comprehend. For the most part, these end users live on less than two U.S. dollars a day, reside in the rural areas of developing nations and are operating just above survival mode: food, water and shelter are persistent worries. This exhibition addresses the bulk of the world’s population often disregarded in design circles because of a lack of individual buying power. The message here is clear: these are the people who design could benefit most.

There are many things Design for the Other 90% does well. It represents varied approaches yet offers consistent insight into the process of designing affordable products. It articulates both the passion and the practicality that go into this sort of design, where an intense desire to help must be channeled into precise planning and restrained materials. Cynthia Smith, the show’s curator, chose to put the exhibition outdoors in the Cooper-Hewitt garden, in effect bringing to life the function of these designs. The Big Boda Load-Carrying Bicycle, for example, is a bike that’s able to carry hundreds of pounds of cargo or two additional passengers; Cooper-Hewitt’s Boda Load-Carrying Bicycle has sat outside for an entire summer, exposed to heat and rain and sun, just as it would if it were being used in a Western Kenyan village. It still works like a Big Boda should.

In lieu of the white cube is a series of prefab emergency structures – the same emergency shelters used in refugee camps throughout Afghanistan and Southeast Asia, as well as in certain parts of the southern United States after Hurricane Katrina; they serve nicely as discrete outdoor gallery spaces. Within them are objects ranging from woven portable light kits created by women weavers in the San Andreas region of Mexico to the Solar Aid solar-powered hearing-aid battery recharger, developed in Botswana. And while the signage around the exhibition has faded over the months, the emergency shelters, designed by Ferrara Design, Inc. and Architecture for Humanity, appear unphased and sturdy as ever.

The show is a testament to the immense amount of collaboration required to create a successful product for this underserved group. In some cases, like the much hailed One Laptop Per Child program, design teams partner with governmental organizations to distribute products. In many cases, design teams in one country collaborated with design teams in another country, or school research teams reached out to help design firms in creating facets of a design. In all cases, however, designers collaborated with local end-users on various levels. In some instances the design teams join forces with their clients, as was the case with the Day Labor Station. Created through a partnership between day laborers themselves and the designers from Public Architecture, the Day Labor Station is a prefab building able to be used as an employment center, a meeting space or a classroom, with a kitchen and restroom attached to it. Public Architecture says that past efforts to create official day-laborer stations have been unsuccessful because they didn’t include day laborers themselves in the conversation. The Day Labor Station was created in direct response to what the laborers themselves said they needed.

Paul Polak is founder of International Development Enterprises, creator of two micro irrigation solutions shown within Design for the Other 90%. In his catalog essay for the exhibition, Polak offers up some meaty advice to would-be designers, describing what he calls the “trinity of affordable design”: cost, expandability, and miniaturization. He argues that if an object can combine these three categories along with rigorous field-testing, it is well on its way to successful implementation. Polak suggests that one avenue towards creating low-cost design is by “designing backwards.” That is, take the most current version and move back through its various iterations, back to the point that still retains the elements needed to make it successful for this new client, and then branch out from there. IDE’s Moneymaker Pump and Hip Pump are perfect examples of Polak’s philosophy, offering the local farmer a designed solution for crop watering on a small-scale, giving him or her an edge in the marketplace by expanding and enhancing the growing season. In the long-term, the most effective tools are those designed for people to help themselves.

Trying to figure out if objects in Design for the Other 90% plugged into Polak’s “trinity of affordable design” test was impossible, however, because the cost of each item was unfortunately missing from its description. Listing prices alongside materials would have lent the show a degree of relativity that would have deepened the understanding of who these products were aimed at, and who was in fact able to use them. The show could have taken this opportunity to point out that the price point of the Q Drum – an ingenious cylindrical container able to be filled with water and the rolled like a tire to its destination – was too high for the design to be effective: those who could afford it didn’t need it, and those who couldn’t afford it did. Not including costs was an unfortunate misstep in an overall solid exhibition.

The lesson of Design for the Other 90% seems obvious: that when designing poverty solutions, affordability rules. The problem, however, is that many designers don’t understand the sort of poverty they are up against. Polak suggests that for designers thinking about getting involved with these sorts of design problems, they should start with a brainstorming exercise: come up with a 10-cent serviceable umbrella. Designers will quickly come to understand that serious affordability problems truly put design thinking to the test, quickly eliminating easy answers found in expensive materials and technology. The lesson here for designers is that context, as always, is everything.

Pictured: Global Village Shelter, designed by Ferrara Design, Inc., with Architecture for Humanity. Manufacturer: Weyerhaeuser Company. Triple wall-laminated corrugated cardboard Photo: © 2005 Architecture for Humanity and Grenada Relief, Recovery, and Reconstruction, courtesy of Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum

Posted September 10, 2007