Re-Blog: “Why ‘Design For Development’ Is Failing On Its Promise”

I saw this article today and was immediately interested in reading it.  As most of you readers might know, I have a background in industrial (product) design, and have studied/worked/read quite a bit about the development sector.  World issues is my passion, and I was interested in what others had to say on the topic of my chosen (hopefully future) career.

For those who don’t understand the idea of “design for development”, here’s a simple explanation from the blog:

…in response to the interest expressed by international organizations and donors, including Melinda Gates, nearly every major commercial design consultancy has launched a “social innovation” arm, including Ideo, Frog, and (the latest) Dalberg. This community is taking the tools that corporations have used for decades to create products and services that people want and applying those to the public space to create the products and services, like medical care or access to education, that people desperately need.

This work is usually done in conjunction with governments, NGOs and large foundations, who usually hire a design consultancy to mange the interaction with all of the stakeholders and deliver a final idea/model/system (depending on what the situation calls for).

The author is Panthea Lee, and although she has a private sector background, she now works in this growing field of “design for development”.  The article focuses on a specific project her firm was selected for, helping to manage voter registration in Libya, a country which had lived under the same leader for over 40 years.


The author addresses some key problems that can and do occur in this sector:

  1. The “end-user” is often no longer buying the product, and therefore cannot use their dollar to “vote” for which products work/they like.
  2. It is often difficult to measure the desired outcome (i.e. How do you measure improved governance?).  Even if your NGO/funder has a goal in mind (e.g. increase the number of schools with bathrooms by “x”), does that really measure the intended goal (getting more girls to stay in school)?

Don’t get me wrong here.  I’m not saying all design for development is good.  Like all development projects, there are some important considerations which much be considered (community consultation, monitoring and evaluation, understanding the context, etc.) and important design considerations as well (testing different models on a small-scale, understanding the user, working with appropriate technologies and materials, etc.).  I’m not even saying all design is good for society (does having a new iPhone every 6 months really improve well-being?), so why would all “design for development” be good?  A design can only ever be as good as the designer and their understanding of the product (which is generally a problem that a user wants to solve, such as a faster way to travel on rough terrain, a better clean for your clothes, or improved access to knowledge).


Many NGOs/funders think of the populations they serve as simply “beneficiaries”.  Basically, “we are rich, so we owe it to *the world/karma/religion/ourselves* to help these poor people.”  This really isn’t a good mindset, and groups who want to give products with this in mind are bound for failure.  This old mindset assumes that any product we give poor people will be great, they can take our old left-overs, because they have nothing.  This is rarely appreciated by people in developing countries, and the products are not well suited to their culture/environment/etc.  I think good designers always consider the end-user, and no group should take the billions of people who are currently living in poverty for granted, and label them as “non-consumers”, or things are going to change pretty quickly for them in the years and decades to come.  People in “developing countries” may not have huge sums of money to spend on frivolous products, but they are huge groups who can buy inexpensive products which improve their lives.

The key argument of the blog is:

We’re facing ocean-sized problems armed with teaspoons.

Okay… that’s true, but so what?  I think it’s better to start tackling the problems we can and getting a bit of that ocean out of the way in order to solve the easy problems first.  People lives are still improved (even if it seems incremental) and it allows communities to open up and demand larger change.  It’s hard for citizens to protest for democracy when they’re worried about what they’re eating for their next meal.  So maybe designers aren’t miracle-makers, but maybe they can bring people up to the level where they can become consumers who start advocating for the changes they would like to see in their society.  Isn’t it worth a try?  The author agrees, and ends by saying:

..if we’re willing to tackle the thorny problems, to get involved in messy policy and political debates, and to go head-to-head with organizations and interests that would prefer we didn’t ask the tough questions, designers can be part of larger solutions.  Each of us may only have a teaspoon. But if we’re all scooping in the right direction, maybe we can start to make some waves.

I would love to hear your thoughts on these issues, or anything related to “design for development”!


About Amanda

Hi, I’m Amanda! Originally from Ottawa, Canada, I am currently living with my partner (Steve) in Sucre, Bolivia for the next year. I work in the unique space between industrial design and international development – but what does that even mean? I’m passionate about working WITH marginalized communities in a way that utilizes design to improve the lives of different types of people around the world. I have worked, studied, traveled, and researched on every continent (except Antarctica), and most recently I lived in Ghana, Bangladesh and Nepal. I love exploring new cultures and learning more about myself along the way.
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