Social change

XVII.3 May + June 2010
Page: 52
Digital Citation

Solving the world’s problems through design

Nadav Savio

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"The only important thing about design is how it relates to people."—Victor Papanek

Emily Pilloton wants to change the world one step at a time through the transformative power of design. And she expects you to help. Pilloton is an industrial designer who, fed up with the crass commercialism so often found in her discipline, set out to shift the way product designers think about what it is they do. She wants designers to move beyond a narrow focus on the products we make and embrace an important mission: to design with the goal of bettering the world.

Design Revolution is two books in one. The 100 products showcased here serve both as examples and inspiration. As Pilloton writes, "Design Revolution is both a reference and a roadmap, a call to action and a compendium." And the products are incredibly impressive, both for the breadth of contexts and problems they attempt to solve and for the cleverness and thoughtfulness of the solutions.

The collected projects are neatly organized into broad categories: water, food, well-being, play, energy, education, enterprise, and mobility. Here are a few examples:

  • Joshua Silver's Adaptive Eyecare are eyeglasses with fluid-filled lenses that can be manually adjusted with little or no medical training and cost about $10 per pair.
  • Walk Score is a free online application that measures the walkability of a given location, helping fundamentally change the way people think about their homes and the built environment.
  • Freecycle is a simple email-based platform that makes it easy to give away unwanted goods. These relatively simple online products are deeply changing the way we think about how we live.
  • Maya Pedal recycles bicycles into pedal-powered machines—everything from water pumps to washing machines (still in the prototype phase). The best part is that the organization shares the designs with other NGOs.
  • Antivirus is a simple plastic cap that snaps on to empty soda cans, turning a plentiful local material that would otherwise be garbage into a muchneeded safe collection system for used needles.

Design can be conservative (the proverbial better mousetrap) or subversive. In my opinion, the best of these products are not just beneficial devices, but deeper interventions that change the terms of social or economic reality. The hippo water roller designed by Pilloton's own Project H, for example, not only enables people to carry more water in areas where attaining water requires a long trek, but it has also led men in those areas to view water gathering as a more masculine task, leading in some cases to higher literacy and education rates for women and children and larger numbers of women-run businesses. This goes beyond a revolution in design to revolution by design.

Providing context for this catalog of world-changing ingenuity, Pilloton begins her thoughtful, if somewhat rambling, introduction with a critique of the role designers play in the global economy of goods. Mass production means designers have the ability to make big change through the amplification of their ideas, but this power brings great responsibility. The ripples can be negative or even deadly—overflowing landfills from disposable goods; injuries, illness, and deaths from dangerous products; and a culture fixated on consumption as a means to satisfy deeper human needs. As Pilloton succinctly puts it, "Product design...must own up to its power to both improve and harm on grand scales and use this potential as an opportunity to empower rather than damage, to encourage people-centric engagement not retail therapy."

Next, she neatly introduces foundational concepts like social entrepreneurship (which expands business focus to the triple bottom line of people, planet, and profit), appropriate technology (the right materials and design for the context), and design thinking and explores their relationship to design for social good.

With the context set, Pilloton urges readers to take first steps toward designing for social impact with her repurposing of Nike's tagline: "Just do something." To this end, she provides a thoughtful personal oath for designers to take, including such statements of intent as "go beyond doing no harm," "listen, learn, and understand," and "serve the underserved." Some of the book's greatest depth and value is in this tactical section. Pilloton suggests that product designers—who are typically trained to fetishize beautiful and cool objects—consider designing solutions that have no product, focus on impact rather than features, and design for needs rather than markets. These ideas may seem obvious to those of us who have long understood the difference between products and ecosystems and who come to design from a humanist point of view, but to much of the industrial design world, they really do represent a revolution in how people understand their basic role.

I have to confess that reading this book made me a bit jealous. As the saying goes, designers are inherently optimistic—the whole point of the discipline is to make things better. In reality, we tell ourselves lots of little lies about how what we do makes the world better by making things easier or more ergonomic or convenient. But placed next to, say, a cheap, rugged, easily repaired water filter designed for people in areas with little or no clean water, that new running shoe, remote control, or website we may have designed seems, well, crass at best. It's natural to want to do good as a designer, but it feels fairly difficult to know how to begin. So, reading page after page of inspiring, world-changing product designs made me wish I were making things like this too.

And that's the point. Reading Design Revolution should make us a little bit uncomfortable. Its intent is to change behavior.

Does it succeed?

To do so, it needs both to inspire and empower. As inspiration, the book is an unquestionable success. Reading through these projects, it's impossible not to begin to think about the role that design can and should play in making our world more humane, more livable, more sustainable—in short, a better place. And it's difficult, even if you didn't start out there, not to want to take part.

Recognizing the need to reach young designers with her message, Pilloton recently embarked on a 25-school tour of the U.S. in a vintage Airstream trailer. At each stop, students (and teachers and passersby) have a chance to examine, talk about, and play with many of the products showcased in the book. The message is clear: This stuff is real (as are the problems it addresses), and it's meaningful and accessible: You too can join this revolution.

Inspirational? Absolutely.

At first Design Revolution seems a bit thin in the empowerment department. Despite its fairly lengthy introduction, I left the book with many of the same questions I brought to it: How can I support myself doing socially beneficial work? What kinds of projects might I contribute to? How does design fit in to the really big questions? What projects most benefit from design? And so on. In the book and the accompanying downloadable "tool kit," Pilloton does a great job sketching the rough outlines of how designers think about designing for social good, but the book is ultimately more a celebration than a manual.

This follows the quasi-punk entrepreneurial stance of Project H. You don't need tons of money (Project H began with $1,000) or a fancy office (Emily started the organization at her parents' kitchen table); just find a way to do it.

On deeper reflection, the focus on inspiration is probably appropriate. Pilloton is not just trying to change individual behavior right now. She's trying to change our cultural understanding of design from the act of forming things to that of changing conditions. Hers is a long-term project.

With that in mind, I was occasionally disappointed that while the title raises the question of design revolution or plain old regular revolution, Pilloton rarely questions the basic social structures that maintain many of the problems these products attempt to alleviate. Project Inkwell, for example, the client for the IDEO-designed Spark educational device, is a consortium of technology companies with a direct interest in the introduction of technology to the classroom. While the Spark may be a wonderful product with real educational benefit, I'd suggest that the core design problem facing public education is significantly deeper. Given a situation in which schools don't have enough money for basic infrastructure, materials, and teacher salaries, encouraging them to spend money on hightech devices like the Spark seems neutral at best as a strategy for improving education.

This last point is significant, I believe. Without this deeper consideration, designers limit themselves to treating symptoms—putting the proverbial lipstick on a pig. The power of design is not just in solving problems but also in reframing them entirely. In that sense, some of the examples in Design Revolution fall a bit short.

Still, these are quibbles. Taken as a whole, Design Revolution is a fantastic sourcebook of inspiring designs and creative problem solving and a deeply humanistic call to arms. Pilloton wants nothing less than for designers to focus their energy, knowledge, and talent on making people's lives better. This plays out in ways stark (access to clean water, affordable prosthetics) and subtle (the joy of making your own soccer ball). It is perhaps this message that comes through most clearly in Design Revolution: We are a human family, and design can be an act of caretaking and community.

Long live the revolution!

back to top  Author

Nadav Savio is a senior user experience designer at Google, where he has led design for mobile and Web search, helped develop an SMS-based trading application for sub-Saharan Africa and, most recently, is working on the upcoming Earth Engine platform for Google. org. Before joining Google, Savio helped design and build some of the earliest commercial websites at Hotwired and was a founding principal of Giant Ant, where he designed Web and software products for Fortune 500 companies and startups including Electronic Arts, PBS, Qualcomm, and Yamaha, and PBS. He is motivated by empathy, social conscience, and a belief in the power of visualization to help people make good decisions.

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back to top  Figures


UF2Figure. Football Tape. A roll of tape and discarded newspaper can take the place of an expensive leather soccer ball.

UF3Figure. SpiderBoot. Designed to protect landmine detection teams from injury, the boots distribute body weight making detonation less likely.

UF4Figure. Adaptive Eyecare. An attached syringe fills the membrane lenses with liquid, making the glasses more concave or convex. The wearer can adjust the glasses accordingly until their vision is corrected.

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