Design Impact: Design Solutions for the Developing World

January 11th, 2011

Good design can innovate solutions to problems we weren’t even aware of and create products that make everyday life easier. Ramsey Ford, a co-founder of Design Impact, spoke to Dowser about the myriad possibilities in harnessing the power of effective design in development work. His organization looks to implement design solutions for social problems related to poverty through fully-funded, international fellowships for designers. Below, Ford tells us about socially-oriented design, teaching design fundamentals to New Delhi high school dropouts, and getting charcoal briquettes to the market.

Dowser: How is design different, or related to, development approaches to social change?
Ford: Design Impact (DI) works with established grassroots organizations that are doing local empowerment and local education. They often look at what they are doing from a development perspective. In working with them, we provide a design consultancy service; so the two things [design and development] for me go hand in hand.

What makes a design-centered process different from development is putting design thinking earlier on in the process of business strategies. We are focused on how to create new services that solve problems, and create jobs at same time. We emphasize trusting and believing in the power of the design process to really solve problems in a unique and interesting way.

What exactly is the ‘design process’?
Design philosophy puts value on the idea that, in traditional business and product development, designers are connected both to technology development and consumers. There is a lot of power placed in that position. We have to consider: what is the technology, how does it function? Also, we ask, how will it be used, how will users look at it, how is this financially viable? A design practitioner should be uniquely positioned to understand enough about each of those questions, to find the right people and put those answers together. To do this, we work with technical people, engineers, research scientists, anthropologists and market researchers.

What does DI do that other similar social impact design groups don’t do?
DI is uniquely positioned in that we are the sole provider of fully-funded, international fellowships for designers. Other nonprofit design groups either apply designers in a volunteer capacity, or have them working from a distance. This prohibits designers from working on the ground, in a grassroots fashion.

Our design fellowship program is launching within a year. We are currently networking with other fellowship organizations to learn the process, so to not reinvent the wheel. Next week, we’re headed back to India to spend time networking and developing relationships with partner organizations for our fellows to work with.

What qualifies someone to become a fellow, and what does it entail?
Ideally, the fellows will come from a design background, but we consider this to be very broad. We are looking for professionals with research, design, engineering, or marketing backgrounds so as to create diversity within a project. The fellows will partner with organizations to determine the project needs. It’s a yearlong program. The fellows will receive pre-travel leadership training, and then they will spend six months on-site. We really believe that a long-term immersion process benefits all parties involved. After leaving the site, the fellows will become mentors through long-distance relationships for six more months. This lends sustainability to the project.

What products have you developed so far?
We have developed two products so far, both in India. The first is a charcoal briquette, and the second is a hand-made glycerin soap that will be sold internationally on the fair trade market. The design process for the briquette went like this: one of the NGOs we’re working with in the U.S. did some pre-trip research for us before we left to identify user locations and market densities, user needs, and information on how to make briquettes economically. They also looked at scenarios for distribution.

How do you plan to sell or distribute the briquettes?
The city where the briquettes are produced is only 50 km away from the user location. For distribution, we have linked up with women’s microfinance groups, which serve both as potential users, and also they can take the briquettes as an opportunity to make cash by selling them in their communities for a profit. We also have a local partner who helped with financial analysis for the distribution of the briquettes. They identified about 500 families in a Tamil Nadu, a city of 2 million, who will use the briquette on a frequent basis (five days a week). We’re thinking we’ll be ready to go with full distribution in February or March of 2011. The charcoal briquette retails at 5.5 rupees, and each seller stands to make one rupee per sell.

And what about the soaps?
The soaps will be sold internationally on the fair trade market. The reason for that has to do with the market for soap in India: the price points are very low, so hard to make a profit, without producing at a mass scale. The fair trade market is a place where the producers can get the premium price they need to justify the soap project. So far, we’ve networked on the U.S. side with Whole Foods and 10,000 Villages. One of our U.S. partner organizations, Kaleidoscope, did some market audits and consumer interviews for us pro-bono. The craft/fair trade market looks promising for these soaps, but there are no guarantees on that. Product and liability insurance is complicated. We have some experience doing that with previous products, and now we’re relying on our network of consultants to help us through some of those technical details.

What is the role of design education in your work?
We think that education is an important aspect of doing this work. It’s educating designers about the opportunities to do socially-oriented design, and how doing this kind of design works, and why to do it. We also target people who are not familiar with design, to show them why it can be useful in certain situations. We are trying to open up more doors for designers to do work. It also serves as a strategy to provide some funding for the non-profit, a diversified income scheme.

We hope in the long-term that our educational programs provide a way for us to have a broader influence, since many of our projects are specific to certain areas. This is a way we can be a part of a global conversation.

We’ve done everything from teaching courses at universities, to giving workshops, to corporate presentations. We’ve also taught high-school dropouts in Delhi about the design process.

How did that come about?
We met people from the India Habitat Center (HIC) through our host organization ODAM. They run a program in New Delhi for high school dropouts that focuses on cultural enrichment and technical education. They were interested in working with DI to provide a weeklong workshop that would teach the basics of design appreciation and graphic design. We worked with two groups of twenty students for four days. They developed flyers, using free design software that promoted safe and clean environments in their neighborhoods.

Interview was edited and condensed.

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