20090203-beware-this-blogWe’ve hit the mother lode with Stanford’s d.school design institute. Especially with their class on Design for Extreme Affordability, we could fill this blog with just the products of this class and the school’s alumni.

The most interesting thing to come out of our furious d.school link-clicking, though, has been Ambidextrous Magazine, staffed largely by the d.school community. Not so much the magazine as an article from its Spring ’08 “Developing” themed issue. Krista Donaldson’s article, written by a product developer who works in third-world countries, warns us of the futility of “design for developing countries”.

We sat up. “Design for the developing world” is one of the potential taglines for this blog. Is this a collection of useless inventions, with no hope of making a positive impact on the world? The article opens with a yawn at the cliche recipe for news coverage about design for the developing world:

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“…nice young (usually white, usually male) Westerner visits (or reads about) poor country, is appalled by something he sees/reads, goes home and designs a solution, starts an NGO, and brings his solution to the poor country.”*

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“The accompanying picture shows a clearly impoverished – but happier – user with product in a dark hut or on a sunburned scrubby dirt road.”

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“The article…ends with a hopeful conclusion outlining the details of the product’s large-scale rollout plan in several countries.”

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The point of this article is that design needs to be in developing countries. “Remote design” fails to address the whole problem: a community unable to save itself. Donaldson believes remote designers fail to seek methods of local production using local resources and the local workforce; fail to evaluate whether their users actually continue to use the products after initial adoption; fail to tailor the solution according to the local culture, priorities, or values.

As a marketer, I can appreciate this perspective. Many social designers could stand to do a bit more market research before pushing a new technology to their target market. But I don’t think it is a requirement to live there in order to produce a great design.

There is one product featured here on CbD that is produced in local factories, saves money for its users without complex adoption, and has enjoyed global distribution support at the highest levels. This is the Olyset mosquito net for malaria prevention which, interestingly, was made possible by a large Japanese conglomerate, not a university design group.

*NGO = non-governmental organization. Kind of like a nonprofit. Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is a nonprofit. Oxfam is an NGO.