Five Skills Designers Have That Global Development Needs

By Heather Flemming of Catapult Design, originally published on GOOD, April 1, 2013


“Development is being disrupted,” says Raj Kumar, President of DevEx, a site devoted to helping the international development community deliver foreign aid more efficiently and effectively. Beyond the buzz generated by the “social entrepreneurship” and “impact investing” communities, I’ve seen a significant shift coming from traditional aid agencies in the past two years.

In 2010, USAID, the agency responsible for administering US foreign aid, launched the first-of-its-kind Development Innovation Ventures quarterly grant program. Its funding model is inspired by traditional venture capital and the focus is on scalable and entrepreneurial solutions to poverty alleviation. Similarly, in 2012 the World Bank hired a former Silicon Valley director to lead their new “Innovation Labs.” UNICEF and the Inter-American Development Bank have also launched their own “Innovation Labs” with similar goals of promoting open-dialogue, new methods, and cross-pollination of models that enable innovative activity.

So with all this talk about “innovation,” where are the designers, the technologists, and the entrepreneurs? The folks behind these initiatives are still folks with international and economic development backgrounds, economics and finance. If they’re serious about innovative approaches, it’s time creative problem solvers are added to the equation. Specifically, here are five strengths designers have that the development industry direly needs:

1. We are systems thinkers.
The problems that plague our world are complex, interwoven, and multifaceted. As designers, we solve problems through a combination of analytic and creative thinking. Many of the best designers I know are themselves multi-faceted and multi-disciplinary. In addition to a design degree, they’re also engineers or MBAs or economists. It takes both sides of the brain to generate solutions to social challenges.

2. Fresh eyes.
Einstein’s “We can’t solve the world’s problems by using the same type of thinking we used when we created them,” couldn’t ring more true. Many of the social issues we’re fighting today have existed for decades and consistently been addressing using old mechanisms—policy, aid, and philanthropy. We are long overdue for fresh thinking to old problems.

3. We have a prototyping culture.
We make a lot of mistakes in development—mistakes that sometimes negatively impact people with everything to lose; mistakes that could potentially be avoided if the development sector fostered a culture of iteration and refining ideas before rushing to scale. Instead, I see a lot of money going towards untested ideas or worse yet, “solutions in search of a problem.”

4. We focus on people.
Many decisions made today that affect the poor are made by people completely removed from their issues. A designer’s viewpoint, driven by an understanding of the needs of people or end-users, is completely unique and lacking within the development sector. The key to better policy, better products, and better public services is rooted in understanding of the key players and what motivates them.

5. We create capacity.
We build things. We build products, services, websites—and by doing so we are intrinsically building the capacity of those who make, distribute, sell, or use what we create. On a fundamental level, giving people access to tools that enhance their capacity is what drives economic development. We play a central role in creating those tools that are useful, relevant, and meaningful.

$22.8 billion of our projected fiscal budget is earmarked for poverty-reduction activity in 2013. Traditionally, international development agencies use the amount of the money put towards poverty alleviation as a metric for efficacy. I’m hoping the next few years shift that metric towards understanding underlying problems and funding new solutions that address those problems. In order to do that, we need a new breed of development thinkers. The next generation of designers is inspired by careers that provide meaning and impact. Now is the perfect time for the development sector to start connecting the dots.

Image courtesy of Catapult Design

Catapult Design at Clinton Global Initiative

This post originally published by Heather Fleming on Catapult Design’s blog. To go to the original post, click here or on the post’s title above.

Clinton Global Intitiative kicks off this Sunday, September 23rd in New York with an opening plenary session on “Designing for Impact” with former President Bill Clinton.

Following the session, Catapult CEO, Heather Fleming, will facilitate a Design Lab asking “How can we provide reliable and safe energy to those in need?” with D-Rev’s Krista Donaldson. There are 1.6 billion people around the world living without power and electricity and nearly 2 million people dying prematurely each year from indoor air pollution caused by solid fuel use in the home. Catapult is pleased to lead the discussion on new innovations in  products, technology, business models and financing that will bring an end to this global inbalance.

Established in 2005 by President Bill Clinton, CGI convenes a community of global leaders to forge solutions to the world’s most pressing challenges.  CGI Annual Meetings have brought together more than 150 heads of state, 20 Nobel Prize Laureates, hundreds of leading CEOs, heads of foundations and NGOs, major philanthropists, and members of the media. To date, CGI member have made more than 2,100 Commitments to Action, which are already improving the lives of nearly 400 million people in more than 180 countries.  When fully funded and implemented, these commitments will be valued at $69.2 billion.

Catapult is thrilled to participating in this year’s Annual meeting and will be tweeting live from @Catapult_Design.  Tune in to the live webcast starting at 12pm ET.

If you’d like more information please email info[at]catapultdesign[dot]org.

4 ways to break the design process mold

This post originally published by Tyler Valiquette on Catapult Design’s blog. To go to the original post, click here or on the post’s title above.

At Catapult, we often don’t know what we’re doing.

That doesn’t mean we don’t have a clue, just that we frequently find ourselves doing things that haven’t been done before. At least not by our clients or us. But that is the hallmark of innovation – experimenting, exploring, pushing the boundaries of what we do and how we do it. And no place provides more fertile ground for the seeds of innovation than does design – creatively trying to solve a problem to achieve a specific goal. So how do we continue to push the boundaries?

Design firms the world over tout their proprietary “design process” as a veritable secret sauce to innovation, treating their particular flavor of design thinking as a patented method replete with branded stages. This is understandable. After all, we are all just trying to differentiate ourselves. And to the uninitiated it works. But, if you were to take a quick survey of all the different design processes, they all follow the same general flow. Something that goes like: explore -> create -> produce.

image via

And that’s all well and good. But there’s only so much innovation that can go on around the branding of a well-established process for tackling difficult challenges. Our feeling is that one of the areas in which designers can deeply innovate is not by simply following a tried-and-true process and repeatedly applying the same methods; but by also devising new methods and approaches to fit into the process.

The way is not always clear. In fact we’ve found that it looks different for nearly every client with which we work. And that is the bedrock of innovation – discerning what is called for in this instance – asking not what you’ve done before or what others are doing, but what this situation, right now, is calling for. And then doing it.

Here are four ways we’ve pushed our design process beyond the original, and traditional, model we adopted when we were just starting out. (Keep in mind that our work typically involves designing for end-users very far afield, both geographically and culturally.) Perhaps our readers are already building on these methods in their own practice?

1. Design mind-meld – Think of creative ways to integrate your expertise into the world of your clients.

Instead of doing your own independent research and preparing a report or delivering a prototype, insert a designer into your client’s team for an extended foray. By including a mind steeped in design thinking into their efforts to develop and implement a product, your client will be able to leverage the power of design much more broadly and deeply than they would have through a typical consulting agreement.

2. Extreme co-creation – Integrate the voice of the users into the products you design.

Co-creation has become a conventional talking point among design and innovation firms – as any quick search on the subject will show. If you can find these articles on co-creation in The Harvard Business Review, Forbes and Businessweek you know it’s mainstream. But instead of paying it lip-service, ask, how seriously involved can we get our end-users in the development of our product? Can we take prototypes to the field in order for them to provide feedback?

Better yet, can we modify those prototypes in real-time based on their responses? Even better than that, can we create and modify prototypes in concert with our end-users there in the local context? Can we include them in our concept generation as active, not just passive, participants? Can they be a key component of our iterative design->test->design->test cycle?

3. Design destabilization – Consider how to challenge the assumptions that underpin design directions.

Sometimes the best way of serving a client is not to do what they request, but to instead ask them hard questions and suggest possible options that aren’t necessarily in keeping with their original direction. Such questions or suggestions can dramatically change the course of a project or even lead to it being cancelled altogether (clearly not your desire). This can be intimidating, and should not be done lightly or without serious thought, but it is central to the integrity of your designs and for looking out for your clients’ best interests.

4. User-originate design – Ask how to turn the whole process on its head; instead of user-centered design, how about user-originated design?

image via

Here I am borrowing a phrase from Ralf Hotchkiss at Whirlwind Wheelchairs, where they are looking not to designers but to the users themselves for the inspiration behind their designs. This is stepping even beyond co-creation and is asking, “What if, instead of designing a wheelchair for disabled people, you instead taught them to design wheelchairs themselves and then supported them in doing so?” Can we remove our designers from the process altogether and let the users design their own products? Could they, perhaps, come up with better, more finely tuned, more considerate designs? This is a question Whirlwind is asking and, to me, is what innovation in design is all about.

In-the-field prototyping with Jugaad, MacGyver & me

Another great view into real world design and prototyping by Catapult Design—this time from industrial designer Noel Wilson.  Reposted with permission from Catapult’s blog, originally published here.

The value of a prototype is in what it can test. It isn’t always necessary to make it pretty, nor to make it function, it totally depends on what you are trying to learn from it. On a frugal budget, be it of time or funds, one prototype can be made to test many things, and then adapted again to test even more…but really prototypes were made to be broken, and if they last too long it is a sign you’re either not testing them hard enough or you’ve become too attached.  I admit…after sweating over prototypes late into the night in my makeshift workshops (set  up in hallways, bedrooms, bathrooms etc) and scrutinizing them for days or weeks, it is hard to let them go, let alone batter them until they fail. But tough love is justified in this case

Prep for the next days prototyping
– Preparing for the next day’s prototyping

On this trip I was headed to Rajasthan with Wello to visit a  mix of communities around Jodhpur & Udaipur to tune their device to better suit peoples needs and environment (see our Wello project page). I had to carry my kit on some challenging modes of transport to slice, melt, join, flatten, form, twist and repair our prototypes as we broke them.

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Design for Social Impact 2.0 [Catapult Design]

Following up on a recent post, Heather Fleming of Catapult Design shares her thoughts as an attendee of the Social Impact Design Summit on February 27.  The following was originally published on Catapult’s blog, reposted here with permission.

Last week Cooper-Hewitt and the National Endowment for the Arts hosted a “Social Impact Design Roundtable” with the gracious support of several foundations.  The premise for the day was defined by three questions:

  1. Where are the gaps in socially responsible design?  What are the biggest challenges?
  2. What are organizational models of successful and sustainable ways of working in socially responsible design?
  3. How can we effectively prepare future generations of designers for this growing area of design?

So what were some of the outputs from the roundtable?  Expect a whitepaper synopsis by Julie Lasky available on the web in the next few months.  But in case your expectations are high, there wasn’t any particularly new information revealed at the session.  In the past four convenings I’ve attended, we’ve identified more or less the same challenges: