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May 17, 2007

Design for the Other 90%

Posted in: Activism,Art/Design

90% of people on Earth don’t benefit from design. That’s because they lack the means to purchase the most basic goods and many lack access to food, clean water, and shelter. What does it mean to design for this massive but radically different audience? Design for the Other 90%, an exhibit now at the Cooper-Hewitt, asks just that question and gets plenty of fascinating answers.

The exhibit highlights 30 products, many of them striking: from a straw that takes dirty water and renders it drinkable to a fashionably woven solar panel sidebag that provides light at night to a pot that uses sunlight to cool. The real stars of the show, though, are the stories behind the designs. Take the Kickstart Moneymaker Pump, which was originally designed to put the operator’s hips at eye level. Using an up and down motion, the pumper is able to irrigate crops at an impressive rate. But, since irrigation is largely done by women, all that eye level hip motion was seen by community members as a bit, shall we say, inappropriate. So the designers had to rework their design to lower the device significantly (a not insignificant engineering challenge) in order to make a product that would sell.

Designing products to sell (and cheaply) into this massive underserved market puts up some great challenges. Profit motive doesn’t die; it gets reinvented. Third world entrepreneur Paul Polak puts it this way:

  • If you haven’t had good conversations with your eyes open with at least twenty-five poor people before you start designing, don’t bother.
  • If what you design won’t at least pay for itself in the first year, don’t bother.
  • If you don’t think you can sell at least a million units at an unsubsidized price to poor customers after the design process is over, don’t bother.

It’s these kinds of stories and insights that inspire, so it’s a shame more of them aren’t told in the exhibit proper. (You can find them in the companion book.) Regardless, seeing design work so different from what we’re accustomed is exciting. And I hope that excitement is catching.

Design Life Now, another show at the Cooper-Hewitt, showcases the best design for the 10%. That show takes up all three floors of the main museum (and it’s busting at the seams). By contrast, Design for the Other 90% fills just half the courtyard. The difference in size drives home how fully slanted design is towards the richest of the rich. But the fact that the two exhibits stand side by side in the Smithsonian means that designers are taking the 90% more seriously than ever, and that’s heartening. Making beautiful objects that deeply matter — it’s hard work but the results reward the soul like little else.

Find more at the Design for the Other 90% website. Hear interviews with the curator and participating designers on WNYC.org.

Last time we hit the Cooper-Hewitt, we grabbed a few undercover photos of Ratatouille.

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