What’s next in design for development?

Published on 19 February 2016

Barely a day goes past without a new pronouncement about the importance of design thinking, human centred design, or variations thereupon, for international development and humanitarian work.

What does this actually mean in practice? According to an excellent overview by Geoff Mulgan, CEO of Nesta, design thinking in the social and public sectors involves the following five aspects:

  1. User focus: designers use ethnographically informed tools to better understand the perspectives those who will be at the receiving end of products and services.
  2. Creative problem solving: design thinkers often come armed with a suite of tools and methods that can help them develop more novel and radical solutions to longstanding problems
  3. Rapid prototyping – the notion of applying ideas quickly, failing and iterating underpins many different aspects of the new wave of development. This can apply to actual physical products (enabled by 3D printing and related technologies) through to fast creation and testing of new systems, services or reforms.
  4. Visualisation – design thinking often uses highly visual ways of framing problems and solutions, which ‘can have a surprising impact in cultures dominated by blocks of prose and the occasional data chart.’ (sound familiar?)
  5. Systems thinking – designers have started to draw on and adopt ideas from complex systems approaches, to identify root causes and asking the right questions to navigate complexity rather than dismissing it.

Mulgan also usefully sets out some common complaints about design thinking:

  • high cost of experts
  • lack of long term engagement with complex issues
  • a focus on creative generation ideas not being matched by intelligent approaches to, or interest in, implementation
  • weaknesses in how designers themselves learn: ‘eloquent on why other fields and disciplines need them, but not so good at recognising what they might need to learn from others.’

As is to be expected with any area of international development, there is a broad range of perspectives on design for development. The movement has high profile champions and advocates – perhaps most prominent was the 2013 WIRED article in which Melinda Gates and Paul Farmer argued that human centred design was the single innovation responsible for changing the largest numbers of lives in the developing world. To quote in full:

“Meeting people where they are and really taking their needs and feedback into account. When you let people participate in the design process, you find that they often have ingenious ideas about what would really help them. And it’s not a onetime thing; it’s an iterative process.”

Others see the design for development movement more pragmatically: that it has some uses but is no silver bullet, and comes with many costs and risks that need to be understood and navigated.

And, of course, a large number remain unconvinced. As one jaded NGO colleague asked me recently, ‘so design thinkers are basically expensive consultants with more stylish spectacles?’ Less facetiously, there remain serious concerns about whether the skills needed to develop new apps or products for the commercial market (and often the elite end of those markets) can meaningfully address political and social challenges of extreme poverty, inequality and marginalisation.

The partial counter to this is that there is some serious reflection underway by leading exponents and influential analysts from the design and innovation establishment. Last week, Tim Brown, the British CEO of the influential global design firm IDEO, published an article on the new frontiers of design thinking. In it he argued that applying human-centered design to the sectors that need it most – education, government, healthcare, development – demands some cultural shifts in the design community. In particular, he described design as needing to address silos within its own practices, to take on a more interdisciplinary and collaborative approach, and engage more with complex, ill-defined problems than simple, readily solvable ones.

Last year Panthea Lee, principal at Reboot, and one of the most thoughtful design thinkers working in international development wrote an excellent piece on the need for humility in design approaches. In a memorable turn of phrase, she suggested many design thinkers are ‘facing ocean-sized problems armed with teaspoons’, and therefore risk falling short of its  promise. The solution is for designers to ‘get involved in messy policy and political debates, and to go head-to-head with organisations and interests that would prefer we didn’t ask the tough questions’.

Strengthening design for development and humanitarian work

My own work as part of the global Design Thinkers network, looking at issues from large scale infrastructure to blood donorship, as well as the growing body of case studies of projects funded by the Humanitarian Innovation Fund (which I chair), makes me believe that there is considerable value in human-centered design, but it needs to be tapped and channeled effectively to make a meaningful contribution to development and humanitarian work. In the Nesta piece quoted earlier, Mulgan argues that three things are needed for design to contribute to public and social goals: design that is grounded in political, social and cultural contexts; designers who have multidisciplinary skills; and better methods go full cycle from idea generation through to implementation.

I would agree with all of this, but would also call for three additional changes and improvements for strengthening ‘design for development’ efforts.

1. More evidence on how design thinking is applied in different settings, and what the costs and benefits are. Sadly, serious research on the benefits or costs of human-centred design approaches is thin on the ground. I found a lengthy and very optimistic report by the Consultative Group to Assist the Poor on human-centred design for financial inclusion that noted in passing that human-centered design was not a silver bullet and could be very expensive.

A nice reflective piece was published last year by IDS associate and former colleague Carl Jackson of a specific human-centered design application in Making All Voices Count. There is an interesting statistical study of the uses of the IDEO human-centered design toolkit in developing country contexts. And there are growing numbers of PhD and Masters theses – for example, UNICEF have had some interesting research done on the contribution of human-centred design to their organisational innovation approach. But other than these few examples (and please do let me know if I’ve missed that essential and influential report that addresses the gaps!), the evidence base of design thinking for development brings to mind the old quip ‘data is not the plural of anecdote’. So we need more case studies and more comparative research, to ensure that design itself learns about what works and what doesn’t.

2. Explore more fully the creative and radical possibilities of design approaches. I think there needs to be more conscious efforts to pursue the possibilities for design to inform radically new and challenging practices, norms, behaviours and attitudes. At the moment, too much design is focused on the development equivalents of Henry Ford’s ‘faster horse’: making incremental changes to development and humanitarian work, within the confines of existing business models and assumptions..There is a old joke about designers that is relevant here:

Q: How many designers does it take to change a lightbulb?

A: Why does it have to be a lightbulb?

While this is often used in a derogatory fashion, I actually think it points to the potential power of design in development and humanitarian work: helping to redefinequestions; identify underlying problems; question assumptions; make new conceptual and practical connections, and open up creative possibilities.

3. New ways of building and democratizing design capabilities and skills – both within organisations, but also within the communities we seek to support. As with many other new areas, we have sought to bring in outside skills to suppot design, and in the process, the simple and usable set of ideas has taken on an almost mystical and arcane air.

Without building design skills and capabilities within development and humanitarian organisations, and making design part of everyday conversation and decisions, we risk simply grafting – at considerable cost – sticking plasters of creativity onto an otherwise routine and conservative sector.

And we clearly need to tap into the considerable ingenuity and creativity within the communities we seek to help. Otherwise we risk defining their lives only in terms of needs and gaps, and not in terms of opportunities and potential. Perhaps most importantly, we need to work on the principle that their designs matter the most for achieving meaningful change in their lives. Now that really would be ‘design for development’.


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