Dear Design Student: Drop the other 90%

There are 21.3 million refugees around the world (UNHCR, 2015) ; meanwhile, 22 000 children die every day because of poverty (United Nations Children’s Fund, 2015). But don’t you worry: there are thousands of young, over-enthusiastic creatives who believe that their exquisite design thinking can solve many of these problems. 

‘Making a REAL difference’ has never been more ‘sexy’ and it seems that academic institutions allow the students to get hooked on their shallow definition of design for development.

Let’s start from the beginning: how come that the current design students want to make a meaningful impact in the Third World? The answer is easy: it is not just the industry we work in, it is the entire generation. 7 out of 10 millennials consider themselves social activists (TBWA/Worldwide agency et al., 2013), which certainly contradicts with their stereotypical image of narcissistic, ego-centred ‘unique-snowflakes’. However, looking at the socio-political background throughout their childhood one can clearly see where they got their inspiration from. They were the first generation to learn about Millenial Development Goals at school and they’re the ones who came across the news of Rwandan genocide while swapping TV channels. Thanks to the Internet Network, any information about any place in the World has always been within the reach of their hands. Having followed the mainstream media, who present Africa as the nest of poverty and problems, no wonder that 84% of Millennials would travel abroad to participate in volunteer activities ( Marriott Rewards Credit Card Survey, 2015), and that Africa is second most popular continent to follow their ambitions (Salvesen, 2014)

Considering current design education, focusing on ‘making a positive change’, the idea of designing for the developing world is just too attractive to resist. The problem arises when the students are taught only about the positive potential of projects but remain unaware of the countless scenarios when the solution turns into a wasted investment. I remember one of my first lectures at Product Design course when we were shown One Laptop per Child (OLPC) project. Hundreds of thousands of laptops were distributed to children in various developing countries to enhance their learning opportunities in both home and school environment. The project was shown as a star example of using design to create durable, low-cost, educational tool. Later I researched the project myself and found out that its’ implementation failed on many levels, mainly due to the lack of basic understanding of the socio-cultural context. “If you’re a $2-a-day family, are you really going to let your kid take the most expensive thing in the household to school every day?” commented Kevin Starr, founder of Malaga Foundation (2010). In the end, OLPC did not have any impact on the test scores in reading and math in at least four participating countries (Israel, Peru, Romania and Nepal) (Melo et al., 2013). How come we were never taught this side of the story?

“Not making a difference’’ is only one problem. Design students are not being warned that badly applied humanitarian aid project brings far more harm than not doing anything. In the 1950s and 60’s United Nations dug half a million wells in Bangladesh without testing them, and it turned out that 2 out 5 of them were contaminated with arsenic which led to one of the largest mass poisonings in human history. But the story doesn’t end here. UN’s solution was to mark the safe walls with green paint, and the poisonous ones with red paint. Villages ended up believing that because the red wells were tainted, the girls living nearby were tainted too. Many young women became unmarriageable and therefore sold by their families into prostitution (Zolli, 2013). It is a drastic example that shows how humanitarian aid can turn into completely unexpected direction. It is difficult to face the possible negative effects of the project right at its very beginning but when it comes to design for development it’s essential that the students learn how to think very critically of their own ideas, so such mistakes as the project in Bangladesh are not being repeated.

No short-term research about the developing world will be able to give enough insight to bring social innovation to the community. In my point of view, educational authorities who let students believe they can make a difference behave highly hypocritical: they are obsessed with the importance of the user-insight and sympathy tools but on the other hand they let students pursue projects about experiences that are as far as possible from their everyday life. I recently came across a project by students of Royal College of Art in London who designed a coat for refugees based on one talk with an aid worker from Doctors Without Borders (on top of that: throughout one-week design ‘hackaton’). But a single chat is not enough, and the young designers must acknowledge that international development specialists shouldn’t be their interviewees: they should be their collaborators. Per Heegens, CEO of IKEA Foundation, said that the first step in the design process of designing portable refugee shelter was contacting United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) “because they know a lot about what works and what doesn’t, and when you develop a product like this you want to develop it with the people who will actually use it ” (2016)

Students leave the university convinced that their limited expertise in international development and design skills are enough to address the socio-political issues of the highest complexity. The problem arises when they unintentionally transfer their adolescent, ignorant attitude into their future professional practice. According to Panthea Lee, (co-founder of social innovation firm Reboot and UNICEF advisor), the problem already exists within the current creative consultancies in an attempt to design for social innovation and developing communities. ‘’(…) a lot of design firms now going to the public sector and to NGO’s saying, ‘We’re designers, we’re here to help you!’ And they’re like, ‘What are you talking about? You don’t speak our language, you don’t know development theory, you don’t know our approach.’ ‘ ’ (2011)

It is now time to take action and change the way we teach design for development so the future design leaders don’t make the same mistakes.

So, dear design educators, YOU are in the leading position to make the young generation of creatives more responsible global thinkers. Encourage them to collaborate on long-term projects with experts in social sciences and humanitarian aid specialists. You must push your students to seek the information from the outside of their ‘knowledge comfort zone’. Show them UN online databases and Multiple Indicator Cluster Surveys ran by UNICEF (annual report presenting statistical data regarding life conditions, divided by country and region) and make them read every single page about the community they design for! Solid secondary research is an irreplaceable basis of any design project, and it must be done with an exquisite attention to detail when we approach scenarios from the developing world. Remind them that their university-level projects are there to expand their knowledge: not to make them responsible for ending poverty on the other continents.

But most importantly, ask your students to ‘humble-up’. Because, as Panthea Lee explains, ‘the world’s most intractable problems are deeply rooted in massive systems, while design is a discipline focused on the edges’. (2013)

Written by Anna Palgan (Email)



  • Rob Bye (2014) AfricaBike – Enabling education in Africa [photography]. Available at: (Accessed: 12 November 2016)
  • Who Wants to be a Volunteer?. (2014).South Africa: SAIH Norway, Kinge, K., Edland-Gryt, S. and Skaar M.K. (Accessed: 12 November 2016)
  • UNHCR. (2015) Figures at a Glance [infographic], Available at: (Accessed: 2 November 2016)
  • United Nations Children’s Fund (2015) ‘Levels & Trends in Child Mortality’, New York. Available at (Acessed 2 November 2016)
  • Amanda (2015), ‘How Millennials Travel Differently ; written on behalf of Marriott Rewards Credit Card from Chase’, A Dangerous Business Travel Blog, 19 June 2015, Available at: (Acessed 10 November 2016)
  • Salvesen, A. (2014) ‘2012 Annual Volunteer Report Evaluation’. Available at: (Accessed: 10 November 2016)
  • TBWA/Worldwide, Take Part (2013) The Future of Social Activism [infographic]. Available at: (Accessed: 2 November 2016)
  • Starr K. (2011) Lasting impact, PopTech Conference 2011 at Camden, Maine [podcast]. Available at: (Accessed: 5 November 2016)
  • Melo, G., Machado, A., Alfonso, M. and Viera, M. (2013) ‘Profundizando en los efectos del Plan Ceibal’, Comentarios finales, 5, p.24. Available at: (Accessed: 2 November 2016)
  • Zolli, A., (2010) Failure and its upside—a report from the 2010 PopTech conference, Available, interviewed by Marcia Stepanek for Stanford Social Innovation Review, Available at: (Accessed: 5 November 2016)
  • Morby, A. (2016) RCA students design wearable dwelling for Syrian refugees, Available at: (Accessed: 10 November 2016)
  • Lee, P. (2011) ‘A Better World By Design: Spotlight on Panthea Lee of Reboot’, interviewed by Dave Seliger on Core77, Available at: (Accessed: 5 November 2016)
  • Lee, P. (2013) Why “Design For Development” Is Failing On Its Promise. Available at: (Accessed: 9 November 2016)


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *