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)
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  • 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)


The hacker’s design process

Can the hardware hacker’s creative methods bring new insight to designers?
Generally, there is a negative stigma associated with the term ‘hacking’ due to black hat hackers hacking into private or Government servers. However, there are many forms of hacking, such as the ‘Ikea hacks ’which are the manipulation of Ikea products to adapt their functionality and ‘life hacks’ which are tasks or actions to reduce frustration of life. (Dictionary, 2016) Nevertheless, the term hacking remains a difficult concept to define as it can refer to many different practices.
One of the increasingly common trends is ‘hardware hacking’. This refers to any method of hardware modification through its electronics or by its behaviour. The physical modification of a device is generally straightforward i.e. disassembling or cutting into the device. However, when hacking electronics or when changing product behaviour or primary function, it can become complex due to ethical, legal reasons and violation of a company’s intellectual property rights.
“Hardware hacking – modifying a product to do something it was never intended to do by its original designer” (Grand, 2006)
In late 2015 Amazon introduced a more convenient way to purchase products from their store using the Amazon Dash Button. The button is designed to enable users to quickly repeat orders of products they regularly purchase. (Burgess, 2016) The device works by clicking a button which wakes up the device, connects to the Wi-Fi, orders the product from the Amazon Store and then turns off. The process is very simple and convenient for Amazon customers. But shortly after the device was introduced, other functions for this product were found. The device became instantly appealing to hardware hackers as this tiny adhesive physical trigger could be easily altered to change its function.
There are many ideas of how to change the functionality of the dash from controlling power outlets in homes to data tracking. However, every new idea for the dash is built from the same fundamental code irrespective of the function. As a result of the ‘Amazon Dash hacking,’ awareness of the hardware hacking trend increased worldwide from veteran programmers and casual hobbyist.
Hardware hackers begin by analysing existing products to find hardware exploitations. For example, a hardware hacker examined baby-tracker apps and found that they generally served a single purpose. However, as his baby’s needs kept changing, he hacked the dash and made alterations to track his baby’s data to discover patterns that would not normally be noticed. “I want a simple button that I can stick to the wall and push to records poops today but wake ups tomorrow.” (Benson, 2016) When creating the dash, the designers only concentrated on a solution to reorder products and did not consider any other use. Therefore, analysis by hardware hackers can lead to the discovery of new creative solutions to problems that the original designers did not consider or did not know existed.
As someone who has knowledge of programming and an interest in altering hardware, I purchased a dash when it became available in the UK. The motivation for my purchase was specifically to modify the dash’s primary function. After discovering and researching the Philips light ‘hack’, I repurposed my dash to turn my computer on remotely. (Dudes, 2016) Although, this modification was not as complex or innovative as some tweaks done, my dash served a function which was personal to me. I achieved the primary function alteration by using a python script and changes to the computer bios. After completing the adjustments, I realised that other ‘hardware hack’ modifications could benefit different areas of my life. I considered purchasing two devices in order to produce a stop and start or an execute and cancel functionality. I considered other functions the dash could perform to help the community e.g. a low-cost button to control multiple automated functions to open blinds and turn on lights for the physically impaired.
I believe that the concept of changing a product to solve a different problem to be interesting. When a product is disassembled, and rebuilt there is great potential for better design. Although this process may not be regarded as a typical design process, it could benefit designers as it can provide unique solutions. However, the real question should be whether designers should embrace the thought processes of hardware hackers in their design cycles?
There are various benefits of a hacker’s creative process. It encourages a free-spirited and unconventional form of thinking and proves that the repeated analysis of product exploits often reveals unexpected solutions. (Grand,2006) There are many examples of how hacker’s use their alternative thinking to find creative solutions to problems. For example, hackers created jackhammer hearing protection earmuffs which played noisy environment audio books. This solution offered better noise reduction than the commercial noise cancelling headphones and was significantly cheaper. (Hartmann, B., Doorley, S. and Klemmer, S, 2008) However, there are often negatives to the hacker’s methods and these can include ethical, legal and patent issues. Furthermore, their process only works when coupled with other creative processes, such as Double Diamond, as the hacker’s model focuses primarily on discovery, insight, opportunity and ideation. (Design Council,2016) Nevertheless, I believe hardware hackers can play an important part in the design process as they can offer a different insight into products which traditional product and software designers may not discover.
As an industrial designer, I have knowledge of various creative processes from IDEO’s HCD to the Design Council’s Double Diamond. Typically, these processes use a combination of divergent and convergent thinking. During the divergent thinking, I feel that the models do not focus sufficiently on
the existing product but rather on the investigation to find a possible solution, unlike hardware hackers whose core principal is the existing product investigation. The hardware hacker’s principle of finding and analysing product exploits often leads to the development of new functions and alternative solutions to problems. I feel designers often focus on the premise that a new product must be designed to solve a particular problem only. By comparison, hardware hackers frequently find their solutions through the alteration of an existing product.
As increasing numbers of product designers become skilled in the programming elements of design, knowledge can be gained by this method of innovation and iterative thinking to alter products in order to discover other functions and uses. I believe that designers could benefit from this different creative process, coupled with a more structured approach, that hardware hacking has to offer.
“The designer should try to break the security mechanism of those product, then fix them and try to break them again. Time should be scheduled for this iterative process during the design cycle. “(Grand, 2006)
Written by Robert Gittus (LinkedIn/Email/Medium)

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The Nudging Network

We are constantly making choices, every day, all the time, the majority of which seem relatively simple and somewhat subconscious. However, as the array of choices available to us grows, we are collectively becoming worse at reaching decisions efficiently. Barry Schwartz called this “The Paradox of Choice” (Schwartz, 2005), and suggested that we are becoming progressively paralysed by an excess of choice. “With so many options to choose from, people find it very difficult to choose at all”, which as Schwartz explains, after making an eventual decision, we are then dissatisfied if the outcome is not what was expected, therefore “subtracting from the satisfaction you get out of the decision [originally] made” (Schwartz, 2005).

Bounded rationality, a term founded by Herbert Simon is the concept that decision making is restricted by an individual’s ability to cognitively process the presented information in a given circumstance. Therefore it is easy to become overwhelmed by data overload because we cannot process this effectively. Christopher Wickens devised a set of principles to most effectively design displays. It was suggested that to “avoid absolute judgement limits” (Wickens et al., 2004) between five and seven levels of discrimination should be used to provide enough understanding, enabling the consumer to make a decision. Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky developed the theory of bounded rationality, forming insights that suggest ‘people are often not the best judges of what will serve their interests’ (Schwartz, 2014) but that institutions like the Government may be able to alter the structure of these choices to enable better choice making.

Nudging, shoving and smacking are new terms that have been coined over recent years by behavioural economists to describe methodologies that alter the way consumers react to stimuli. The Nuffield Council’s Bioethics Ladder of Intervention suggests that guiding a consumer to make certain choices begins with option reduction. The first level of restriction is nudging. If you provide the calorie count on a restaurant menu, this will encourage people to become more aware of their calorie consumption and therefore promote healthier living. The second level of restriction is shoving; this uses disincentives to make a choice less attractive. For example taxation on cigarettes could, in theory reduce their desirability, lowering the amount of people smoking. The third level of restriction is smacking; choice elimination leads to a definite result. Banning alcohol consumption in public places forcibly stops an action with fear of prosecution being the driver. Nudging pioneers like Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein have developed a concept of libertarian paternalism. The words appear conflicting; libertarian is defined as a freedom of will and paternalism as an authoritative restriction of freedom. However, as explained thoroughly in Nudge and Why Nudge? Sunstein and Thalers aim is to promote the use of cognitive psychology and behavioural science to “improve peoples’ welfare by influencing their choices” (Sunstein, 2014). But will this be used as a positive ethical tool or a means of which to control and coerce consumers ‘freedom of choice’?

In a commercial context companies can take advantage of this information overload by developing socially considered solutions. Identified as choice architects, they harness and analyse the cognitive and behavioural nuances that cause the inability to decide. In doing so they can produce; systems, environments, brands and products that are seemingly more desirable. In England, within the Cabinet Office there is a specialist group named the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) which aim to adapt public services to encourage “people to make better choices for themselves” (, 2016). As a government run initiative they have taken the theory of ‘soft paternalism’ to try and improve sectors like healthcare and finances to promote better decision making.

The BIT has completed numerous trials and studies using behavioural economics to underpin the methodology used. Two examples of these look at the healthcare sector, one highlighting a patient driven project and the other showing a health provider driven project. The first project undertook two randomised controlled trials to reduce the amount of patients that miss hospital appointments.  A series of SMS reminders were developed to encourage patients to attend. Three approaches were selected; Easy Call, Social Norms and Specific Costs. Easy Call outlined the simplicity of cancelling an appointment; Social Norms used a statistic to suggest that the ‘dominant social norm was to attend’ (Hallsworth et al., 2015) and Specific Costs directly advertised the cost incurred by the NHS for not attending an appointment. Each of these methods aimed to persuade the patient to attend an appointment for both their own benefit and for the benefit of the NHS. These trials saw a statistical increase in attendees. Would you consider this a guilt initiative or supportive reminder? In contrast an unrelated randomised trial was conducted with the intention to combat unnecessary prescription of antibiotics by general practitioners. GP practices that were in the top 20% prescribing rates were randomly assigned a letter. The letter stated that the targeted practice was prescribing at a higher rate than 80% of the local practices. This letter caused a reduction in the amount of antibiotics prescribed within the target practice. This Social Norm tactic worked both in a patient driven project and in the provider driven project. So does it matter whether it is a guilt initiative as long as the intentions are ethically grounded?

Behavioural intervention is a relatively new area of study that is up and coming, which has established itself worldwide with Nudging Networks in Denmark, Sweden, Europe and Australia. Nudging theory has been criticised as a manipulation of the public. Criticised for being a way of “covert coercion” (Local Government Association, 2013), using behavioural change to convince subjects to make altered decisions. With the combination of these statements intertwined with governmental power. There is an understandable question; why should we trust a government’s decision making ability rather than our own. After all, we are continually told to learn from our mistakes, not to be afraid of making them in the first place. It feels uncomfortable to be told that there are people that are analysing behaviours which are then used to guide, push, encourage and change consumer choices. So, is it manipulation or is it preventing choice disappointment?

Written by Francesca Oldfield  (LinkedIn/Email)

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