Design as a Tool for Progression
By Alex 24-05-2019
With design thinking being applied to many areas, we look at some examples of where design is making a real difference to the lives of others….
We Live in a society where the influence of design surrounds us in every direction, impacting every part of our lives, from communicating and interacting with one another to taking care of our health and wellbeing. We’ve become accustomed and in some cases heavily reliant upon the huge benefits that technology and consumerism can have within our lives, reshaping so many aspects of day to day life. Whilst design itself as a process and mind set has so much to offer in terms of enhancing our experience of how we go about our lives, gradually improving what we already have and generating new solutions for problems which are only emerging, in most instances we already have the ground level solutions in place which have evolved to improve and enhance the quality and experience we gain whilst using products to satisfy their needs.
A simple example is how we obtain water to drink, clean and cook with. In the UK we’ve had a working water pipe infrastructure running since the 18th Century where there was a gradual shift towards preventing disease and to provide access to clean water. Once in place, there was no longer a significant need for water provision to the same level beforehand, only a desire to improve the experience and access to it based on convenience. This aspiration to move to the next level is common in most situations we will experience, and has been recognised for some time.
Maslow, an American psychologist whose work focused on understanding what motivates people led him to believe that we are inspired to achieve certain needs, and when one is fulfilled, we move to the next level. He identified these different stages of need back in 1943 in what is commonly termed as Maslow’s hierarchy of needs which is illustrated below. His work within this area relates back to the point of how we interpret design and understand where its uses lie. Whilst many may see design as a signifier of wealth and a way in which we can outwardly reflect our social status, this is only one of many directions in which design can be used to improve our quality of life.
As we can see from the hierarchy of needs, there are 5 distinct levels progressing from the bottom up. As you move up, the needs become less crucial to survival and more of a benefit of living in a democratised society. If we purely focus on water provision, we can see it lies at the bottom, symbolising something which is essential to our existence. But if we were to take that through to the top, its meaning would gradually shift till the point where it were no longer about the water as a factor of living but of its meaning and how we relate to and access it.
This of course is not the case for all, as societies and nations hold their own stages of development. Whilst the western world have significantly moved people’s needs up the hierarchy, there are still many countries where the needs of their people still lie at the bottom. Design is playing its part to make a difference to provide relevant solutions to these needs, just as it plays its part in the developed areas of the world, although solving needs with dramatic differences.
There are countless examples of people looking to address these issues within countries through employing design thinking. Hippo roller, a pioneering example of innovation in water carrying is a product developed from the social enterprise Imvubu. It was created to tackle the problem of how many people in less-developed countries, primarily rural Africa still collect and carry water on their head. The Hippo roller solved this issue through completely changing the way in which the individual interacts with the water, allowing them to pull it behind them in a water barrel, increasing the volume they can take as well as removing the strain upon their body through a more efficient method of moving the water.
Another great example of work being done within the area of water provision is Lifestraw. Its existence developed through A welsh rotary club situated in Brynmawr where a member in 2005 spotted an article upon it and encouraged the club to promote the product. The product is a portable water filter that removes bacteria and parasites which are responsible for causing common diarrhoeal diseases. Its success is clear just through the volume sold, with 23 million filters now in use. It has also led to a family version being created, allowing more people to gain access to clean, filtered water. Whilst the solutions themselves don’t solve the issue of water cleanliness, the product is seen as an interim method of purification whilst long-term infrastructure develops.
Whilst water and sanitation are key areas of focus to find solutions to tackle quality and availability, there are countless other parts of society where improvements are being made. One other significant area lies within lighting. In the Philippines for example where a quarter of the population lives below the poverty line, typically making the expense of electricity an unviable option for many, light is seen as a luxury, despite an infrastructure being in place. Also with frequent widespread blackouts through the financial demands upon the operators, reliability is a large concern to many. This led Alfredo Moser, a Brazilian mechanic to the ‘light bulb’ moment of illuminating his house through using nothing more than a plastic bottle and some bleach. Quite simply, the light is refracted down through the bottle, generating around 40-60 watts of light. With such a simple and accessible concept, the idea has spread worldwide, with 140,000 now using it in the Philippines alone. Whilst the product doesn’t reflect design in the sense of how many may conceive it, it has none the less gone through a process of thought which a designer would follow.
As the project examples illustrate, design can be a tool to make a real difference in a significant way whilst at the same time also being a means to provide us with a higher standard of living. It can be applied to all levels shown in the Maslow’s hierarchy of needs resulting in a wealth of outcomes and so its significance shifts depending on the society an individual lives within. Philippe Stark, a renowned French product designer openly admits his frustrations at how design exists in a time where there are problems which hold greater importance for our focus. He eloquently describes his views on how design should exist when society is at a civilised state, allowing us to expand our knowledge and shift our focus from life concerning issues to intellectualism or ‘self actualisation’ as seen in the top of the Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Design however has proved its worth, with a direct role in situations where things are not perfect and where society is struggling to progress. In many instances it is proving to be a key factor in finding those solutions which draw humanity from the bottom level upwards to enable an improved living quality.