It’s a feel-good story we all know: Some designers see a problem in the developing world and want to make a difference. They come up with a cool-looking product to solve the problem. Donors love it and chip in to get the product to people who need it. What’s not to love?
Well, sometimes a lot, says Ehsan Noursalehi, the thinker behind a philosophy called Everyone Deserves Great Design.
Behind some of those seemingly happy endings, there are products that turn out to be useless, or, as Ehsan says on his website, “shitty.”
What goes wrong? How should we change? And what does the Terminator have to do with the answer? Ehsan explains all.
A whole lot of bad arms
The ideas behind Everyone Deserves Great Design formed during Ehsan’s fieldwork for his own nonprofit, Bump. When Ehsan was an undergraduate in engineering at the University of Illinois, he was part of a group of friends that founded Bump to create a better prosthetic arm for people in the developing world. The result was the OpenSocket, which is easier to fit and costs less than a traditional device.
Traveling through Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and India for Bump, Ehsan saw other projects that had been attempted in the past — and had flopped.
“Some organizations would give away these arms for free but there was no follow-up ever,” he says. “We also found that for some of the prosthetic arms out there, people would go into town and sell the parts of the arm for money.”
Clearly, these other prosthetics weren’t being valued. Talking to the people they were built for helped explain why.
“I interviewed our patients, and one of the questions that I asked was ‘What would be your ideal prosthetic arm?’ ” he says. “They weren’t very literate, but a few people told me they wanted the Terminator arm.”
The fact they were poor and still cited the most awesome prosthetic arm imaginable stuck with him. So did the frustration at the past prosthetics that hadn’t met patients’ needs. He started thinking about how to change the mindset that simply giving something away was enough to solve a problem.