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.
‘Holier than thou’ help
Ehsan started working for a master’s degree in industrial design while staying involved with Bump. And he kept developing his ideas about what goes wrong in designing products for the poor.
The problem, he began to realize, was design that focused solely on the poverty of the intended users. On Ehsan’s website, a quote from author Kelsey Timmerman sums up that mindset: “Too often we objectify people living in poverty. We paint them as two-dimensional characters that we pity.”
When designers think that way, Ehsan contends, they forget about what they have in common people living in poverty: that they desire cool, well-designed, useful products, too.
Ehsan sees problems in things like the Stanford course Design For Extreme Affordability and the book Design For the Other 90%.
“While these mindsets encourage designers to care about some of the poorest people in the world, they also establish a mindset that looks down on the people they are trying to help and propels a ‘holier than thou’ atmosphere,” Ehsan says. He believes that produces nothing more than feel-good projects that no one actually desires to own.
His vision for his master’s thesis started to take shape.
“I wanted to give a very compelling response to those ideas without directly attacking them so that people would see this alternative and be inspired to create other solutions that are not just cheap design, but actually great design,” Ehsan says.
Everyone Deserves Great Design is the culmination of his thesis.
“It was a two-year long project, independently driven by the idea that everyone deserves great design and that we shouldn’t make products that discriminate based on geography, economic status, social status and culture,” he says.
Goodbye to ‘good enough’
Look for more from Everyone Deserves Great Design. “Every month, I’m going to try to have a very critical piece on there, and I’ll be inviting other people to do that,” Ehsan says.
He plans to keep an eye on how the products mentioned on his site do long-term and may work with companies or nonprofits to apply his ideas. He believes that once those ideas are tested and there are more case studies that the philosophies of Everyone Deserves Great Design can be refined and become more useful.
Ultimately, Ehsan’s goal is to spur designers, businesses and nonprofits to embrace his views and combine them with their own work and philosophies to create more meaningful things.
In other words, he wants to end the belief that “good enough” is good enough. “I don’t want organizations to accept that their products are great, without really thinking if their products are great.”
Believe that everyone should have great design? Sign up for Ehsan’s monthly newsletter with more insights. “In these newsletters, I am going to be expanding on the different sections of the website and going into a lot more depth,” he says. And if you’ve done social work or have products related to Everyone Deserves Great Design, he’d love to hear from you.
Need a motivation boost? Ehsan recommends What I Wish I Knew When I Was 20 by Tina Seelig. “It’s a really good book for anyone that’s young and trying to figure out what to do with their career,” he says. “If you’re a creative person, this book will make you realize that you should become comfortable with some uncertainties.” Jump over to our Good Books section and check it out.