About six months ago, at a fundraising event for the nonprofit I founded, Project H
, a six-year-old girl handed me a pickle jar full of pennies. Project H is a nonprofit coalition of product designers working on humanitarian products, and the event was in honor of the Los Angeles chapter's newly launched initiative, Abject Object. The project is an ongoing collaboration between a team of designers and residents of the city's homeless shelters, through which they design, produce, and sell retail accessories made from reclaimed textiles. The proceeds from sales then go directly back to the shelters, as well as to the individual who made the product. It's an amazing educational and design co-op model that continues to grow. I had recognized the little girl as the daughter of one of the Los Angeles chapter members.
The pickle jar was handed to me with the sort of confidence with which an Academy Awards statue is handed to the winner of the Best Actress category. The little girl's assuredness said, "I think this belongs to you. You've earned it; carry it with pride." The jar was about half-full of change (mostly pennies), and as she handed it to me, she told me that she had been saving them for months, pennies scavenged from between the cracks of her parents' sofa, picked up on the street, leftover from her allowance money. The event was a fundraiser, but most people had brought cash or checks. Before I had a chance to either hug her or say, "Aww, that's sweet, but you should save your pennies for something really special," she was gone. A quick wink, a self-assured hand-off, and off she went.
Later that week, I recalled the pickle-jar handover as not only an incredibly sweet act of generosity, but one that so well represented Project H's trajectory and, more so, the direction of this new field of design for social impact in which small innovations, heart, and humility often conquer all. As designers, many of us, particularly from the younger generation (I'm 27 and Project H is less than two years old), have grown tired of the "old guard," the traditional design approaches that result in luxury goods for the richest of the rich, and that often are produced by the millions merely for the sake of an unjustifiable consumption we've become so accustomed to. Product design is no longer about fixing problems (and solving the big, important problems at that...), and this is disheartening for those of us who believe design is, at its core, creative problem-solving. Most importantly, design need not be about the big, beautiful, and swoopy, but rather the small moments and keenly clever solutions that just make life better, make things easier, or enable us to do something we might not otherwise be able to do.
This frustration with the trajectory of design as we know it was both the point of departure for the founding of Project H, as well as the thesis for my recently published book, Design Revolution: 100 Products That Empower People. At Project H, we work within nine global chapters and a series of "special ops" teams that respond to design briefs for humanitarian purposes. For example, we have designed water transport and filtration devices for the developing world, a math playground system for more active and engaged public education, spatial solutions for therapy in foster care homes, urban farming curricula for New York City high schools, and furniture for children's hospitals in Mexico City. The projects are small initiatives, but with immense potential not just for replicability but for adaptation in cultures and contexts worldwide.
Similarly, Design Revolution is a 304-page call-to-action for, and compendium of, design for social impact. Within its pages lies the evidence that makes the case for the power of good products, systems, services, and enterprises, that improve life in some small way. While most of the things included in the book's eight categories (Water, Well-Being, Energy, Education, Play, Food, Mobility, and Enterprise) are in fact products, they demonstrate an important distinction: they are tools, rather than objects. The Hippo Roller, a 24-gallon water transport barrel used in South Africa, is an efficient way to bring water to your home. However, its impact goes beyond this immediate function: because women and children, who traditionally carry water, are no longer burdened with multiple trips to water sources on a daily basis, they have more time to go to school, start businesses, and more. This social change is the bigger impact that such a tool enables.
Another example: The Max Anti-Tip Chair, which, due to a slight tweaking in the back legs' engineering, cannot be tilted back. In classrooms all over the world, where children tend to lean back in their chairs, this can result in a fair number of injuries. Such a small change to an everyday object has created safer learning environments for children across the world.
These products are not just for the developing world either. They include retail, consumer goods, whose functions might be small, but whose impact is far-reaching. The Air2Water Dolphin is a dehumidifying device that pulls moisture out of the air, filters it, and dispenses drinkable water. The OXO Good Grips kitchen product line is designed for easy and comfortable use — originally inspired by the special needs of those with arthritis, but in the end, just highly marketable "good sense" products.
What Project H has learned within our own projects and in the compilation of Design Revolution, is that often the most empowering, the most humanitarian, the most impact-inducing design solutions are not the big ideas, but the small things that either encourage people to make the most of what they've got, or the sort of "matchstick under the table" acts of ingenuity that turn simple objects into tools that enable something greater. The common thread I see in all of them, is a sense of, for lack of a better word, humanity, in which the design is meaningful to the person using it.
When it comes to design for humanitarian purposes, I believe that one million small acts that benefit individuals are much greater than one, giant act that benefits a million. We air on the side of these small stories, and encourage everyone to take part. In our first fiscal year, our average donation was $53, and we accepted donations from over 400 individual donors. This design for social impact movement must draw from a grassroots "power to the people" inertia that informs the way we fundraise, the way we collaborate, and ultimately the way in which we implement our solutions.
Project H continues to work on these one million solutions, and we're hitting our stride, finding ways to design for people instead of consumers, producing solutions rather than stuff. In the meantime, the pickle jar full of change remains on my desk, unopened, as a reminder that generosity, scrappiness, and bravery (from a six-year-old or anyone else) is the best catalyst for this design revolution.