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A young woman tries out the Remotion Knee, a product of D-Rev (Design Revolution). Photo by D-Rev.

By Mal Warwick

A lengthy article in yesterday’s New York Times (“Solving Problems For Real World, Using Design“) called attention to the sea change underway in the field of design. 

Not so very long ago, designers trained for specialization in a limited number of fields such as fashion, graphic, or product design. Today? Not so much. 

At such leading-edge universities as Stanford and MIT, design is no longer regarded the way much of the public still thinks about it (making things pretty). Design, as all designers know, is about problem-solving, pure and simple. And, increasingly, both within the walls of academia and outside, designers are turning their attention to real-world problems, especially those of the global poor.

The Times article focuses on the Stanford “D.School,” citing in particular a course entitled “Design for Extreme Affordability,” which my coauthor Paul Polak helped create several years ago. The course, which is routinely oversubscribed, brings together students with people from around the world to work together solving everyday challenges such as the need to keep newborn babies warm when the parents can’t afford rich-country solutions. MIT has a similar program (called D-Lab) under the leadership of Amy Smith. 

Away from the campus environment, a San Francisco-based nonprofit organization called D-Rev (founded by Paul Polak) bills itself as “a product development company whose mission is to improve the health and incomes of people living on less than $4 per day.” D-Rev has produced several successful products for its target market since its founding in 2007, including the versatile Remotion Knee for amputees (pictured above), an affordable microscope for detecting malaria and TB in rural clinics, and affordable methods for pasteurizing milk for East Africans. 

These developments — collectively called “Design for the Other 90%” in the popular phrase Paul Polak coined — informed our writing in The Business Solution to Poverty. In the book, we tackled a broader challenge than that of designing affordable products that could succeed in the market. Our task involved systems design, as we’d set out to design from the ground up the enterprise that could create and produce affordable products or services, successfully market them to people living on $2 a day or less, and grow to global scale, reaching at least 100 million customers within a decade. 

We called this process zero-based design

Look to this blog for information about zero-based design in the weeks ahead.

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