Design like you give a damn

Design like you give a damn

You can see that something is catching on when it appears in organisations as different as a consumer goods giant and a water charity. That’s when you know you should have heard about it.

What do an Anglo-Dutch conglomerate, an American water charity, a British furniture business and a Brazilian architect have in common? The link betweenUnilevercharity:water, the Furniture Resource Centre (FRC) and Brazilian architect Luiz Carlos Toledo is not as tenuous as you might think. They operate in vastly different worlds, but they are all part of a movement touting the importance of design in solving society’s ills. They all design like they give a damn.

Designing like you give a damn can mean a multitude of things. For FRC it’s designing a furniture business that repurposes second hand goods, and helps people into employment. For Toledo it’s architecture that doesn’t leave anyone at the fringes of society. For Unilever it’s designing products that will stop people wasting water. And for charity:water it’s designing beautiful online media to engage donors in solving the world’s water shortages.

But if you really want to get to grips with what designing like you give a damn means, it helps to look first at organisations that design like they couldn’t care less.

Take FIFA for example. FIFA’s stadium in the Amazon for this year’s World Cup is arguably a great example of this. HBO’s John Oliver evocatively described the Arena Amazônia as “the world’s most expensive bird toilet”. It cost $300 million to build and will be used for four world cup games in total. There are plans to host matches in the Amazon after the World Cup reports the Guardian. But football matches up in remote Manaus only attract, at most, 1,000 people. Arena Amazônia accommodates 42,000.

There is nothing cool about FIFA’s approach to design. Especially when you cast an eye beyond the Amazônia stadium and find that well over twice the national average of Manaus’s inhabitants live in slums and one in four houses doesn’t have access to running water. 

Perhaps FIFA’s executives should have consulted Carlos Luiz Toledo? Toledo applies the idea of designing like you give a damn to the architecture of Brazil’s favelas. In 2004 when a gang war broke out between two major drug factions in Rocinha , Rio’s biggest shantytown, Toledo was tasked with reimagining and remodelling the town.

Working out of a temporary residence he designed a plan to urbanise the favela, and activate the economy to make it as ambitious and dynamic as the rest of the city. But rather than impose his version of a miracle design on the community, Toledo worked alongside dozens of residents from Rocinha and São Conrado, and created the “Socio-Spatial Master Plan for the Sustainable Development of Rocinha.” As the World Cup continues and Rio looks forward to the 2016 Olympics, Rio architects have had a renewed focus on urban poverty and violence. However the debate around whether this is a quick paint job for the benefit of a global audience or a longstanding effort to remodel the city is ongoing.

Designing like you don’t give a damn is an unhealthy practice. And there’s room for the hope that it will soon die out. Creative design that shapes meaningful change is catching on and building bridges between the diverse worlds of the Anglo-Dutch conglomerate, the US charity, the UK social enterprise and the Brazilian architect.

Unilever, the Dutch consumer goods conglomerate, which owns a number of household brands including Persil, Dove and Comfort is faced with a great design challenge. The 10 year Sustainable Living Plan that Unilever launched in 2010 to create a positive social and environmental impact holds the company to a number of commitments. One of those is to half its environmental footprint. This is an enormous challenge when you consider that one consequence of selling shower and laundry products is excessive water usage.

To get some leeway between a rock and a hard-place, Unilever has set about designing products that use less water. It has promised to reach 200 million consumers with products and tools that will help them to use less water while washing and showering by 2015 and 400 million by 2020.

Detergents such as Persil Small and Mighty, are designed to work at lower temperatures and in shorter washes. And in Asia and South Africa Unilever sells a fabric conditioner called Comfort One Rinse to reduce the number of buckets of water needed to rinse clothes from three to one. Unilever has seen sales of its One Rinse products go up, and reached 31 million households worldwide in 2013, a 78% increase on 2010. Unilever is clearly designing like they give a damn about the environment and the growth of the business, but as it grows the challenge is only getting tougher, especially after its recent acquisition of Alberto Culver, which produces a number of major shampoo and beauty brands including TRESemme, Alberto VO5 and St. Ives.

Addressing water issues with design from the non-profit sector, charity:water is fast earning a reputation as the face of innovative and nimble charity. Great design is a key part of its efforts to engage donors and channel money towards projects that support people in areas without clean drinking water. There are several interlinked parts to charity:water’s great design project. The charity website is beautifully designed as a landing pad that invites you to explore and donate. All charity:water social media feeds are brought to life by exceptional visuals of work on the ground. And you’ll find stories with images on Instagram, a sea of images on Twitter and videos on YouTube that inform you about the wider issues connected with a lack of access to water.

But perhaps most impressively, the Dollars to Projects programme “tracks every dollar raised, showing you the water projects you helped fund for people in need.” Proof of impact is presented in personalised impact reports sent to individual donors. The hope for the future is that in 10, 15, 20 years, their supporters will be able to see the impact of their previous fundraising campaigns or donations and see how they have affected one person — or an entire village — by supporting charity: water

Charity:water’s personalised impact reports are a tool for engaging donors and operating with transparency.  The Furniture Resource Centre have other plans for their impact reports, which connects the final link in the design like you give a damn chain. The team behind the UK’s Furniture Resource Centre have designed a business that repurposes second hand furniture to sell on to low-income families, and supports the unemployed into work. However their big triumph in design thinking is the way they measure their impact.

FRC is one of the few social businesses and non-profits that seek to understand and report on their negative impacts. The design of their impact measurement, based on Social Return on Investment principles, has lead to the discovery that although they support many people into work and see their confidence soar, if those they work with fail to hold down a job, their confidence hits rock bottom. This has allowed them to take decisions to counter, or at least reduce that eventuality. It is this design feat that enables them to constantly rethink and reshape their model according to the needs of the people they work with.

Design’s many talking points are rich and diverse and the conversation will continue at the House of St. Barnabas this evening. The first in a series of Dirty Rotten Socials events will be hosted by the charity, which supports London’s homeless people back into work through an Employement Academy. The venue? The House of St. Barnabas not for profit members club, where homeless people enrolled at the academy are trained up. And the theme? Design Like You Give a Damn of course. Pioneers Post is partnering the event and will be listening in on the conversations. Watch this space.

Editor’s Note: 
This piece was originally posted on Pioneer’s Post. It has been posted here with their permission.

Photo credit: Christiaan Triebert, Flickr.

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