Is the global aid community ready to ‘design for impact’?

Blueprints of construction plans for Habitat for Humanity, a nongovernmental organization. Can designing for impact solve the manifold problems of the developing world? Photo by: super.heavy / CC BY-NC-ND

In this era of do-everything technology with an elegant app for every first world challenge — from finding a parking spot to losing weight — design is having its day. But can it also solve the manifold problems of the developing world?

The idea has seized the imaginations of some of the top minds in development. “Designing for Impact” was the theme of the 2012 Clinton Global Initiative annual meeting in New York. (The theme for this year’s event, which begins today, is “Mobilizing for Impact.”)

FULL COVERAGE:CGI, the Social Good Summit and the U.N. General Assembly annual meetings

“How can you design your actions in advance to make it more likely that those efforts will succeed?” former U.S. President Bill Clinton asked his audience last September.

The term “design” has since been popping up all over, from job listings to donor requests for proposals.

Designers and design firms are convinced they can play an important role in development. But incorporating design principles into the traditional structure of aid delivery has not been so easy.

The starting point

Design is not just for smart-looking products, gadgets or software. Design thinking has the potential to revamp the way humanitarian assistance is delivered and international partners collaborate on lifting people out of poverty — by finding innovative ways to finance a project or to strengthen a country’s health system, for instance.

It’s an iterative process that adapts swiftly to failure and incorporates feedback from beneficiaries in order to come up with a sustainable solution, according to Tim Brown, CEO and president of IDEO, a global design firm and innovation consultancy in Palo Alto, California, which has made inroads into international development.

But that’s rather different from how development work has traditionally been done, where an aid group:

  • Proposes a solution to a vexing problem of the developing world.

  • Implements it over three to five years.

  • Demonstrates its success.

  • Expands the program into more communities.

Here’s how a design-minded organization would do it:

  • Ask the question that needs to be answered.

  • Research the problem from the end user’s perspective.

  • Quickly prototype a solution and implement it.

  • Iterate over short (weeks-to-months) cycles, i.e. fix the bugs and try it again, change a few details and try it again, tweak it and try it again, until the problem you started with has been neatly fixed.

  • Roll it out to everyone who needs it.

The two approaches conflict right at the start. Case in point: In 2011,, the firm’s nonprofit arm, prepared to apply for a Development Innovation Ventures grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development to improve sanitation in Ghana. The problem intended to address? A lack of usable public toilets leads people to defecate in the open or in bags or buckets that get dumped haphazardly, polluting water sources and exposing vulnerable people, especially children, to disease.

Normally, would have tackled the problem with the underlying question, first — “What can we do about this problem?” — and followed up with on-the-ground research in affected communities that would lead them to a prototyped solution.

But just to get the DIV grant to fund this kind of research and prototyping, the group needed a hypothesis about what would ultimately work.

“Normally, we let the solution reveal itself. It’s challenging to frame something as if you know the answer, knowing that our findings will be different,” said Patrice Martin, co-lead and creative director of

Luckily, the group had done previous work in sanitation that could be used to develop a hypothesis, and propose a solution. won a $100,000 grant.

Stay the course vs. course correction

The iterative nature of design work can also disrupt the traditional aid paradigm. Before they commit to a project, donors want to know exactly how taxpayer dollars will be put to work, and what they’ll get as a result.

“When we start a project, there are a number of things we don’t know,” said Krisila Benson, senior director of program services at TechnoServe, a nonprofit that promotes business solutions to poverty. “As we get more information and experience, to what extent can we incorporate that new knowledge into a revised project design?”

Sometimes, individuals at donor agencies are uncomfortable with change — “especially in terms of targets,” Benson said, “because it reduces accountability. We try to manage that tension.”

That’s part of the challenge of being a donor, according to Jeff Brown, chief of USAID’s Development Innovation Ventures division.

“We must strike a balance between allowing partners the flexibility to iterate and adapt as they head towards their goals as fast as possible, while holding people accountable to what they say they can deliver,” he said. “If they pivot too far, they’re not doing what they said they were going to do.”

Yet at the same time, some donors themselves are incorporating design principles into their work. In late 2011, for instance, USAID issued project design guidance “to increase the effectiveness of development interventions and maximize the impact of limited resources,” according to the executive summary.

“It has two key things that are different from before,” said Jason Foley, director of the agency’s Office of Strategic and Program Planning. “It requires a logical framework, which specifically lays out the inputs and the higher outcomes, as well as analysis, including gender assessment, environmental impact and sustainability analysis.”

Officers are being trained in the design guidance, and it will be implemented into new projects as current ones expire and are modified going forward. But it is already having some impact. In one African country, for instance, USAID was putting together a complicated Feed the Future program with multiple components when the guidance was released.

“We brought all of the activities together and realized a number of them had to be changed. They weren’t adding value, or were off by themselves, uncoordinated with other efforts,” Foley recounted.

For example, the existing portfolio of contracts and grants was supporting six crops, but the agricultural policy, production and marketing approaches laid out in the mission’s new country development cooperation strategy were only focused on three of them.

“We decided, we’re going to focus our agricultural sector reform efforts on the three priority crops and reduce our involvement in the others,” Foley said.

“Implementation is difficult,” he added, “and the broader measures of the higher level outcomes will take some time to achieve, but we are seeing immediate improvements in results as people refocus their interventions.”

Quick results vs. a multi-year schedule

The pacing of projects is another major difference between traditional aid delivery and design-driven approaches.

“As designers, we want to move fast and get to solutions,” said’s Martin, “but some of these problems are quite intractable and we need patience.”

Development implies long-term change, said Emily Poupart, business development manager of Agriteam Canada Consulting, which provides management and technical expertise to developing countries.

“While you might get some quick uptake, it may be hard to see results on a year- or even a two year-long horizon,” she noted.

In 2002, Agriteam completed a five-year project that developed tools to promote women’s equality and prevent violence against women in Indonesia. Earlier this year, the donor official who had just visited the country suggested that the impact of Agriteam’s work was still palpable.

Still, the traditional three-to-five-year deadline for a development project may feel a bit dated in a world where data can be transmitted instantaneously, and a doctor in France can treat a patient in India in real time via telemedicine.

Some donors are trying to adapt by creating programs with quicker turnaround times. USAID’s Development Innovation Ventures, for instance, offers staged funding. Anyone can compete for Stage 1 funding up to $100,000 for year-long projects. Stage 2 goes up to $1 million over two years. And earlier this year, USAID announced its first Stage 3 project, for $5 million, up to five years.

“Within that funding, we pay once people hit pre-agreed milestones. It might take weeks. It might be quarters. Pay for completion gives some flexibility to iterate internally,” Brown said.

However, DIV is a tiny program compared to the billions USAID spends on traditional development projects.

Design is a concept he hears more and more in the social entrepreneurship and investing world, Brown acknowledged. “But not as much in the donor world,” he added. “They’re still using the old-school way of top-down planning.”

IDEO’s Martin agrees. “Incorporating design principles requires organizations to stretch a bit and ask their team to act in new ways. It requires an openness to take measured risks and an ability to suspend disbelief and say we’re going to try and be flexible and open to new ways.”

It’s that much harder in the large, traditional development groups.

But can they scale up?

Many dream of development solutions so elegant that they can be replicated anywhere in the world. In fact, they have to be culturally appropriate.

Case in point: Bednets that hang from the ceiling might work in some countries, but they’re a no-go in Latin America where many people sleep in the open air. So Vestergaard Frandsen, a Swiss company that started out making uniforms before focusing its attention on the struggles of the developing world, created a hammock version of the bednet.

Also, in the decades after developing its Guinea worm egg-filtering Lifestraw, Vestergaard Frandsen continued to make improvements based on user feedback. The product now filters out almost every possible type of bacteria, and can handle the water supply of an entire household. And for people in fishing communities who left rodent-attracting residue on the product, the company created a rat-proof bulb.

Some critics suggest that while design methods work well for some stages, they can falter in others. Others question whether many of these projects can be brought to scale.

The solution might lie in partnerships and other types of collaborations. Design thinking could be promoted through corporate social investment, where risk is more palatable. And the most successful ideas might later be brought to scale by large government donors like the World Bank, USAID, the European Union or the U.K. Department for International Development.

IDEO, for instance, has joined forces with Unilever and other organizations on Water and Sanitation for the Urban Poor, a partnership focused on solving the global problem of inadequate water and sanitation in many low-income urban communities.

“We believe the model of an in-home sanitation system is good for any community with land tenure issues,” said Jocelyn Wyatt, co-lead and executive director of

They are scaling the pilot from 100 to 1,000 families, and then to 10,000 after that.

“How will we scale this globally? It could be through franchising the business model or through Unilever,” Wyatt said. “It will likely need to be adapted for different cultural contexts.”

And can we afford it?

Then there’s the ever-vexing issue of money. Design does not come cheap, and we are in an era of austerity, where every taxpayer penny is being pinched until it screams.

“As much interest as people have in design, the majority of it is still just interest,” said Heather Fleming, CEO of Catapult Design, a nonprofit firm in San Francisco that provides design and engineering support for organizations that work for social change. “Design is still viewed as an unnecessary piece of the puzzle or a luxury item in your budget. You could cross it out and be just fine. The design community needs to better articulate the return on investment.”

Agriteam’s Poupart agreed.

“The budgets on development projects don’t have a lot of space for things that are non-essential,” she said. “How can you demonstrate that design work directly generates results?”

Yet brilliant design work can certainly simplify — and potentially lower the cost of — solutions to pressing global development challenges.

“One of my colleagues worked on land mine awareness in Pakistan and Afghanistan, in communities that had high levels of illiteracy or where minority languages were spoken,” Poupart recounted.

Rather than create different literature for each community, they came up with a whole program of graphic communications.

“That was more effective,” Poupart said. “You could reach a bigger population with a bigger message through good design.”

The road ahead

In spite of the challenges, design firms are already bringing their design approach to international development. Individuals can try it too, using the free downloadable toolkit for human-centered design offered by

Large aid organizations are also incorporating design methods into their work. Last year, for example, the World Bank started collaborating with Catapult on a project to build innovation capacity in Indonesia.

“Design is about solving problems to improve lives, which is what international development is about on some levels. We have common goals. It’s a very natural marriage,” said Fleming of Catapult. “Every time we go to D.C., more and more people at the World Bank and USAID want new ways of looking at old problems, and that’s what design is good at: reframing problems.”

Overall, it would be a radical shift for donors and their implementing partners to incorporate design thinking throughout their work. Donors remain skeptical of their implementing partners and have a tendency to highly regulate their work instead of granting them more freedom to experiment, and more latitude to fail.

Design thinking may stand a swifter chance of influencing corporate social investment before being brought to scale with the help of governments and other traditional donors. For those design thinkers from the Bay Area and elsewhere, that would be a worthy challenge.

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About the author

  • Rebecca Webber

    Rebecca Webber is a Devex correspondent based in New York City. A graduate of Georgetown University and Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism, she has covered news, women's issues, politics, health and personal finance for publications such as Psychology Today, Parade, More, Real Simple and Glamour. She also teaches writing for Mediabistro.