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"Design for the Other 90%" at the National Design Museum
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by Worldchanging New York local blogger Amy Shaw:

This summer the Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum is featuring an ambitious and refreshingly different kind of design exhibition: Design for the Other 90%. The show features ingenious yet low-cost functional objects that, according to the museum, highlight “the growing trend among designers to develop solutions that address basic needs for the vast majority of the world’s population not traditionally serviced by professional designers.”

Well arranged in the museum’s magnificent garden, Design for the Other 90% treats the viewer to one good idea after another, in the form of solar-powered portable LED lights, devices that store rainwater for irrigation, and insecticide-treated bed nets to prevent malaria (shown at the bottom). Many of these products are already in use in dozens of countries around the world, including the United States.

LifeStraw.jpgI found a few products especially useful, economical, and well built. The LifeStraw, shown here, is a portable water-purification tool that one drinks through to turn any still water into drinkable water. The Q Drum, designed to make it easier for people in drought-prone areas to carry water over distances, is a wide donut-shaped container with a rope strung through so that the water may be rolled rather than lugged. The Global Villages Shelters, three of which anchored the exhibition design, are 8-foot square temporary structures that ship flat, assemble easily, and protect people left homeless by earthquakes, storms, or other natural disasters. The Pot-in-Pot Cooler uses water evaporation to keep food cool in hot climates and can be easily produced by local potters.

Admirably, the Cooper Hewitt is presenting this smart exhibition at the same time as its national design triennial Design Life Now, the event that presents slick, concept rich, and stimulating objects that represent “the most innovative American designs” of the past few years. These, I suppose, are designs for “us,” the 10% that is traditionally serviced by professional designers. It’s also a fine show, but by contrast, the objects seem a measure less meaningful and inspiring after taking in the show outdoors.

The catalog for Design for the Other 90% is also impressive, filled with complete information about each product, photos of products in use, and essays. Proving that design needn’t be glitz-for-the-glitzy to be clever and inspiring, it should be required reading for all design students and practitioners alike. There is also an accompanying website.

After the exhibition, I took my June issue of Harper’s magazine into Central Park for a rare moment of leisure. Coincidentally, the essay I turned to, “Pure Product,” threw the whole exhibition into question. Written by Binyavanga Wainaina, who grew up in Kenya and now teaches writing in Schenectady, NY, the essay considers with raw honesty how objects designed for the poor are really regarded by those they’re intended to help. The bottom line: such design objects communicate one thing only: “You are f***ed.”

Wainaina actually references one of the objects that happens to be in Design for the Other 90%: the so-called $100 laptop (shown here). “I’m sure,” he writes, “the One Laptop per Child initiative will bring glory to its architects…. [The designer Nicholas] Negroponte will win a prize or ten.” And then using development lingo to slap itself in the face: “There will be key successes in Rwanda; in a small village in Cambodia, and a small, groundbreaking initiative in Palestine, where Israeli children and Palestinian children will come together and play Minesweeper.” Ouch.

He posits that what motivates rich countries to design such “pure products” for the poor is a “feeling that the giant world of the urban poor is too pathetic to tolerate” and so “pins its hopes and dreams on some revolutionary product… a pure product [that] presents itself as a complete solution.” The problem is that “a product built to serve the needs of the needy assumes the needy have measured themselves exactly as the product has measured them.”

Some of the products in Design for the Other 90% might be regarded in this way. Yet many of the designers selected for the show worked directly with intended users to develop their products, listening to the users define their needs and then coming up with inclusive, solution-driven products.

In any case, the Cooper Hewitt is taking a noble direction by presenting this exhibition, down to the way it attempts to define poverty not in financial terms, but rather in terms of “how the potential users define what they need and want in order to feel empowered, self-reliant, and secure,” as former curatorial director Barbara Bloemink writes in the catalog foreword.

Perhaps some of these products will prove to be world changing, communicating something much more positive to their intended users than what Wainaina suggests. It might not be necessarily “You are saved,” but perhaps “You are not alone.”

On view through September 23, 2007.

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