Thinking about Design for the Other 90% of the World

“The majority of the world’s designers focus all their efforts on developing products and services exclusively for the richest 10% of the world’s customers. Nothing less than a revolution in design is needed to reach the other 90%.” —Dr. Paul Polak, International Development Enterprises

As part of Scotiabank Nuit Blanche, Toronto’s “all-night contemporary art thing” this year, I made sure I checked out the exhibit Design for the Other 90%. I’ve seen posters and checked it out online, and then realized it would be at my own school.

Design for the Other 90% is a collection of design solutions addressing the basic needs of poor and marginalized populations not traditionally serviced by professional designers. It’s a touring exhibition organized by the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, and is on display at OCAD’s Professional Gallery until January 25, 2009.

I agree with the whole concept – why should designers focus only on designing things for the wealthy, when the majority of the world, the “other 90%” (5.8 billion people) have little or no access to most of the products and services taken for granted here? It only makes sense to be designing low-cost solutions for the majority of the world’s people; those who live in less economically stable countries.

When nearly half of the other 90% do not have regular access to food, clean water, or shelter, designers must take into consideration the vast needs for solutions in all of these areas. Even just getting awarness out there is important for designers. I plan on using my education in graphic design to communicate positive messages, not going to work for McDonalds promoting obesity, pollution, and corporate power.

The Curator of the OCAD Professional Gallery, Charles Reeve, says that unconventionally, “this exhibition highlights products that are economically self-sustaining, yet affordable to people living on a dollar a day — inexpensive irrigation systems for farming, for instance”.

“The new forms of ingenuity here focus on pressing issues like poverty relief and environmental sustainability, both of which are key themes in what we teach and research here at OCAD,” says Reeve.

For some reason, Toronto is the only Canadian stop for the exhibition, which is currently showing at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. You can find all the details about the exhibit and get resources online at

It’s not too big of a display itself, but it’s inspiring to know that things are being done. And most of it is really simple – we just need people to fund these projects . If you want, go see it for free at the OCAD Professional Gallery at 100 McCaul St., Level 2, Toronto, Ontario.