Design for the Other 90%

A New Application of Design

The book starts out talking about drawing attention to design that is "not particularly attractive, often limited in function, and extremely inexpensive." This is not what we typically think of as design here in Canada. We like to think design is the newest svelte Apple product or flashy car but design is a universal concept. Design in the developed world is generally designing for desires, not needs. Over 95% of designers today are designing for desires. There should be an increased awareness of how design can be utilized in other situations.

Design is a balance between aesthetics, function, and cost. The designs featured in this book are low cost, high function, easily replicable, and in some cases entrepreneurial to generate income for the user. But, they may still be too expensive for the end users. The Q drum was a water barrel designed for longevity but it turned out to be too expensive for the user. Design cannot help anyone if they can't afford access it.

Affordability, Miniaturization, and Expandability

An interesting thought experiment that is undertaken involving modularity and affordability. If a farmer had access to a horse, they could increase their profits each year. But, they cannot afford the horse. So what if they could buy a pygmy horse that can carry 1/12 of the full size horse at 1/12 the cost? They may be able to afford the first pygmy horse then with the profits from that buy another and keep growing their business. Eventually they could have 12 horses and the capabilities of a full sized horse though they could never afford a full sized horse in their life. Modularity and affordability are key in designing for people living on a small income.

An example of this is the drip irrigation system developed in India. They sell drip irrigation kits from $3 up to $150 (vs. 5x the cost for a conventional system). They traded capital for labour by re-using a small number of drip lines that the farmer would move from row to row. 

One design highlighted in the book pertaining to water is a storage system. During the rainy season there is a lot of water that could be collected but instead just runs off the landscape. The other issue is storage and evaporation. The solution involved digging a pit and lining it with a double walled giant water bag. Since the earth was providing the structure (didn't need to make a concrete tank) they were able to get the cost down to $40 from $250 for a conventional solution.

Why I Posted This

Design for the Other 90% has a lot of great insights into designing for needs rather than desires. I think that affordability, miniaturization, expandability, and micro-enterprise are key insights that may allow a project to succeed.


Smith, C. E. (2007). Design for the other 90%. New York: Smithsonian, Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum :.

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