Designers for a Cause: Fighting Poverty

16 01 2009

Economist Jeffrey Sachs’ philosophy is based on a simple principle: man made the world’s problems, so man can fix the world’s problems. The first question that looms then is: How do we decide which problems get priority and how will people raise the funds necessary to create a solution? These seem like impossible questions to answer that would leave most people saying “It’s a nice idea, but …” with plenty of excuses in tow. But Sachs has the ability to see the big picture, and he has a detailed mind that can map the journey needed to find and implement solutions.

Sachs has worked as an economic advisor for failing countries; he’s lead the Harvard Institute for International Development; he’s now Special Advisor to the Secretary General on the Millennium Development Goals project and was director of the UN Millennium Project for two years. He’s currently the Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, which helps to achieve sustainable development by expanding the world’s understanding of the earth as one system. Whew! Sachs is a busy man and his efforts have not gone unnoticed: he’s the only academic to be repeatedly included among the world’s most influential people by Time magazine.

Sachs has written a book, The End of Poverty, which outlines ways that we can end poverty within our lifetimes. And, he believes that designers are a large part of the success to end poverty. So how can designers help? Here are some tips from an interview with Sachs, featured on a social design network.

3 Ways Designers Can Help Fight Poverty

Design with sustainable methods and technologies. Designers are key for showing others how to use cutting-edge technology, new materials and new approaches to solve problems, such as poverty. By designing products and campaigns that reduce waste while bringing issues like poverty to light, designers reduce the global carbon imprint of their work, while making things like clean water, low-cost housing and low-cost, longer-lasting building materials abundant. These are items that desperately needed by the poor.

Come up with design solutions for problems in poor regions. These don’t have to be anything fancy; think in simple terms, like the anti-malaria bed net. That’s one of the most effective design solutions Sachs can think of. He says of the bed net, “With excellent design and engineering, a major problem has been solved in the past decade. This is a design and engineering triumph.” The design of the bed net has changed how malaria is controlled and has and will contribute to saving millions of lives. Coming up with designs to help in the areas of food production, energy supplies, sanitation and hygiene can help homeless shelters and other organizations better serve the poor populations in the United States and the rest of the world.


Designers need to understand the real needs of particular low-income communities. Sachs’ final word of advice is for designers to make an effort to get to know the ecologies and economies of the poor in different parts of the world. Don’t expect the poor in the U.S. to have the same needs as those that are poor in other countries. Of course, generally, food, water and shelter are needed, but designers should alter their solutions in ways that are socially appropriate for the country the poor reside in. Working with local communities, not designing from abroad, is the key to coming up with solutions for poverty. 

This post is being supported by, a leading online printing company.




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