Innovation for Good Design and Clear Communication

Good design isn’t just for clothing, vehicles, furniture, and other consumer items. In fact, a far more useful and critical application for design is in the realm of health and humanitarian disasters, such as the Ebola outbreak. A recent partnership between USAID, innovation platform OpenIDEO, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Department of Defense, and the White House has launched a crowdsourcing challenge to generate inexpensive and quick solutions to the crisis. Engineers, designers, public health researchers, and everyday creative thinkers are joining forces to develop ideas that can make a difference.

My purpose for writing about this isn’t necessarily to educate you about how crowdsourcing works or what design brainstorming is like – you can read more on OpenIDEO‘s website, on Co.Exist, or numerous other websites. What I would actually like to ponder is whether this approach can be applied in other areas, such as chronic health and humanitarian issues that are not in a condition of crisis. And if so, how can this process be promoted as a viable alternative to the usual slow churning of government research that often takes years before there is any tangible change to the system?


In no way do I believe we should be pulling creative minds away from tackling some of the most serious issues facing the world at the moment. However, many others are unengaged from generating and developing ideas around significant societal problems, because crowdsourcing hasn’t caught on as method for addressing these challenges. Might that have anything to do with the way design brainstorming has been described and promoted? Does crowdsourcing need a marketing makeover?

Consider two commonly held (and contradictory) beliefs about this approach:

  • Crowdsourcing generates a number of unusable ideas because the average person doesn’t have enough knowledge to innovate well. It’s not a good way to find solutions.
  • Crowdsourcing has great potential for making a difference because highly creative thinkers can really think outside the box. They are key to making this work.

This may be yet another instance of the human mind simplifying a complex idea by exaggerating the two extreme ends of the spectrum! Yes, some ideas will not pass the first round. And yes, some designers are very well versed in generating the kinds of solutions that the situation calls for. But don’t we all have something to contribute? In working with four classmates on a client-facing IMC plan over the past month, nothing was more clear than the distinctions between us individually that made us stronger as a group, because everyone had a unique strength that was needed at one point or another.

I propose that crowdsourcing innovative design solutions to the health, environmental, and social issues we face today – whether critical or chronic – is a method that needs to be promoted at all levels of government as well as within the nonprofit world. And in order to do so, the approach itself needs to be communicated in a way that motivates and engages everyone to participate, especially those who don’t think of themselves as creative types. Isn’t it precisely those of us who aren’t first to toss around ideas who later build on what others have said and come up with something no one else has considered?

Let’s create better design by first finding a way to communicate its value in addressing the many challenges we face.

Do any of you have examples of particularly useful crowdsourcing successes? Feel free to share them below!

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