I went to Walmart for the first time in a long time this past weekend, and while there a few thoughts on design quickly struck me. While the design world has recently awoken to the urgent need to innovate for the less developed and less affluent abroad—many of whom would agree they don’t need our help—designers continue to dedicate an overwhelming portion of their attention and energy toward designing for the top 10% in most developed nations.
It is both true and puzzling, and a practice I believe may change over the course of this decade. ??It would seem to the outside that we in the design world can be a bit snobby. But there are valid and understandable reasons why designers spend so much of their time focused on the high-end, early adopter market. These products are more exciting and sexy, and generate media attention, while targeting consumer groups most able and willing to pad profit margins. Excitement around Apple’s products is a good example. While representing only a fraction of the market’s share, Apple owns a huge amount of real estate in consumers’ minds and dominates attention within the media and at retail with coverage with their higher-end products. And since the top 10% of earners account for roughly 42% of total consumer spending, this explains why designers can be focused on this much smaller audience.
As with realizations about the potential at the “bottom of the pyramid” abroad, the opportunity zone here in America is obviously the 90% of earners who do the other 58% of consumer spending, or lack of spending these days as economists will readily point out. Designing for the less affluent requires understanding that less disposable income reduces purchase volume while raising scrutiny, but it is also potentially more rewarding given the greater opportunity to improve their lives. Failing to consider these economic realities risks missing emerging opportunities, both economic and humanitarian, potentially very large ones.
I’m not saying there aren’t great efforts being made, there are. Target is an excellent example, and Walmart has made great progress as well. But efforts made by the design world seem slow to catch up with this audience, and the gap between humanitarian design (i.e., charity) and high-end offerings is still too great. The challenge, then, is to develop a deep and meaningful understanding of the needs and aspirations of these consumers, the vast majority, and provide them with relevant and innovative solutions. With careful attention to controlling cost of goods, manufacturing and distribution issues, designers can reduce product costs while retaining higher design and providing richer experiences. These solutions represent a far greater opportunity for business and for the world, even if they don’t take top honors in prestigious design awards competitions.
So, designers, be prepared to get engaged on the street level, to connect better with the majority moving forward. Bonus points to those who do so with true change-agent designs that empower consumers to adopt healthier, more sustainable habits—things which are all too often thought of as luxuries these days. This may not fit the textbook definition of humanitarian design, but if we do right by 90% of the population both here and abroad, we stand a far greater chance of improving the world.