How One Designer Went From Designing Remote Controls To Cook Stoves

Heather Fleming’s Catapult Designs does innovative product design–but for the developing world.

Freeing herself from the limitations of corporate design was step one of this engineer’s plan to change the world. Gaining perspective from her Navajo upbringing and her time with Engineers Without Borders, Fleming set off to create realistic solutions to the world’s problems, and–voila–Catapult Design was born. Whether solving issues with water collection or giving the common cookstove a redesign, she’s bringing human-centered design to those who need it most.


How does your childhood growing up near the Navajo reservation help you come up with product design solutions?

I grew up in Vanderwagen, New Mexico (the Chichiltah chapter of the Navajo Nation), which is just off the Navajo reservation. Most of my family members, who live on the Navajo reservation, did not and do not have running water, electricity, and plumbing.

Vanderwagen is pretty rural. We had a population of about 300-something when I lived there. It’s the kind of community that doesn’t have stoplights, paved or named roads, and people get their mail at the trading post (the only building in town). The majority of its citizens are poor.

If you traveled down a few of the dirt roads in Vanderwagen you’d suddenly be on the Navajo Nation. Depending on whether your house was on versus off the reservation, even if it was just a few yards, made a difference in whether or not you had ready access to life’s modern amenities. It was a weird invisible barrier. I think my perspective on my work comes from growing up on both sides of the barrier and not feeling comfortable on either side.

Does this help me come up with product design solutions or running a small company? I’m not sure. I can certainly empathize when families tell me about how much they dislike collecting water. I had to collect water over the summers at my grandpa’s house in Teec Nos Pos, Arizona. Last year his house was wired for electricity, even though he’s long passed, but we still don’t have water or modern plumbing there. So many families on the reservation are still waiting. They probably will be for decades. Maybe that’s where the “do things for yourself” mentality comes from. And my desire to support and enable others who are doing things for themselves.

What did you learn during your years with Engineers Without Borders that you brought to your founding of Catapult Design?

This is the latest post in a series on generosity, in conjunction with Catchafire.

Volunteering was an eye-opener for me. I was the leader of a team within EWB that focused on technology and product development for nonprofits in developing nations. I was on the receiving end of the inquiry emails on how to get involved, requests to join projects, or requests for help with projects. The demand was astonishing. I hadn’t realized before then that what we were doing was unique. It was clear that a lot of wonderful organizations working abroad didn’t readily have access to design and engineering resources. It was also clear that so many designers and engineers were excited about this work. It made me think, “Why are there no opportunities for employment in this particular sector? Where do designers or engineers go if they want to work in development?”

But the biggest takeaway from my years with EWB was the need to move away from doing our work in a philanthropic format. Everything we did was free using all volunteer labor. Projects took a long time and we didn’t have many folks who understood the cultural contexts of our projects. I didn’t like that we were using “volunteers” with limited time to tackle some of the biggest global challenges our society faces. There had to be a better way.

When did you realize your career as a designer would be focused on giving back?

It wasn’t so much as “giving back” as it was getting to work on problems that I’m interested in and can relate to. In my previous job I worked on things like new TV technologies, high-tech power tools, fancy remote controls, and the like. All things I would never buy or use. All things that I would never see my family members buying or using. It just seemed kind of silly, putting all that money and effort into creating things I didn’t think were important or interesting. Silly thoughts eventually turned into angry, jaded thoughts. Fortunately, I was able to harness that anger into something that looked and felt a little more like courage. Just enough to quit my comfortable job at a great firm to go it on my own.

What is the name of one up-and-coming social good designer we should be watching and why?

Two of my favorite designers to connect with when they’re stateside are David Klaus and Alissa Murphy (she’s also a former Catapulter) with Proximity Designs in Myanmar. Proximity designs and distributes products and services for the rural poor. David and I have been doing our work for the same amount of time, so I have a hard time thinking of him and Alissa as “up-and-comers.” Noel Wilson at Catapult is another designer I have enormous respect for. He worked in Malawi for a few years before joining Catapult. David, Alissa, and Noel work out of the spotlight, primarily in-the-field in Myanmar, Indonesia, India–away from all connection to the outside world. They are not applying for or accepting awards, or giving public speeches. And yet they probably have more experience than most of us that are!


Who inspires you most with their generosity?

My company is built on the generosity of others. Is this a cop out answer? I don’t think it is.

Our first year in operations I was the sole employee. I sold my car for $15,000 to pay myself a salary that year. In the Bay Area, that doesn’t get you very far. I was taken aback when people came out of the woodwork to support me. An old co-worker gave me her best business suit when I started landing meetings; another friend regularly took me out to lunch because I wasn’t able to afford it on my own; a CEO of another design firm provided me with all of my first office equipment–desk, computer, monitor, whiteboards–for free; my advisor and close friend, Gary Zieff, gave me my first paid Catapult project. My first dollar bill framed on the wall!

When I was working solo on a design project, my friends would come over after work to review my ideas, brainstorm, create sketches, or help with Internet research.

These small acts inspired Catapult’s core values of collaboration and community. To this day we have a network of folks we call on for mentorship, coaching, and project input. My engineering friends, for example, still come in some nights and spend a few hours with my team reviewing CAD drawings. It’s difficult to work in the development sector without developing a skeptical, sometimes cynical mind, so I feel very fortunate to be surrounded by so many people that believe in dreams.