Bringing Design Thinking To Social Problems, Focuses On The People In Need

The nonprofit spin-off of the huge design firm takes on issues like sanitation and clean cook stoves from the unique perspective of the design world.

Bringing Design Thinking To Social Problems, Focuses On The People In Need
[Image via Shutterstock]

Jocelyn Wyatt and Patrice Martin are the co-leads and executive directors of, the unique nonprofit wing of innovative design firm Ideo. Their mission: apply human-centered design to poverty-related challenges … and in the process, change the way that a for-profit business can use their resources to create social good.


“In the recession of 2008 and 2009, foundations lost up to 40% of their endowments,” explains Wyatt. “There was so much desire within social enterprises and nonprofits to work with us, and so much desire amongst the designers to work on these projects, but there was really a question of funding. So we started to ask, How might we approach this differently? What might a different kind of business model look like?” After months of research on the strongest solution, launched about two years ago as a philanthropic outlet for Ideo employees, including a fellowship program for outside talent that brings future leaders from the worlds of design and social enterprise (and even journalism!) to collaborate.

Patrice Martin

Exactly what is human-centered design? Whether working with low income parents in the U.S. on how to engage in their children’s education, or creating a sanitation business in Ghana, Wyatt and Martin say their goal is to focus first on the people being served, enabling them to find a solution that’s better. “Instead of just looking at the problem from a technical perspective, we always make sure to integrate what’s desirable to people,” says Martin. “Almost all of our work begins with the actual end user, or the target market, or the person that we ultimately want to impact. We’ve found that that lens was in many cases missing from work in the social sector. We want to make something and find out if it works–and if it doesn’t, how we can change it?”

As the women at the helm of, Wyatt and Martin’s partnership seems like a perfect mesh between the analytic and the creative. Wyatt studied anthropology and knew she wanted to do good in the world, so a college advisor turned her on to the idea of working in international development. She spent five years on projects funded by the U.S. government, learning along the way that she had real concerns about the way those programs were structured. “We were going to Uganda or Bolivia and kind of telling people, like, ‘Okay, this is the way we think you should do it,’” she remembers. “It seemed like those projects had really high budgets, little impact, and almost no sustainability in terms of what happened at the end of the project. It just seemed to me that there must be a better way to do things.” She started at Ideo six years ago, and says she gradually became aware that the company needed “a different kind of business model” to scale their impact on the communities they were trying to help. Now focused on fundraising via both grant-writing and donations, she also handles work on the business and operational side of

Martin, on the other hand, comes from a background in industrial design, aka making stuff. But even early in her education, she says, “I was pretty focused on, ‘What is the problem that we’re solving, and why are we solving it?’ as much as ‘What is the thing that we’re creating?’” Before coming to Ideo eight years ago, she worked at a firm that focused on “participatory design” (“sort of a fancy way of saying, getting people involved in the process of what you’re actually trying to create”), which laid the groundwork for immersing herself in Ideo’s human-centered ethos. “I think the thing that’s really unique about the culture here is just the passion of everyone who’s working on projects,” she says. “I got to see how much could be accomplished, and what design thinking had the potential to do, and got more and more curious about the places that this could be applied.”

Jocelyn Wyatt

Interestingly, Martin had spent very little time abroad before diving into designing for the developing world, but after teaming up with Wyatt on a water project in Kenya, she was hooked. “I think I was always just looking for a more complex and more interesting place to apply design,” she says. “These are very, very difficult challenges, and they require patience, but it’s a place where design can be so applicable, and I think it’s not there enough.” It’s that perspective that drives a lot of what stands for. “Because I don’t have a background where I’ve been to East Africa 10 times before I started doing this work, I really wanted to see how designers who hadn’t thought they were relevant to this work before could find a place for themselves here,” Martin says. “I want to get the best designers into these problems.”

The lightning bolt for Martin came when she was out in the community on that first Kenya trip–and you can see that bolt radiating through the projects has focused on since. “These were people who were just like me, who were facing very different circumstances, and who were making logical decisions based on what was happening in their environment,” says Martin. “It’s the sameness that’s always so striking. We’re always intimidated by the differences, but once you’re sitting in someone’s house, having a cup of tea with them, you relate on such a human level that those things don’t seem as important.” So when teamed up with the Global Alliance to work on a clean cookstove project in Tanzania, they started by going into the community to ask women how they actually used their cookstoves–or why they didn’t–and immersed themselves in the local culture, shopping, hosting a cookoff, spending entire days with families. “What resulted from that work is not that cookstoves aren’t used, but they’re not the only decision,” says Martin. “Whether or not you need to make something pretty quickly, how much money you have on hand for fuel, how many people you’re cooking for–all of these things influence the decision.” Using that information, they were able to frame a report for the Global Alliance that’s now influencing the way manufacturers are designing their cookstove products.


Another great example is the Uniloo/Clean Team toilet developed by alongside Unilever and Water & Sanitation for the Urban Poor, using Kumasi, the second-largest city in Ghana, as a test market. “Public pay toilets were prevalent in Kumasi, and they were used quite a bit of the time,” reports Wyatt. “They were dirty, and sometimes inconvenient, but, you know, it was still kind of the best option.” And yet there continued to be open defecation in the city. In talking to Kumasi residents, Wyatt says, they soon learned about the problem of, um, emergencies. “People would say, ‘Yes, I use the public toilet,’” Wyatt says. “And we would say ‘Always?’ And they would say ‘Yes.’ Finally they would admit that, ‘Well, yes, sometimes in the middle of the night there’s an emergency, and I dump the bucket outside my home in the gutter.’”

That led the team to realize that instead of bringing the people to the toilets, they needed to bring the toilets to the people. Clean Team now has 330 Uniloo toilets in operation on a rental service model–waste is picked up three times a week and delivered to a treatment facility–and they’re hoping to scale that to 10,000 by the end of next year.

Not content to simply work in the developing world, is also tackling poverty-related issues here at home, too. “We want to be focusing on domestic as much as we are focusing on international,” Martin says, explaining that the majority of organizations are coming to them looking for solutions around early childhood education and employment problems. “These can be more systemic and less tangible in terms of the design solution,” Martin admits. “What’s great about this work is that it gives us the opportunity to go deep with a nonprofit or an organization and try out new models and new services. Reframe the way the organization thinks about parents, for instance. In so many cases it’s so easy [for an organization] to think, ‘Oh, we have a service, and they have a need and therefore those things meet.’ And what we know is, that’s not how we work, from a human perspective. The solution has to be desirable. It has to make sense for my life. It has to feel like it’s valuable.” When dreaming up new systems and services, she says, “We like to think of design as the way in which you see the world and the way in which you frame problems. And that can take almost any kind of direction, and come to an output that absolutely doesn’t have to be a physical thing.”

Moving forward, Wyatt says, the team is hoping to scale their impact beyond direct intervention by influencing the way the entire design and social sectors view their role as global citizens. “We recognize that even if we do 15 or 20 projects a year,” Wyatt says, “that’s really a drop in the bucket compared to what needs to happen to be able to more effectively address poverty alleviation. How do we focus our efforts on that movement of spreading human-centered design?” One solution thus far is the Human Centered Design Toolkit, a free guide for NGOs and social enterprises in the developing world that’s already been downloaded 100,000 times; they also recently teamed with Acumen to develop a five-week online course in Human Centered Design for Social Innovation.

The goal, says Wyatt, is to allow “people that are practicing, are on the ground and doing poverty alleviation work, to actually apply things that are designed in their own work.” Or as Martin puts it, “I think the ethos of our culture is that you don’t have the answer, but you have ways in which to find it. We know we can’t do this alone, and when we think about the immense amount of challenges that we want to be affecting, will be small unless we get everybody changing their practice and thinking about people and trying things, experimenting, being involved. So we’re investing in tools and platforms that can get that methodology out to the world.”


About the author

Whitney Pastorek is a writer and photographer based in Los Angeles and/or wherever the bus just dropped her off. She spent six years on staff at Entertainment Weekly, and her work has appeared in the New York Times, Sports Illustrated, ESPN the Magazine, Details, the Village Voice, and Fast Company, among many others.