Designers and makers rarely have the cash to fund independent creative projects, which explains the popularity of crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter and Indiegogo. But crowdfunding has its limitations: it requires a critical mass of backers, and only certain projects have popular appeal, which is why many worthy projects never get funded.
A newly launched platform called Alternative Thinkers wants to give designers with big ideas creative independence by giving them access to capital with few strings attached. It’s like crowdfunding, but instead of hundreds of individuals funding a project they believe in, a single brand might pick up the tab.
Designers submit proposals listing details about how much the project will cost, then brands and institutions have the opportunity to fund it. To ensure designers retain creative control, the brands must adhere to strict guidelines to participate: once they’ve funded the project, they’re not allowed to set conditions on the designer. Alternative Thinkers takes an administrative fee from the company that funds the project.
The platform is just a week old, but nine projects have been picked from dozens submitted, and Alternative Thinkers is currently looking for backers for them. Several brands, including fashion design labels and real estate developers, have shown interest in supporting projects, says Anne-Laure Pingreoun, founder of Alternative Thinkers. “These are brands and institutions that believe that funding great ideas is just good for their industry,” she says. (Of course, funding these projects is also a good way for companies to brandish their images and get some publicity.)
The design projects seeking funding vary. Charlotte McCurdy, for instance, is a designer who created a plastic raincoat out of biodegradable algae that is carbon negative. (She won a Fast Company Innovation By Design award last year.) McCurdy is now working on the next phase of this project, which involves creating a supply chain that will allow algae-based plastic to be mass produced. She’s seeking $20,000 in funding, and Pingreoun says Alternative Thinkers is currently working to connect her with a fashion brand that could fund the research.
Another project, spearheaded by Jane Withers, is focused on reimagining death in the modern world. The project will involve bringing together six designers and artists from a range of cultures from around the world to imagine their own death rites. These designers will also partner with people from other disciplines, including microbiologists, shamans, and anthropologists. The goal is to make these new practices open-source. Alternative Thinkers is still working on a budget for this project, but it is now in the process of reaching out to funeral partners and manufacturers to bring them on as funders.
Pingreoun had been mulling the possibility of creating an alternative funding model for designers over the course of the past decade. She had worked in various corners of the design industry in New York, London, and her native France, from toiling away in small studios to doing branding for large companies. Most recently, she launched her own design practice called Alter-Projects, which creates special projects and experiences for brands. Throughout her career, she felt that designers often don’t have enough autonomy to bring their vision to fruition. “I’ve been at so many companies where designers don’t have a seat at the table,” she says.
With Alternative Thinkers, she wants to change the balance of power, though she admits that it’s an imperfect model. Unlike crowdfunding or philanthropic models, brands still hold the purse strings here. Brands are likely to support projects they are personally invested in or that will be good for their image, which means some projects may be harder to fund than others.
But in her conversations with brands and institutions, she has found that many are interested in supporting independent design work. (The organization is still in talks with funders and says it cannot yet release names.) She says that many of the brands are drawn to Alternative Thinkers because traditionally, designers are brought in to work on specific projects that will bring about incremental improvements. This platform, on the other hand, gives them an opportunity to invest in out-of-the box ideas that have the potential to bring about more radical transformation in their industries. The approach is similar to the way large companies support scientists who do primary research, rather than just applied research, like food companies sponsoring nutrition research.
As for designers: they come to Alternative Thinkers with their moonshot projects, which they believe will make the world a better place. Pingreoun and head of partnerships, Sharon Kwiatkowski, assesses them and picks projects they believe will be most impactful. “We’re not interested in designers showing their latest collection of vases or tables,” Pingreoun says.
Ultimately, Pingreoun hopes that this approach will enable designers to do their best work alongside the brands and companies that stand to benefit from their ideas. “Many brands talk about ‘collaborating’ with designers, but they still get to dictate the terms of the partnership,” says Pingreoun. “Here, I’m envisaging a true collaboration.”