Design to Improve Life

Good things are happening in the world of design and innovation. One of the best is INDEX, a new world event for design and innovation to be held, like the Olympics, every four years; it is also an international network of designers, organizations, and institutions that collaborate in disseminating and applying the latest knowledge within the field of design.

Good things are happening in the world of design and innovation. One of the best is INDEX, a new world event for design and innovation to be held, like the Olympics, every four years; it is also an international network of designers, organizations, and institutions that collaborate in disseminating and applying the latest knowledge within the field of design.


The success of the inaugural event, INDEX:2005, held in Copenhagen this past September, stemmed not only from the talent and expertise of the participants but also from the fact INDEX is exclusively focused on design that improves life for large numbers of people.

The INDEX awards program

When The Crown Prince of Denmark awarded €100,000 to each of five winners, it was the culmination of a competition involving more than 180 international design organizations and individuals and 500 separate submissions, 100 of which were displayed at INDEX 2005. Each focused on improving life in one of five categories: Body, Home, Work, Play, and Community. Three of the winners are highlighted below:

Body: LifeStraw

According to the UN World Water Report, 1.1 billion people do not have access to clean drinking water and about 80% of all diseases in the developing world are related to unclean water. Clean water has been a major issue without an effective solution in recent world tragedies from the Indonesian tsunami to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and the Pakistani earthquake.

LifeStraw is a portable water-purification device that will provide one person with drinking water for an entire year, yet it costs just $3. LifeStraw has no moving parts, does not require electricity and filters up to 700 liters of water. It effectively removes most of the microorganisms responsible for causing water-borne diseases such as dysentery, typhoid, and cholera. Anyone who can suck water through a straw can use the LifeStraw, which is 25 cm long and 2.9 cm in diameter and can be hung around the neck. LifeStraw was developed by Torben Vestergaard Frandsen (Denmark), Rob Fleuren (Holland), and Moshe Frommer (Israel).


Community: Siyathemba

Siyathemba means “we hope” in IsiZulu. The Siyathemba Football Pitch for Somkhele, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, is designed as a community gathering place, especially for the youth of Somkhele, who are three times more likely to become HIV positive than those in any other part of the world. The Siyathemba Football Pitch is a stage for sports and outreach events and will be the home pitch for the area’s first girl’s football league as well as a health center.

Siyathemba demonstrates both the power of design to contribute to the quality of life and the commitment of the design community to contributing to design for a greater good. The Siyathemba competition, sponsored by Architecture for Humanity, was launched in 2004 and challenged designers throughout the world to create the “perfect pitch” for the youth of Somkhele.

The finalists were young designers and established architects from around the world. Their work was exhibited and presented throughout the community for the three months, and the winner, Swee Hong Ng of Edge Studios in Pittsburgh, PA was chosen by community members and project stakeholders.

The project was then developed with the girls from the newly formed Siyathemba soccer league, fulfilling Architecture for Humanity’s ( mandate to design, not for, but with the community.

Work: Observatorio Iberoamericano para la Artesania


Almost 40 million people in the Spanish-speaking world depend on jobs connected to original craftsmanship and small craft companies. But many of these crafts and production skills are dying out. The Work category winner is a unique program that includes a Website and a network of crafts people and resources focused on improving life for Latin American artisans threatened by globalization.

The program was developed by the Fundacion Espanola para la Innovacion de la Artesania (Fundesarte). The main activities of the program are to work with crafts people to research new design methods, provide access to new markets, technological development and provide information on opportunities for tailor-made work.

The INDEX Views Summit

The other major component of INDEX was the INDEX:Views Summit. This 3 1/2-day working conference brought together 30 “creative leaders,” designers, students, and researchers to work as teams to develop ideas for future projects that could make a difference in the world in each of the five INDEX categories.

The design process was facilitated by the Idea Factory, and teams comprised six experts from a wide range of fields, designers and design students and researchers who would gather information for the team. The teams worked together for three days, breaking for meals with all of the teams.

Two proposals that further illustrate the potential of the design process came from the Body and Community teams. The task of the Body team was to “redesign how we care for our personal health.” Some 80% of all illness is caused by diet, tobacco or lack of activity; more than 80% of all government health spending occurs in the last two years of life. These facts led to a proposed project to promote the value of proper nutrition, exercise and not smoking among children 5 to 18. The audience is children, but the objective is also to educate and influence parents and grandparents.


The central element of the program is to deliver information to kids via mentors and role models. Tentatively called “Healthy Harry,” the team suggested the program could be built around Harry Potter (obviously pending permission from A.K. Rowling), with the voice of Harry Potter providing information on the necessity of sports or other activity and eating appropriately. The program includes technology- embedded products like running shoes and jewelry that provide feedback to users on such things as steps taken and heart rate. This information could allow student competitions between classes and/or schools on levels of activity. For more information as it is developed please e-mail or go to

One of the Community teams addressed the increasing need for shelter and housing throughout the world by proposing a book with no words, just illustrations to describe different approaches to building shelters and housing utilizing locally available materials. The book would be distributed in four different ways: A manual delivered free of charge to communities in need and in post-disaster situations (one billion people), the same manual sold at cost and marketed to emerging economies (approximately four billion people), a ‘coffee table’ book sold in first-world markets, and, finally, limited editions of a lavishly produced version to be given to sponsors who provide $10,000 or more to the program. Sales from the book would help fund the manual edition.

Some INDEX projects will benefit a specific group, such as the Siyathemba soccer pitch or the Web-enabled network for crafts people in Latin America. Other projects will benefit a much broader audience; LifeStraw can provide drinking water for everyone from a camper in Colorado to a tsunami victim. The book on building shelters will provide guidance to earthquake victims in Pakistan or your neighbor who wants to downsize to a smaller home.

There are three important aspects of all of these projects. First, they bring together designers of different disciplines working with knowledge experts in fields facing significant challenges. Second, each project is focused on the user. Third, the projects are not the work of individuals working in isolation, but are highly collaborative and often involve the end user directly. These projects and the way they were produced will, we hope, serve as models and allow all of us to benefit from an expanded understanding of design and design thinking that will lead to real innovation.