Oct 15

Poverty: Design a Difference

Posted at 10:50 PM on October 15th, 2008 by Alex

This post is part of Blog Action Day 2008.  Today, over 12,000 blogs around the world are calling awareness to the topic of poverty, reaching an estimated audience of over 13 million readers.  Join in at blogactionday.org

Blog Action Day 2008: Poverty - Use your Design Skills to Make a Difference

Ever feel like you are in a profession that doesn’t allow you to have a huge impact on some of the most important issues in the world?  Designers can make anything beautiful and eye-catching, but what can they do to solve poverty?  The answer is A LOT.  Don’t be fooled by the doubts.  Here are 10 ways designers can tap their creativity to make a BIG difference in world poverty.  Now you have no excuse!

  1. Donate money to organizations supporting the cause.

    This one is a no brainer right?  Everyone can go out and donate money.  Unfortunately, though, not everyone does.  Some of the most innovative and effective non-profit cause-based organizations in the world are just barely getting by with the funds they have.  

    So how do you make sure your donation counts?  We’re all aware of the scam organizations and the fact that some legit non-profits just make bad moves with their money.  So how do we get around these issues?

    First, find trusted organizations.  Never impulse give unless it is directly to the recipient (not some intermediary organization).  Do your homework online.  Check out the FTC’s lists of active fraud cases at http://www.ftc.gov/charityfraud/ and file a complaint there against any organization you think might have scammed you.  Also, be aware of the lists of known good organizations.  Blog Action Day has a couple great organizations listed over here: http://blogactionday.org/live_updates/fundraising. 

    I especially like Kiva and their microfinancing approach to helping poverty.  Instead of just blindly giving money out, possibly supporting the continuation of poverty lifestyles, Kiva gives out small loans to help those in need get back on their feet and making their own money.  Since they have to pay the loans back (usually plus some interest), this increases the sense of personal responsibility for the recipient, and fills a void for investment - most financial institutions won’t make risky investments with those who have little or no previous capital.  

    So how much does it cost to help someone make their life significantly more prosperous?   In many 3rd world countries a single mother could start a business to support a family of four and employ locals with only a $40 loan.  Even in the midst of our economic woes the U.S. dollar is still amazingly valuable in some parts of the world.  The other benefit to Kiva is the ability to choose to who and for what your loan goes.  This puts the decision in your hands about what your money will be going towards.


  2. Do free or discounted “portfolio” work for charity / non-profits.  

    Another no-brainer?  Perhaps.  But it helps.  So many great organizations have the worst brochures and websites in the world.  Freelancers and new designers especially are always looking to do some creative design to add to their portfolio.  Instead of doing a design for a fictitious brand or  product, why not make it count?  

    The huge bonus of this sort of work is that free/discount clients are usually NO WHERE NEAR as picky as those who are paying full price.  Take advantage of this unique opportunity to design what YOU want to design, not explain why your client doesn’t know what he/she is talking about :PThis kind of work shouldn’t be too hard to find, and often the key is just finding an organization you support.  But if you’re really having a tough time, make an announcement on one of the LinkedIn design groups, or put yourself up for charity hire at elance.com .

  3. Tap your social network to support certain organizations / causes.  

    Let’s face it: we digital designers stick together.  This is especially relevant for freelancers who live or die based on their number of social connections.  We have tons of LinkedIn connections, Facebook friends, and Twitter followers.  Even the worst of us can rally a small army when we want.  So why not tap that ability for some social change?

    Whether it be recruiting volunteers for the local free food kitchen, promoting Blog Action Day, or starting your own Kiva lending team — your social network is extremely valuable for affecting poverty around the world.  

  4. Use your awesome design skills to call attention to a problem.  

    Designers are some of the best natural marketers out there.  Why?  Because of their huge social networks (see #3), AND because they understand how to make things attractive to people.  So what if you see a local problem that there isn’t a good response to yet?  Make it so people CAN’T overlook it!  Use your design skills and some creativity to bring attention to the issue.  Even if you don’t have any ideas on how to change things, you can at least get people interested in making a difference.    

    Read #5 for a GREAT example of this.

  5. Use your awesome design skills to make those in need feel less forgotten.  

    We all love a life filled with beautiful things.  I keep pictures on my walls, creative desktops on my computer, and clothes that stand out in a crowd.  But sometimes low funds can put a crimp in our styles.  

    Well, how using your ability as a designer to make simple things beautiful to spice up the life of those in need?  Don’t understand what I’m talking about?  Below is a GREAT example:


  6. Design more cost-friendly products, so the underpriveledged might be able to have a chance at enjoying the same benefits.  

    This is a little bit of an “advanced” suggestion, for only the select few in charge of product design.  But for those in that niche arena, there are a lot of possibilities to bring previously expensive technologies and products to the masses.  

    One recent great example is the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project, which set into motion with aim of bringing a laptop to every child around the world regardless of income.  To do this, the project had to make a laptop that could be produced for under $200.  Check out the progress and results HERE.  Why not do this with more technologies and products? 

  7.  Design new ways of monetizing old services and products in order to bring their consumer prices down.  

    Where would we be without free access to Twitter?  Well, sadly, we might not have services like Twitter available for free much longer if we don’t find some good ways to monetize them.  Designers have just the creative potential to figure out such models.  Get to it!  

    Throughout history products have depended on this.  We wouldn’t get free over-the-air TV, radio, or fireworks displays on the 4th of July if we didn’t have ways to monetize them with ads and sponsors.  Heck — half of the web 2.0 world exists as startup web apps hoping to either figure out a model or to get scarfed up by someone else.  There are services EVERYWHERE that could use some extra monetization so they can reach the consumer more cheaply.  

    And help us all out with getting Twitter in the green :)


  8. Provide free services or products in order to increase your brand image and customer base.  

    The Uber-YOU series has been focused on free services and products out there available to make your life more productive.  A lot of these web-apps and other services are provided by large companies looking to spruce up their public services.  It is an effective PR move and often comes with a huge ROI.

    Google is the KING of providing free services to keep consumers coming back to their products.  Even services they have no ways of monetizing (remember Grand Central?) create happy and loyal customers.  

    One example of Google having a serious effect on poverty is their initiative about 8 months ago to provide free voicemail to all the homeless in the San Francisco area.  With voicemail (provided with their Grand Central service), the homeless would finally have the ability to get job interviews and engage in other communications without hanging around the other party’s front door. 

  9. Use your design skills to help individuals promote themselves better, giving them a better chance at getting a good job.   

    We are the tech generation, but a lot of those outside of our social class or our age-range don’t have the technical skills necessary to properly promite themselves in the 21st century.  Want to make a difference in their life?  Give them a helping hand!  Get their resume looking perfect, show them how to make or give a presentation with Powerpoint, or something similar.  You could be helping them move from minimum wage to a job that they can actually provide for their whole family with.  

  10. Subscribe to this blog’s RSS feed by midnight, and/or follow me on twitter. 

    Ok, so this isn’t a very long lasting one, but if you didn’t notice my previous Blog Action Day post, I’m donating $1 to the local food bank for every RSS/email subscriber at That INDIE Dude and every new Twitter follower before Midnight tonight the end of Friday, Oct. 17th, 2008!  The totals are raising pretty fast — help them out!  Follow me on Twitter AND subscribe by RSS and you will have helped get $2 to poverty. 


    You’re a designer.  We are some of the most creative people in the world - that’s what we get paid for.  Put that creativity to use and come up with your own awesome ways to help put an end to poverty around the world!  

Have any suggestions?  Drop them in the comments below! 

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3 Responses to “Poverty: Design a Difference”

  1. Dan Waldron Says:

    I just stopped by your blog and thought I would say hello. I like your site design. Looking forward to reading more down the road.

  2. Fundraising » Poverty: Design a Difference Says:

    [...] Ellie wrote an interesting post today onHere’s a quick excerptDo free or discounted “portfolio” work for charity / non-profits. Another no-brainer? Perhaps. But it helps. So many great organizations have the worst brochures and websites in the world. Freelancers and new designers especially are … Read the rest of this great post here [...]

  3. Catherine Says:

    I heard Mary Lou Jepsen of OLPC fame speak recently. She was engaging and powerful. She is passionate about OLPC and the differences it makes in the lives of the children receiving it.

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