It’s Easier to Design for Rich People

“Poor” people amount to more than 90% of the world population. And they have commercial demands too.

But at the moment, there are, in simple terms, 9 designers pumping out cool products for 1 rich guy while there’s only 1 designer listening to 9 different “poor” people to design affordable and need-based products/systems. The proportions are all messed up! Here’s why:

For my footwear design class one of our projects was to design $1 shoes for developing countries. I was really excited because it’s the type of thing I’d love to take on in the future. But I soon realized it was a flawed assignment. How the heck would I design cheap shoes for “poor” people without physically observing where/how they live and what kinds of local materials their area produces? How do I know what kinds of shoes they really need without asking them? It’s not like the Internet has a well-updated list of specific consumer footwear needs that you can pick and choose from. Out of hope I even typed “chat with poor people” to see if I could somehow get in contact with someone in a developing country and ask them what they needed.

You might think it’s over-doing it, going to those places and asking what they want. But that’s called market research and product designers of corporations big/small are doing it everyday with you and me. The process is not any different just because your market is “poor.”

Anyway, the $1 project was difficult. It was so much harder than our previous projects where we had to just redesign historical shoes into cool modern day ones. Our teacher brought in bags of material swatches to look at. Binders and binders dedicated to midsole rubbers, upper meshes, exotic animal leathers, high-performance technology synthetics, and even reflectives. You just pick and choose, try different combinations, and BAM you got yourself your next bestseller. For the $1 shoes I had not choice but to take someone else’s research and base it off of that. I used Jacqueline Novogratz’s experience in Mathare Valley, the oldest and worst African slum, where she personally spoke to a woman who had escaped extreme poverty through entrepreneurship. (Click for her amazing TED talk that will change your perspective on poor people and poverty)

It’s just easier to design for rich people. In the world that you and I live in the physical and systematic infrastructure of industries from material-sourcing, to manufacturing, to production are all well-established (and just to be clear well-established does NOT mean well-designed). So it seems pretty straight-forward to design something and get it produced just like that.

Here is what I ended up with for the $1 shoe. (Click preview photos to view larger)


-Leah Erica Chung, 2011 Planning Committee Member- Branding

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