Can design save the world? A new alliance is trying

On paper, a hackathon sounds like the perfect way to boost creativity: Get people together in a room with stationery, laptops, and lots of caffeine, and give them a few days to come up with a hack.


But Ben Sheppard, who leads McKinsey’s global design research, had an unfortunate realization: The hackathon is over, designers go home, and nothing else gets done.

Other top designers felt the same way. Many designers have “experienced activities where we tried to design for good, where we tried to do activities to make the world a better place,” says Sheppard, who leads a roundtable of McKinsey’s chief design officers. “Did it really make the world a better place? And in many cases, unfortunately, the answer is no.”

Sheppard is a co-founder of Design For Good, a new coalition of some of the world’s largest companies to use design talent to solve social issues. (Sheppard is a member of the advisory board of luckNext Brainstorm Design Conference is on December 6th)


Halfway through its first two-year program, Design For Good has dozens of projects ready to go. But to prove that the alliance is more than what Sheppard considers “design theatre,” he now has to do something just as difficult: make these projects work in the real world.

Better design of sanitation and water access

The alliance, which officially launched in April 2022, includes some of the world’s largest companies — PepsiCo, General Mills, Microsoft, Lixil, and Nestle — among its nine corporate members. The Royal College of Art in the United Kingdom provides education and training to participants.

In the first round of projects, Design for Good focused its efforts on the mission of improving sanitation and access to clean water. To get started, Design for Good deployed hundreds of designers, all from member organizations, into cross-company teams and showed them a design brief from the coalition’s first round of partner development organizations: WaterAid, WaterStarters, and the World Toilet Foundation, among others. .

Partner development organizations helped designers understand the problem that needed to be solved, talked about ideas, and most importantly, told them what hadn’t worked in the past. The designers then worked on the projects part-time for six months, Instead of the usual two or three days in a hackathon.

“We knew we had to start with partnerships with development organizations, we knew we had to be able to give away intellectual property, and we needed two years of core time, not two days,” Sheppard says.

By June 2023, coalition designers had created 26 projects to improve water quality and sanitation, ranging from a social media awareness campaign encouraging UK residents to save water to a low-cost zip-top bag of reusable and affordable menstrual products for remote rural communities.

“Burning Man” design

Now, as Design For Good enters the second year of its program, it needs the help of its partner organizations to launch these projects.

This is where the corporate members of the alliance come into play, Sheppard says. Development organizations may need help from “non-designers,” such as web developers or supply chain experts. A large company like Lixil or Microsoft can provide this expertise.

Sheppard knows this is still an experiment. He acknowledges that it’s important for Design For Good to “maintain a healthy humility.”

He wants Design For Good to be sustainable in the long term, too. Sheppard notes that the participating designers — all of whom work in demanding design jobs for major companies — have stuck with their projects for months thanks to the “personal sense of satisfaction” that comes from working to address societal ills.

He hopes the commitment will strengthen a sense of community moving forward, as it does when Design For Good tackles the next phase Its mission is likely to be to improve access to quality education, starting next September.

Sheppard wants designers to keep coming back with a sense of “an enthusiastic, almost educated following, every year, ready for the next opportunity, ready to meet fellow designers.”

“Almost like Burning Man,” he suggests.

Fortune’s Brainstorm Design Conference returns on December 6 at MGM Cotai in Macau, China. Participants and attendees will discuss the topic “Empathy in the Age of AI” or how new technologies are revolutionizing the creative industry.

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