Design can have the power to change people's lives. When design addresses peoples' needs, and does it well, users and beneficiaries can reap enormous rewards in their daily lives.
Most design effort in the world (as judged by money spent) targets those who need it the least: the wealthy inhabitants of developed countries. They do have some needs; but these needs tend to be complex and are better filled by policies and systems. Without real needs to address, design has generally targeted desires. While products which fill these desires may bring pleasure to the users, are their lives truly enriched? Do they have more important needs that even they are not aware of, do not express, or do not prioritize? Are there others who could better benefit from design?
There is a general consensus that there are some global needs which must be filled: developed-world transportation and energy consumption needs must be met with sources that are renewable and create less greenhouse gases; environmentally hazardous products and packaging should be redesigned for lower impact; many medical problems could be prevented or treated by properly designed and delivered products.
For whatever reasons, the people who have the most economic power to address these needsthe wealthy inhabitants of developed countrieshave chosen not to express or prioritize them. Sometimes, the products which address these needs are more expensive, less fashionable, or less effective; sometimes, they simply don't exist. Through better designby making more affordable, more desirable, better productssome, if not all, of these needs could be met.
One enormous group which needs good design the most is people living in developing areas of the world. Most products sold in developing countries are imported from, and designed for, more industrialized countries. Without any local design process, they meet neither the local needs nor the local constraints, and they satisfy very few users.
The few local products in these areas are distinguished by a combination of local ingenuity and a lack of solid engineering design. Most of these products, even those derived industrially, are created organically rather than through deliberate design efforts. The products do not effectively fill the targeted needs, and are not successful.
Design, on its own, can have very little impact on people's lives. Unless designs are taught, proliferate, and spread, they help no one. Teaching design in general, and sharing specific designs, allow design to explore its own limits, to test itself in the real world.
"Teaching", however, is by no means confined to any sort of classroom. Whether it's with masons in the sahelian plains of Mali, with some of America's brightest students in a workshop, or with welders in a large manufacturing firm in Nairobi, education and design dissemination take on countless forms.