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Design for a better world  -  How working together and applying design approaches is improving people's lives

November 6, 2023

9 November is World Usability Day 2023. This year’s theme is Collaboration and Cooperation, which intents to focus on how we can work together to create solutions, both globally and locally, to solve the world’s biggest problems. These problems are closely related to the United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

To mark this day we’re reflecting on how design tools and approaches can help to develop products and services that have a positive impact on people’s lives. We’re also highlighting some projects that have successfully worked towards achieving one or more of the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

What are the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals?

The Sustainable Development Goals: 17 Goals to Transform Our World.

Source: United Nations

Adopted by the United Nations in 2015, the Sustainable Development Goals are a collection of 17 interrelated goals that provide a roadmap to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure that by 2030 all people enjoy peace and prosperity. The goals address and respect the three dimensions of sustainable development — social, economic and environmental.

The universal nature of the goals means they apply to all 193 countries, not just the poor, least developed ones. Each goal must then be implemented differently in each country, according to its socio-economic context. Taking the example of Goal 2: Zero hunger — while some countries are still struggling with hunger and malnutrition, others should be more concerned with promoting a healthy diet and combating obesity. When it comes to Goal 7: Affordable and clean energy —  while certain populations are concerned with access to energy, others consume great amounts and need to find ways to reduce its consumption and the impact on the environment.

Designing to address the UN SDGs

A group of people gathered around a laptop.

Photo by Tima Miroshnichenko on Pexels

“Money and policy are the most frequently cited enablers of sustainable development goals, but money is wasted, and policy becomes ineffective if we fail to include design as a critical enabler of sustainable development goals. Design can inspire investment, influence policy, and bring together stakeholders in such a way that it promotes scalability of the SDGs.”

Diane Hoskins in “Why Designing for the Human Experience Is Key to Advancing SDG Goals”

Designers can create positive impact on social, economic, and environmental issues directly linked to the SDGs by partnering with governments, NGOs or the private sector. 

When faced with a given problem, in a specific context, designers can put design methodologies at good use and dare to come up with radically new solutions. Those solutions are not always physically tangible but rather experienced in the abstract. With a co-creation mindset, designers can work different and better to ignite change, particularly at a local level. If solutions are well thought-through and centered in the people who are directly affected by them, more can be done with less resources. 

Which design approaches are commonly used?

When it comes to applying design to address sustainable goals, several concepts and tools are often put at use. While they might have different names and scopes, there’s one thing they all have in common — putting people needs and desires at the centre of priorities. 

Design Thinking

Design thinking is a process for creative problem solving that puts people and their needs at the centre. It’s a highly collaborative and iterative method that consists of five phases — Empathise (gain real insights about users through research), Define (identify users’ needs and problems), Ideate (generate ideas and develop solutions), Prototype (create a prototype of the solution) and Test (test the prototype and iterate to redefine). 

Design thinking helps us build innovative solutions based on the needs of those we're creating for and can be used in business, government, education or nonprofit organisations.

🛠️ Tools worth checking:

Human-Centered Design

Much like design thinking, human-centered design is about empathy and understanding each individual’s situation, with particular needs and behaviours. It’s primarily based on the direct engagement with real users by researching, understanding and interacting with them. Putting real people in the centre of the design process and designing systems according to the user’s real context of use allows us to create more useful and usable products.

How does it compare to design thinking? — While human-centered design is highly linked to good usability and user experience, design thinking is more focused on coming up with innovative solutions for complex problems. Design thinking goes beyond screens, websites or apps, as it can be used to develop solutions for a wide range of challenges — be it business, economical, governmental, social or environmental.

For a complete overview of common features and main differences of the two approaches check the article “Design Thinking — new old creativity”.

🛠️ Tools worth checking:

Systemic Design

The sole existence of the Sustainable Development Goals is proof of the many challenges the world is facing today. Large scale and ambiguous problems, that involve multiple stakeholders, remain unsolved and there’s just not a simple solution to fix them. Systemic Design is a recent concept that emerged from the need to tackle those complex issues.

While systems thinking helps us understand dynamic and higher order systems, by understanding the whole structure and how different elements interact with each other, design thinking is used to solve defined problems. When presented with more ambiguous challenges we certain gain from combining the two. That’s why systemic design integrates systems thinking and design practices. Both domains contribute to each other and are combined to come up with new perspectives, processes and ideas.

🛠️ Tools worth checking:


Instead of having public authorities planning urban areas, why not involving the local communities to help shape the design of their own neighbourhoods? And when it comes to health services, why not involving patients, healthcare providers, and administrators in the design of better patient experiences?

The co-design methodology is about calling people in to participate in the design process and actively collaborate with them to come up with innovative, practical and relevant solutions. To apply co-design it’s important to take advantage of tools that spark ideas and help participants articulate them.

Co-design can be particularly relevant in the public sector, where bringing community members to collaborate with experts can lead to more beneficial outcomes. 

🛠️ Tools worth checking:

Design for Social Impact. How-to Guide

The Co-Create Handbook

Leveraging design for positive impact — some examples

Ending poverty, ensuring everyone has access to clean water and sanitation, guaranteeing peaceful and fair societies — there are problems that just seem to difficult to eradicate. However, while a single project it’s unlikely to solve such complex problems altogether, working towards achieving one or more goals will certainly contribute to ease the live of individuals and communities around the world.

A screenshot of Izzistrit Platform.

Source: iF Design Award

The iF Social Impact Prize supports design projects that contribute to improving our society and achieve the UN Sustainable Goals. In 2022, one of the winning projects was Izzistrit, a platform developed by a Brazilian company that helps people with disabilities or reduced mobility in safely navigating urban spaces with independence and autonomy. Through digital maps, chatbot, and AI-powered application, people can get the most suitable routes and are recommended accessible-friendly commercial establishments, all adapted to each disability. This project clearly aligns with Goal 10: Reduced Inequalities, and it’s a great example of how technology can be used for good and help improve the life of people with disabilities.

A member of the Alight staff in a refugee settlement collecting the feedback of a refugee on a tablet.


In 2016, (a nonprofit design studio that designs products and services alongside organisations that are committed to creating a more just and inclusive world) and Alight (an organisation focused on helping refugees and providing disaster relief) partnered to developed a platform for tracking customer satisfaction among refugees in real-time. It’s called Kuja Kuja and allows humanitarian organisations to prioritise the people they’re serving and improve the services they provide. Alight staff travels around the refugee settlement with tablets collecting customer satisfaction data on an app and suggestions for how to improve service. Those suggestions are aggregated into a dashboard showing people’s perspectives in real-time.

Illustration of women faces.

Source: ThinkPlace

ThinkPlace, an Australian design agency who works with governments, private sector enterprises and NGOs around the world, shares how they worked with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to identify opportunities to provide better access to affordable high-quality menstrual hygiene solutions for Nigerian people in the low-middle-income and low-income levels. ThinkPlace conducted a deep ethnographic study where they engaged with Nigerian women across different age groups, locations and socio-economic groups who shared their everyday experience about their period, their life and the challenges they face in menstrual hygiene management. Their approach focuses on making people actively involved in the research:

“We do not just collect insights from participants, rather, we involve them in an ongoing, generative partnership, empowering them to be an active part of shaping their future and the world. We are moving them beyond research subjects to become true co-creators.”

Designers have what it takes to make a difference

Creativity, interdisciplinary knowledge, big picture thinking. These are few traits that put designers and researchers in a unique position to tackle the world’s toughest problems addressed by the SDGs.

Over time, designers have moved from simply designing things to handling problems in different areas. That’s why companies, governments, and non-governmental organisations are hiring designers who take advantage of design tools and approaches to solving complex problems through innovation.

“Design is plan for action.”

Charles Eames

Actions taken together —  whether those actions create community-designed green space for Brooklyn and the Bronx residents or develop a sustainable water and health social enterprise to address health challenges of low income communities in Nairobi —  are meaningful steps to make this dream of a better, fairer, and more sustainable world for all a bit more tangible.

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