[Name]: Danny Alexander
[Areas of Expertise]: Design for Social Impact, Mass-Market Sustainability, Industrial Design, Marketing, Supply Chain Analysis
“I was back and forth between the IDEO offices in San Francisco and Ghana for about three months on a project, a large part of which was spent prototyping. We brought five or six toilets with us to Ghana and essentially spent a couple weeks there leaving them with a number of families for 3 or 4 days each. We tested them by using them. It was an interesting process for sure. You learn a lot by prototyping, especially in a situation where you have to clean someone else’s crap out of a toilet.”
Samantha: What did you want to be when you grew up?
Danny: Oh god! It’s taken me the greater part of my life to figure that out, and I’m still trying to figure it out, honestly. Aren’t we all, though? I guess the earliest would have been a baseball player, and at one point or another in my childhood I dreamt of becoming a doctor, a police officer, working for UNICEF, and a number of other things.
S: How did you get interested in design?
D: Good question. I come from a family of academics. Early on, I was always really good in school but also really good with my hands and the arts. I enjoyed the process of making things come to life. Design was a good combination of left-brain/right-brain thinking, and sort of merged my passion for making with my passions for thinking. Industrial design was the perfect merging of the two. Equal parts science and art.
S: What are you working on right now?
D: I’m working on a few projects right now. One of them is redesigning the packaging for the Direct-Trade coffee company called Liga Masiva. This summer, I’ll work with the farmers themselves, helping them improve their yields and increase understanding of how to best grow their coffee. It’s exciting to be able to use design to create an impact on both the consumer-facing and farmer-facing sides of the business, and that’s why I like working with Liga Masiva so much.
S: What’s the significance of direct trade for you?
D: I’ve approached my career as an endless search to do the most good with my work as possible. Early on, I worked to bring sustainable products to a mass market here in the States, using design and innovation to drive social and environmental change. Over time, I got interested in how that same approach to design could create impact in emerging markets, and moved down to South America for a year and a half before coming back and joining the Hub. While I was in Argentina, I co-founded a company called Black and Blue Design. We worked remotely for nonprofits and social enterprises here in the States and used our profits to subsidize pro-bono programs with development organizations. My interest in Liga Masiva and the other companies I work with is the merging of the two worlds–how we use design and innovation to create impact here while also using the same tools and techniques to create change on the other side of the world, where the need is even greater.
S: Did your experience in South America change the way you thought about design?
D: Patience is an important skill. So is cultural understanding. It’s easy to go into a new environment and say “I know better.” It’s really hard to be humble and let people lead. That’s really what I focused on in my one and a half year there, and it’s definitely carried over into my work today.
S: What challenges are you currently facing?
D: Design is a constant problem-solving process. I’ll give you an example. With Liga Masiva, we work directly with the farmers and consumers. We buy directly from a small group of seven or eight farmers in the Dominican Republic, roast the coffee, and ship it straight to customers. This direct process allows for better working conditions for farmers and better quality coffee, but since we don’t go through typical retail outlets, we don’t really have any shelf space to talk to consumers. This can make it hard to spread the message, so we’re working now to figure out the best way to deliver our delicious coffee in a meaningful and positive way, while also ensuring it’s affordable. Shipping coffee is expensive, so we’re working with our shipping partners to reduce waste in packaging and figure out a mutually beneficial partnership. That’s our big challenge for the summer.
S: What led you to found the company Black and Blue Design?
D: I had been working for Method designing eco-friendly packaging for cleaning and personal care products. I was really passionate about the company and the work, but I was also becoming interested in how I could use my skills to create an even bigger impact, particularly with base of the pyramid markets. I started volunteering pretty intensely for Catapult Design, and I wanted to figure out a way where I could do this kind of work full time, without sacrificing my quality of living. There weren’t any paid opportunities to do it though, so I set out to create my own. I moved to Argentina somewhat on a whim, set up a website, and tried to figure it out. It was just my partner and me, and we would bring on freelancers when we needed extra help. But it didn’t need to be any more than that- we got the job done.
S: What were you most proud of?
D: Let’s see. What am I most proud of? I guess just doing it. There were a lot of other people with similar interests, with similar passions, but there were no opportunities for them to act on them. So just creating an example of someone actually doing it on their own was probably my proudest accomplishment. That decision has helped me a lot in the long run, and hopefully helped others as well.
S: And your biggest failure?
D: I had a few projects that I took down with me, but was really unsure of what the demand would be. That led me to be pretty lenient with who I picked to work with: as long as they were a non-profit or a social enterprise, I would work with them. I didn’t take into consideration whether the customer was actually going to implement the projects that we worked on, or actually had the resources to execute our ideas. So there was a lot of great work that we spent a lot of time on (and did well below market value), but didn’t get implemented. The first six months were a kind of a wash in terms of portfolio building and experience. I’d say after the first six months I focused on selecting partners strategically in terms of who could take my work and actually make something of it.
S: Any other exciting projects you’re working on currently?
D: I’m working on product strategy for a company called “Who Gives a Crap,” which is an interesting toilet paper product company based in Melbourne, Australia. They’re essentially trying to shake up a stale category and bring a more ecologically-friendly product to a mass audience, while also investing 50% of profits into sanitation projects abroad. We’re developing a unique 100% recycled paper product line, and, as you can tell by the name, swinging for the fences with our marketing. Even just the name: Charmin could never get away with putting that on their label. On the sanitation note, I also just wrapped up a big sanitation project with IDEO.
S: Tell me more about the IDEO project.
D: So we essentially were working with two partners: Unilever and Water and Sanitation for the Urban Poor. We were challenged to design new in-home sanitation systems for the urban poor in Ghana. This is a situation where there is no infrastructure for sanitation, no sewer system, and a shortage of reliable treatment centers. Homes have no running water, or reliable electricity, and most people have to walk great distances to use public toilets. We essentially asked ourselves, “How do we design a service to improve sanitation conditions and bring it into the homes of people living with very low income?”
S: Have you heard of San+Co, one of the 2011 Hub Ventures winners?
D: Yes. We talked to them when Swapnil reached out to us during our design process. I’ve actually never met Swapnil in person, but we’ve had a great dialogue and we’re excited to see how both of our approaches succeed. We share a great enthusiasm for sanitation, which is a very interesting field even though it’s s bit gross when you first get into it.
S: What was the process like for, first of all, conceptualizing of a different sanitation system, and then actually implementing different models. Did you do this work in Ghana or here?
D: I was back and forth between the IDEO office in San Francisco, and Ghana for about three months. The first half of the phase we really focused our research on uncovering opportunities. We spent hours in the homes of families every day, trying to understand the daily burdens of sanitation problems, and what the potential was for developing a service to help alleviate them. We also toured all of the municipal waste-treatment plants, and really dug deep into what the whole sanitation ecosystem in Ghana looked like, from the in-home experience to waste treatment. From that initial research we developed a directional concept to focus our work in the second phase, which was prototyping. We brought five or six toilets with us to Ghana and essentially spent a couple weeks there leaving them with a number of families for 3 or 4 days each. We tested them by using them. It was an interesting process for sure. You learn a lot by prototyping, especially in a situation where you have to clean someone else’s crap out of a toilet.
S: What were the most surprising things?
D: One subtle detail we found while prototyping led to a dramatic difference in our ultimate design. You couldn’t Google this kind of thing. There are 1.5 million people living in Kumasi, with several religious groups represented. Little did we know when first arriving, but between different religious groups in the area there were different habits for anal cleansing. The Muslim population uses water to cleanse, while the Christians use paper. For a toilet to work for both groups, it needed to be able to work with either technique. Our original idea was a dry composting toilet. But during the prototyping phase, we found that water was getting into the toilets because of water-cleansing. We had to adapt and use a different technology to allow some water to come in, so dry composting systems were out of the question.
S: I would imagine that principle holds true for a lot of different design projects in the developing world? You have to be flexible in terms of dealing with diversity in your user base?
D: Definitely. It’s not just diversity, but patience. Often success or failure comes down to factors beyond the design of the product. Working in these places, there’s a lot of grey area, and you have to try not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good. It’s really difficult to implement things in these markets, so you often have to swallow some tough decisions to get something done… and be patient throughout.
S: Did you ever think you’d be working with toilets and sanitation?
D: I have a string of pretty ridiculous projects. It’s important to be able to tell a good story, so I like projects that let me do that.
S: What’s it like working with so many different companies as a designer? Do you ever feel frustrated that you have to move on after getting so invested?
D: Yeah! It’s exciting, especially in social innovation where people, myself included, tend to develop a highly emotional attachment with their work. It can be difficult to move on after getting so attached. With a few of my clients I’ve agreed to take equity in the company in exchange for work. That way, I get to have more say in the growth of the company and how it moves forward. Generally it has been really helpful for me in maintaining connection to the work, though it can hurt in terms of short-term cash flow. Emotional attachment aside, I have a short attention span so I really enjoy the breadth of projects consulting has allowed me to work on. One day I’m designing toilets in Ghana, the next day I’m working with farmers in the Dominican Republic. And the next day I’ll be working on organic baby food. It helps me to work on a lot of different things, and I enjoy that part of the job.
S: What inspires you these days?
D: I find inspiration everywhere, but less and less from other designers. I’m finding the design world is becoming somewhat removed from the real world, where their designs ultimately live. The more we know about the environmental and societal effects of our work, the less it seems designers and firms are willing to have a point of view. So I look for inspiration elsewhere- activists, social entrepreneurship, and technology, for example.
I also just recently moved back to NYC for the summer, and I’m pretty excited to be back here. It’s a nice change in pace. Summer here is like no other place in the world.
S: You mention having some issues with social entrepreneurship. If you feel comfortable sharing, we’d love to hear them.
D: Social enterprise is halfway between the non-profit and the for-profit worlds. I lean more toward the for-profit mentality. Too often, a social enterprise will expect designers and developers to work for free, or depend on armies of volunteers to take on its cause as their own. Sometimes it works out, but I’m finding more and more that you get what you pay for, and unfortunately social enterprises can rarely pay for much. Until they can find financially sustainable ways of doing what they do, they won’t be able to compete. As a designer who has done a lot of pro-bono work, I understand it’s sometimes inevitable. But at scale, it’s unsustainable– I can’t afford to work for free on all my projects.
Additionally, the social entrepreneurship movement has been too glamorized, and the appeal of being a founder has become too sexy. I have been guilty of it myself, and found it to be a real distraction. For a long time, I was focused on what social enterprise accolades I could win, or if I would be accepted as a successful founder. I’d spend all my time planning a business model that would meet the criteria of the fellowships I was applying for, and not spend enough time on my actual work. And then I realized that everyone I was competing with was competing for all the same prizes, and not focusing on work. I think that the primary focus needs be to figuring out the model that works. If recognition follows, then great, but otherwise a lot of these businesses are built around making it into a great fellowship program or being recognized as the next great founder under the age of 26, or something like that. Does that make sense?
S: Yes definitely! Almost working backwards, wanting to get to a certain place, then working backwards to get there.
D: For sure, and don’t take this personally, but this is actually one of the issues I have with the Hub and other social entrepreneurship communities here. While it’s a great resource, it promotes the sexiness of being a social entrepreneur and being part of an exciting club. But it shouldn’t be just a club. While the Hub provides a really valuable social network and a space for people to connect and support each other, it should also be a space where people can compete against each other. I believe in competition, and that there is a healthy middle-ground. The Hub has been closer than anyone else in finding that. But being an entrepreneur, there’s a lot of crappy work you have to do. You have to be really committed to your work. Not just the idea of it. And sometimes in this community, you get really sub-par ideas or incapable entrepreneurs, and they’re all being validated. Sorry, maybe this is just me being an asshole, but I’d love to see a better filter at the Hub.
S: Nope. Candidness is appreciated. That’s interesting. There currently isn’t a system in the Hub for vetting good ideas, and filtering them out. I think Hub Ventures is a step in the right direction. But like you mentioned, it’s a prize-based competition. Granted, when I interviewed many of the participants, they said it was the process that was most important to them. They didn’t care too much who won the money. But I definitely feel what you’re saying.
D: And there’s definitely a lot of exceptions. I’m just one person talking. I don’t speak for the whole movement, but that’s just my frustration with it, and a lot of it has to do with my own personal reflection of what I wasted my own time on. So, it might be really valuable for a lot of people, but for me it was sometimes a real distraction and did some damage for my progress and development. That said, the connections and support I found at the Hub have been hugely influential as well.
S: Where do you see yourself going next, what are you striving for now?
D: I’m actively trying to figure that out myself. Last fall, I had a business plan I was using to apply for fellowships. Then I realized it wasn’t true to who I am. I felt a lot of pressure from my peer network to be active in these competitions. The reality is that it wasn’t what I wanted to do. I spent some time dissecting it and figured out what I want to be doing: which is creating an opportunity for other designers to use their skills to drive social change and improve our relationship with the natural world. At this point, I’m interested in changing the whole industry, not just my own career. So I’ve joined on as a faculty member at the upcoming Design for Social Innovation program at the School of Visual Arts. I also joined the Board of Advisors for Design Impact in India, which provides fellowships for designers to immerse themselves within grassroots organizations in the developing world.
These positions, satisfy a lot of my goals that I was aiming for with my previous business plan. Now I’m focused on my client businesses, and what trajectory I’m on. I’m exploring the best way to scale up what I’m doing, so I’ll be making a big change in the next few months. I don’t really have much information on right now, other than that I want to do something bigger.
Once again, thanks for reading!
Samantha, Your Hub Stories Correspondent
Samantha is a staff blogger for the Hub Bay Area. She designed and launched the Hub Stories Project in January of 2011 in an attempt to capture the unique narratives of Bay Area change-makers as they help to build a better world from within the Hub community. She also writes a travel blog and is currently based in Tel Aviv, Israel.