How to design for positive, humanity-scale impact

A simple open-sourced design had a massive social impact—40 million face shields were produced for front-line workers fast and without expensive tooling investments.

The face shield product—Badger Shield—was assembled by more than 400 manufacturers spanning 22 countries during the first months of the pandemic. It took off because it solved a real problem. Well, actually two.

  1. It kept front line workers safe during a time when face masks became scarce.
  2. It kept regional and local manufacturers open during lockdown, when many closed and laid off employees.

Badger Shield went go on to be featured in Wired, The Wall Street Journal, and Nature, and in 2021 it received Gold in the category of Social Impact Design from the Industrial Designers Society of America. It was also a finalist in the Wisconsin Innovation Awards.

How to design positive, humanity-scale impact

Here are our takeaways to help you and other designers achieve positive, humanity-scale impact with your next social design project. 

Innovate a problem, not a product

The Badger Shield had such massive impact because that it was more than a product—it was a flexible manufacturing network that solved the problem of our brittle supply chain.

When face masks were in short supply, designers and engineers around the world set out to create new and novel PPE products. “Frontline workers need face masks, so let’s design more face masks.”

Although understandable, it wasn’t the right reaction.

The new face mask designs did not consider scale or relied on the traditional supply chain, and that supply chain had failed. You could design the best face mask in the world, but if the pandemic is over before it can be made…

Designers must look beyond product and create a solution that solves the root issue. The Badger Shield team initially started solving a product problem, but then pivoted when they discovered the actual problem.

Start with the human, then figure out viability

The pandemic PPE projects that made an impact were the ones motivated by the needs of end users, not financial incentives of businesses or the desire to provide an overly clever solution.

The user sometimes comes second to a design firm’s desire to elevate its reputation or a company’s fiduciary duty to increase value for its shareholders.

Badger Shield didn’t chase any golden apples. We started with what the user wanted. And they wanted the same thing they already had, just more of it. Fast.

Note that what they didn’t want was an innovative take on the face mask. A new face mask would require them to relearn—at the heights of a global pandemic—how to don and doff. They also didn’t care about who would profit from the product. Clinicians were less interested in speed to market and more interested in speed to need.

As a result, the Badger Shield is no different than what clinicians were already familiar with and the simple design uses common materials enables rapid manufacturing.

We challenge designers to focus first on how the user’s true need and, crucial, how to deliver that need. Only then should you start to consider viability.

Incentivize the whole system

For the Badger Shield concept to spread, we needed to reduce friction in the system and provide incentives for participants.

  • We made the design open-source, which meant lower barrier to entry and an amplification of potential reach.
  • We used common materials with simple assemblage, which meant manufacturers could stand up production rapidly with low-to-zero capital expenses.
  • We created a matchmaking platform for frontline workers to connect with manufacturers on-demand, which reduced required inventory and waste.
  • We designed for a price point, which meant manufacturers, many of whom were facing the prospect of shuttering plants, would have a viable reason to stay open and keep their people employed.

The incentives and friction-less participation we created resulted in more than 400 manufacturers from 22 countries joining the cause.

Designers must think beyond the product—they must design the path.

Badger Shield Resources

The pandemic, almost two years later, is still with us. If you are an organization on the front lines or if you are a manufacturer who wants to help, here are some resources.

The Badger Shield project website, hosted by the University of Wisconsin, has face shield plans, instructions, and other information.

The open-source plans for the Badger Shield are also hosted on our website, as are other articles about lessons learned and how it was made.

Thank you to our network of participating manufacturers and other organizations who made it possible to keep frontline workers safe and regional/local producers in business.

Let’s talk about how we can help move your business forward.

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