Designing for a not so flat world

(This article was written on April 9th, 2007 and first published in Design Issues, a journal of IDSA).


Discussions about globalization, especially the human and cultural issues, have polarized the world into pro- and anti-globalization camps. Vandana Siva, a leading environmentalist, suggests a new world view of globalization based on abundance and sharing, diversity and decentralization, and respect and dignity for all beings. This is where designers have the opportunity to play evangelists in the everyday lives of people living in different parts of the global economy.

Due to the advent of information-revolution and ease of travel, people are feeling the effects of globalization in every sphere of their lives. Globalization is changing the way people think and what they desire. It is leading them towards a drastic break from their erstwhile ways of living. Therefore, it is important to understand the extent to which people are embracing the changes occurring in their environment and the aspects of their past they would like to retain.

Global Design

The effects of globalization have profound implications for designers who have made a shift from egocentric design to empathic design. While egocentric design was more about a designer’s expression and his/her desire to change the world, empathic design is more about being sensitive to the needs and aspirations of everyday people. In egocentric design, the minimalist tradition dictated the outputs of mainstream designers worldwide. Any deviation from the minimalist design tradition has been deemed more as a rebellious expression (e.g., Memphis) or as an attempt to “inspire avant garde design through provoking innovation and discussion” (e.g., in Droog Design). On the other hand, the outputs of empathic design have stemmed from traditions, culture, and local knowledge.

Designers who aspire to design for unfamiliar or emerging markets have not adequately understood the importance of cross-cultural or local influences on people’s choices. Design outputs, especially those developed for unfamiliar markets, need to incorporate local concepts, traditions, and expressions. Additionally, new lifestyles that are emerging out of the fusion of cross-cultural influences pose even greater challenges and opportunities for designers.

It appears that designers can take their skills to new markets and transform people’s lives using a magic wand of “design.” Some people even think that the savages from the emerging economies, who were left behind in the fast pace of modernization, could use some help from the world that is technologically, economically, and intellectually advanced. The truth, however, is different. With the enhanced access to new markets, designers will be increasingly designing for people they do not know. In this context, designers need tools to first familiarize themselves with the inhabitants of the emerging global village and map the global mindsets.

Global Village

To understand how different the world is from our own familiar environment, it may be worthwhile considering some interesting facts outlined in the book, If the World Were a Village. (Smith 2002) Smith created a curriculum called, “Mapping the World by Heart” for school children. In this book he outlined facts about the composition of the global village by reducing over 6 billion people on the planet to a village of 100 people.

In this village:

  • •Of the 100 people in the global village, 61 are from Asia, 21 are from China, 17 are from India, and five are from the United States.
  • •In this global village there are more than 6,000 languages, but more than half of the population speak eight languages: 22 speak a Chinese dialect; nine speak English; eight speak Hindi; seven speak Spanish; four speak Arabic; four speak Bengali; three speak Portuguese; and three speak Russian.
  • •More than half of the villagers are under the age of 30.
  • Of the 100 people, 88 are old enough to read, 71 can read at least a little, and 17 cannot read at all. More men are taught to read than women.
  • If all the money in the village were divided equally, each person would have about $6,200 per year. But in the global village, money is not divided equally. The richest 20 people each have more than $9,000 a year; the poorest 20 people each have less than $1 a day.
  • The average cost of food, shelter, and other necessities in the village is $4,000 to $5,000 per year.
  • Seventy six (76) villagers have electricity; 24 do not.
  • In the village there are 42 radios, 24 televisions, 30 telephones (half of them cellular phones), and 10 computers.
  • By the year 2100 or sooner, there will be 250 people in the village.
  • Many experts think that 250 is the maximum number of people the village can sustain. (Smith 2002)

Designers need to become “world minded” in order to participate meaningfully and productively in the global village. Only by understanding the complexities of this village and sensibilities of the villagers will designers be enabled to conceptualize innovative tools.

The World is not so Flat

Thomas Friedman, in his book “The World is Flat”(2006), has termed the effect of globalization as flattening the world. He has outlined 10 forces that have flattened the world: the fall of the Berlin Wall; Internet browsers; workflow software; open-sourcing; outsourcing; off-shoring; supply chaining; logistics; Web searching; and digital, mobile, personal, and virtual communication. Friedman suggests that,

“We needed the emergence of a large cadre of managers, innovators, business consultants, business schools, designers, IT specialists, CEOs, and workers to get comfortable with and develop the sorts of horizontal collaboration and value- creation processes and habits that could take advantage of this new, flatter playing field. In short, the convergence of the 10 flatteners began the convergence of a set of business practices and skills that would get the most out of the flat world. And then the two began to mutually reinforce each other.” (Friedman 2006)

Friedman’s prescription only focuses on the community of people who have adapted to or want to adapt to the forces of globalization. I would argue that designing for the flat world would only limit our opportunities to a small segment of the world population that is riding the waves of globalization. On the other hand, there is a vast population of the global village that is either oblivious to, resisting, in conflict with, or has only partially adapted to the forces of globalization. Some of them have retained their original ways despite the forces of globalization. We need a framework for designing for the entire population of the global village that lives in a not-so-flat world.

The framework proposed at the end of this article will help designers and innovators appreciate the nuances that distinguish various inhabitants of the global village. It is based on the insights we have gained at SonicRim from studying people, cultures, and trends in both advanced and emerging markets.

States of Mind: Characters in the Scenarios for Global Design

The first step in any design process is knowing whom one is designing for. One of the key concepts often used by the design community to bring focus on the end user is persona.

At SonicRim we have found personas to be very useful in representing findings from design research, especially in evoking the imagination of use scenarios (past, present, and aspired) among stakeholders of innovation processes in client organizations. However, we have also found that the concept of personas is broadly used in various organizations, and the information that is used to define the personas, such as users’ contexts, goals, pain points, and major issues from their environment that need to be resolved, is drawn from different sources. Therefore, no standardized method of defining personas has been established yet. I, therefore, see the relevance of extending the concept of personas even further to support the need to develop a framework for innovating for the global village.

Though personas are fictitious, client companies often mistake them for real people representing specific customer segments. It is common for organizations to conduct quantitative studies to identify exact numbers or proportions of personas in the real world and then go looking for them. In my view, quantitative segmentation of personas has the potential to alienate significant numbers of end users from the scope of a design strategy. On the other hand, for the purpose of understanding global markets, I propose the concept of “states of mind” around which characters within design scenarios can be portrayed. A single individual can live for and aspire to multiple identities and multiple states of mind, and seek experiences that satisfy the cravings of specific states of mind. I suggest looking for archetypical states of mind as characters in scenarios of use that would be developed in the framework for global design.

Three Dimensions

I propose three significant dimensions along which the states of mind can be profiled when trying to capture the influence of globalization on people’s needs and aspirations.

  1. Sense of Belonging:
Fig. 1: First dimension: Sense of Belonging

An individual’s desire for connection to a larger entity has significant influence on whom and how he/she chooses to interact within his/her network. On one hand, one’s desire to connection would be defined by parochial consideration, and on the other by a sense of belonging to a global community. The middle space can comprise a sense of location: a sense of connection to symbols and ideas that represent the city, town, village, state, or the country of which a person is or has been a citizen or resident of. Unlike the normal practice of defining the mid point in a traditional scale, I would like to introduce the concept of middle space because I do believe that the mid point in the proposed framework is a utopian concept: a perfect global citizen.

2. Sense of Self:

Fig. 2: Second dimension: Sense of Self

Every individual has a tacit need for defining oneself in relation to the rest of the world and projecting it before others. The need for a sense of self has an impact on how one expresses himself/herself through products, brands, or environments one collects or builds around oneself. In his book, The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently…and Why, Richard Nisbett has outlined distinct differences in the Western and Eastern ways of thinking. Westerners, he found, “focus on objects and their control, Asians on context and harmony; Westerners think linear and rhetorical, while Asians think holistic and relational; where Westerners see simplicity, logic, and stability, Asians find complexity, paradox, and change. These differences are clear but not stark, and bi-cultural experience tends to blend them.” (Nisbett 2005)

A wide gap that separates the intellectual inheritors of Aristotle from the descendants of Confucius is articulated very clearly by Nisbett. In the midst of globalization, when the need for cross-cultural understanding and collaboration is central to any global endeavor, The Geography of Thought offers an opportunity to respect the differences and identify the fusion of thoughts that are occurring from the intermingling of people of diverse cultural origins. The second dimension I propose in my framework is inspired by the proposition of Nisbett that there is a distinct difference in the cognitive makeup of people from different cultures. Numerous conversations we have had with people from both Asian and Western cultures have helped define this dimension. One end of the continuum refers to very selfish aspirations, whereas the other end refers to altruistic aspirations. The middle zone refers to the communal associations, where individuals derive their sense of self from their connection to a well-defined commune such as a caste, tribe, religion, language, or profession.

3. Sense of Time:

Fig. 3: Third dimension: Sense of Time

People’s experience of a moment is influenced by their sense of the past, present, and future. Depending on which time zone one wants to experience at a given moment, one may choose the props (for experiencing) that give them a vicarious sense of that time. One end of this continuum refers to a sense of nostalgia, which may come from a desire to experience traditions, rituals, myths, or just a feeling of the past.

On the other end is a desire to imagine being a part of the future. The middle space of this continuum refers to the desire for being in sync with the present — what is cool, trendy, and popular. Knowing where people want to belong in time during that state can help conceptualize a design strategy that reflects that time.

Framework for Global Design:

The innovation for global design is represented by a framework comprising the three dimensions of mind.

Fig. 4: Framework for cross-cultural design

Designers can use this framework to plot states of mind to plot their target consumers’ desires during the moment a product or brand within a particular environment would be used. Defining the states of mind and associated motivations, pain points, and scenarios of experience can help develop compelling narratives of possible scenarios of use, which can inspire innovative ideas that are relevant to different mindsets at a global level.

Fig. 5: Mapping design ideas to the framework

[L to R: Khadi, the handspun cloth of India; Red, the new global initiative to help victims of aids in Africa; Prius, the hybrid car; Wikipedia; MySpace; ipod; The Flag of the Third Reich; Volkswagen Beatle; and Vietnam Memorial.]

As a demonstration of how this framework may be used, I have superimposed some of the designs from the past and the present that seem (in my personal opinion) to resonate with varied states of mind that may fit in with different segments of the framework.

Using the Framework

At SonicRim we have developed a number of methodologies and tools that enable us to understand and articulate archetypal states of mind that exist within the global marketplace.

States of mind refer to the emotional and cognitive conditions that guide people’s preferences for products, brands, information, and environments. Over many years of experimentation with research tools, we have found that verbal or observational protocols of research are not adequate in eliciting the vital emotional and cognitive dimensions of people’s states of mind. We find hands-on activities, such as cognitive mapping, collage making, day-in-a-life maps, scrapbooking, Velcro modeling, etc., to be more useful in getting people to reveal the tacit knowledge about their own experiences and aspirations. Such activities, by virtue of play-like engagement with the tools, enable the participants to tap into the implied aspects of their experience more easily, compared to a verbal or written mode of expression. These tools become modes of implicit communication between the end users and researchers. We typically ask people to focus on the moments of experience from their lives during which the products being designed would have a role. By understanding their emotional and cognitive states during those moments, we are able to interpret their motivations and pain points. This information is then presented through a combination of visual illustrations and written descriptions as “narrative” that inspire ideas.

The framework suggested in this article will hopefully serve as a new tool for grasping the complexity of global design. Hopefully, it will help the design community understand the extent to which their target audience has been affected by the winds of globalization and the extent to which they (the designers) could contribute to or refrain from designing for the global village.


Smith, David J. (2002) If the World Were a Village. Kids Can Press Ltd. Tonawanda, NY.

Friedman, Thomas L. (2003) The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York.

Nisbett, Richard E., The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently… and Why. The Free Press, New York. Shiva, Vandana. (2000) Poverty and Globalization. BBC Reith Lectures. London.