Designer Jonathan Ford talks to PSFK about harnessing his design thinking to exponentially increase the impact of a charity working in sub-saharan Africa.
We are excited to have Jonathan Ford, a Creative Partner at Pearlfisher, as a speaker at PSFK CONFERENCE LONDON. Jonathan Ford is a Creative Partner at Pearlfisher, a leading design firm based in London and New York working with brands and organizations using design to create an impact on the international stage. As Trustee of the Haller Foundation — a charity promoting models for economic development in Sub-Saharan Africa — Jonathan has applied his design thinking to distill and communicate the Haller’s core message to potential investors. On September 13th, Jonathan will discuss his work helping release the charity’s potential through concise, future-focused design and the value of low tech ideas that can be realized quickly and cheaply to improve peoples lives significantly, and on a potentially huge scale.
How have you connected your business of coming up with ideas to the work of the Haller Foundation? Can you point to a specific example?
For Haller, I’ve brought my branding and strategic skills to help focus the group’s message. As a charity, Haller Foundation has the standard challenge of raising money to fund its projects, which are taking place largely in the Kenyan area but which could easily extend and transfer with time. The difference with our donations is that they are part of the sustainability in that what the money goes towards are projects that become self-sustaining. But any way, my role has been to sharpen the Foundation’s visual and strategic expression, while making it clear to potential donors the scope of the Foundation’s work.
To give just one example, Haller’s Urban Slum Food Garden project brings innovative farming techniques from a rural environment to an urban area, creating an eco‑system of sustainable practical ideas to improve the lives of people who live in the slums and also create micro economies. It is low-tech model, meaning that it can be applied at scale worldwide to help people improve their health and livelihoods simply by creating sources of food to eat and sell, clean water, improved quality of living using freely available, reused resources and some joined up thinking. It’s pretty inspirational stuff and could positively affect the livelihoods of the 30 or so million people who live in slum conditions worldwide.
As a designer who sees a lot of wasted corporate innovation, this model has inspired me, especially the halo effect that starts to happen as a result of these very impoverished communities than can literally be transformed, and then see these effects spread to others. I suppose I’m just using my ability to communicate the core benefits of the ideas and impact that the Haller Foundation has had, and promote it even more with respect to raising awareness for funding and more projects – ideally I would love to see these ideas adopted on a global scale. The benefits to improved living conditions even in a slum community can be seen in improved health, knowledge, education and reduced dependency. Ultimately it’s about giving people back their dignity.
What exactly is the Foundation’s message?
I found when I first got involved with the Haller Foundation they were having a hard time distilling what it was they did. But the thing that united all of their beliefs was the key insight about harnessing potential – of land, natural resources, people and knowledge – and potential was at the heart of everything. We took that one step further, and realized its about releasing that potential; the potential of the land and its fertility, which is yet to be unlocked, or releasing the potential of people and teaching them how they can get involved to create an abundance of natural wealth.
If you look at the website, for example, it’s an expression of what we’re doing. For its identity, the heart of the Haller identity are two arrows, one pointing down and one pointing up. It makes an H. That idea is about expressing ‘releasing potential’.
Is communicating sustainability a common challenge you’re presented with at Pearlfisher?
If you’re going to be a responsible designer these days, then you have to be thinking in a sustainable way. Many of the brands I have worked with have been ignoring sustainability, social issues, and environmental issues for years. In the last decade there has been a huge shift and this is as much to do with a societal change, legal and corporate will. There is convergence gradually taking place between the big companies and smaller brands in terms of responsibility and it is to do with the way that global brands establish themselves – it’s a lot harder to change if you have been around for 80 years as opposed to being a start up brand where you can build in sustainability from the start. For an example as a designer, if you’re creating and producing packaging for a global brand which say churns out 100,000 bottles of product an hour, that is a lot of material and energy being used. Just at that level, there becomes some sort of responsibility to think about how you can minimize the impact that you might have on the environment with respect to material usage. This is a new creative frontier for designers where ideas can solve problems like this.
So back to my day job, a lot of innovative thinking that takes place at Pearlfisher is about considering the best way to be sustainable through material usage – but also in other ways too. As a result, we’ve worked a lot with socially minded brands that are doing things very differently.
My first client was Green and Black’s Chocolate in 1992, and I still work with them today. They were one of the first brands to be noticed for establishing a fair trade link with farmers in Belize and now they are owned by Kraft foods this tiny little brand has affected huge companies like Cadbury and Kraft to change their ways. I’m pleased with my part in making that brand as desirable as it is and consumers know it’s a great brand even if they cant articulate why. At the heart of it it’s a great chocolate.
But nowadays, we look around and we see fair trade, and good behaviour embedded within many of the corporate brands and brands that we engage with, but the fact of the matter is that it is a relatively recent adoption for the major brands in the world to start thinking this way.
In a corporate structure there are barriers to sustainability all over the place; I am inspired by breaking down those barriers, and helping people see the opportunities beyond them. The Haller model is one I talk about at huge corporations and its always seen as great way to make an impact for change, instantly, and cheaply and with no negative impact on the environment.
Is there any tie between your charitable work and design philosophy at Pearlfisher?
I am a co-founding partner, and designer at Pearlfisher – which is an independent design business with two design studios, here in London and another one in New York. But what unites us is that we are one brand of design – we share common beliefs and an approach.
Our philosophy is to use design to make an impact on the future, expressing brand truths through design to create desire. To support our understanding of the future we also invest our own time and resources looking at four areas of future interest for us: Taste, Luxury, Body, and connections. We use this research to fuel everything we do, from projects to expressing opinions.
We have 3 no go areas publically stated on our website, and one of these is that we say no to brands that behave unethically or harm people and the environment willingly. This can be interpreted subjectively but does mean that we tend to work with some really aspiring and ground breaking people who shape the way world and brands are. People like Jamie Oliver, Haller, Innocent, Green & Black’s, The Food Doctor, and Waitrose fall into my personal client favorites.
But if you think about it, brands are everywhere in the world and come in all shapes and forms. and for us, it brings us back to the common philosophy that the most powerful and valuable brands in todays fragmented world of media brand expression, use design to connect to a core truth, in order to create a sense of strong desire.
You’ll see me working with socially minded brands, charity brands, retail brands, consumer brands, and financial brands and so on around the world. About 60 percent of the business that we do is outside of the studio location that we’re actually working in and its great that we have that kind of reach without having to be part of a networked group.
Come see Jonathan Ford talk more about the potential of applying low-tech innovations at scale at PSFK CONFERENCE LONDON on 13th September 2012.