Examples of Useless Design

Just because a product has a social mission doesn't mean the product is great. 

LN-4 Prosthetic Hand

A prosthetic hand given away for free by the Ellen Meadows Foundation to poor amputees in need. The intention is good but the product is little more than some plastic and a few velcro straps. The hand is difficult to put on take off and can barely lift more than 5 pounds. 

Soccket Ball

Motivated by the world’s love for soccer, a student team at Harvard started a company and designed a soccer ball to generate electricity for poor kids. They raised over $90,000 on Kickstarter, and received praise from President Obama and the Clinton Foundation for an electricity generating soccer ball that often breaks in a few weeks.



The PlayPump Water System is intended to use the energy of children at play to operate a water pump. The effort has been very successful in raising millions of dollars in donor funds. In reality, adults are often found struggling to use the inefficient system to pump water. Read more about 10 detailed problems of the PlayPump here

Free Wheelchair Mission

A wheelchair designed and made by the Free Wheelchair Mission organization from readily available plastic chairs, mountain bike tires, castors, and a custom metal frame. Over 700,000 have been distributed in 90 countries - they could have easily and affordably produced a more appropriate and desirable wheelchair.



Sad Reality:

The reality of objects like the Playpump is that they often do not live up to the glamourous expectation or the representation they are advertised with. 

Read an analysis of this in Borland's PHd Thesis about the Playpump.

Too often we objectify people living in poverty. We paint them as two-dimensional characters that we pity.
— Kelsey Timmerman

Why are useless products widespread?

The kind of discriminatory mindset that created the products above is encouraged by things like this book by the Smithsonian and a loophole in nonprofit business models. 


Bad nonprofits accidentally use the nonprofit's business model as a loophole to only satisfy their donors and ignore their customers. 

Useless products are allowed to exist in this world and be distributed en mass because of nonprofits. Nonprofits are not all bad but a bad nonprofit is very bad. Nonprofits by nature don't sell products to customers that give them feedback. Instead, nonprofits advertise their service to donors, if donors like what they hear, they donate and the nonprofit accordingly gives something away for free. 

Design for the Other 90% and similar ideas of Design for Extreme Affordability, etc encourage designers to care about some of the poorest people in the world, which is what this world needs. However, caring is just the first step.

These ideas also give designers a mindset that looks down on the people they are trying to help and propels a "holier-than thou" atmosphere. These mindsets often, but not always, contribute in producing nothing more than feel-good projects and products that no one desires to own.

Even monkeys know when they are given unfair products. Can you imagine what people think?