Q&A with Heather Fleming, Founder and CEO of Catapult Design

Photo by PopTech.

I first learned about Heather Fleming, founder and CEO of Catapult Design, almost a year ago when I read one of her blog posts, “The Future of Design: A U.S. Cell Phone Designed by Kenyans?“ on one of my favorite blogs, NextBillion.net.

After reading her poignant piece, I was blown away. The thing that resonated with me the most was Heather’s closing statement:

“Soon multinational design teams will be commonplace and developed countries will no longer host the lion’s share of design firms. Imagine 90% of the world’s designers finally being tapped into and how that will shape and shift everyday objects we use (a US cell phone designed by Kenyans?) and our understanding of social challenges. It’s definitely an exciting time to be a designer.”

After reading a few more of Heather’s stories on NextBillion, I decided to Google her. I noticed that Heather had an impressive resume of accomplishments, including being a designer, an engineer and an entrepreneur motivated by social inequality. In 2005, she helped found and then led a volunteer group of engineers and designers focused on humanitarian design projects via Engineers Without Borders. In 2008, Heather was named a PopTech Social Innovation Fellow, a program aimed at high-potential young leaders with new approaches for transformational impact. In 2010, she was selected as a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader for her work with Catapult Design.

She previously worked in the Silicon Valley product development consulting world and has six years experience working with multi-disciplinary teams to design, develop and deliver product solutions for a diverse range of companies. Heather is also Adjunct Lecturer at Stanford University teaching “Design for Sustainability” in the Mechanical Engineering department. Heather has a BS in Product Design from Stanford University.

Last year, she presented on “The Human Factor: The Designer’s Approach to Societal Change” atTEDxSoMa. In her powerful presentation about social design, she points out something every designer should keep in mind, the golden rule principle of design: thy shall not design for thyself!

As a designer, environmentalist and social entrepreneur myself, I was ecstatic to learn that Heather was speaking at the 2011 Compostmodern conference. I emailed my dear friend Francisco Noguera, the managing editor of NextBillion, to introduce myself so I could meet up with her at the conference. Unfortunately, that did not happen, but I did score this great interview with the spirited, smart, passionate and very personable Heather Fleming.

Photo by PopTech.

Monika Kerdeman: What’s your story in 100 words?

Heather Fleming: The only info out there that people don’t usually know about me is that I am a New Mexican native. My cat’s name is Hanz Strudel. I’m an amazing bowler, lover of fast food, and my favorite hobby is walking.

MK: If you could solve one problem in the world through storytelling or design, what would it be?

HF: Probably not a single, big problem. I think I’d focus on the little problems and annoyances I experience on a day-to-day basis. Something measurable that I could see the impact of within my lifetime.

MK: What would you characterize as your biggest professional success?

HF: Hmm…still waiting for that to happen. Talking with other people who want to be in this field, to do the work Catapult does, I sometimes give myself a small pat on the back for quitting my old job and starting Catapult. But I would never advise anyone else to do this, unless you want to be a salesperson, manager and communicate frequently with the IRS.

MK: What are you working on now?

HF: Too many things, but mostly email. Catapult’s designers are working on hand carts, mosquito traps, birthing kits and the like for various countries and people around the world. My job is actually not as exciting as people think. The designers get to do the fun stuff. I’m just a professional emailer.

MK: In your current line of work, what have you found to be the hardest services or partnerships to find or develop?

HF: Partnerships with funders is a never-ending challenge. We don’t brand ourselves as “consultants,” but if you strip it down, that’s essentially what we are. No one wants to fund the middle man, it doesn’t look good on their reports.

MK: What inspires you?

HF: Going home to the Southwest. It helps me put things into perspective.

MK: Do you have any requests for collaboration for current or future work?

HF: We’re always on the hunt for organizations that can enhance the product development process in rural and impoverished markets. There’s a need for distributors, marketing agencies, networks of rural entrepreneurs, etc. These folks and organizations can be the hardest to find without actually being in-country.

MK: Who was your role model for what you are doing now in design?

HF: Definitely not a single person. A variety of people have influenced me at different times in my life. When I was a kid, my cousins in Arizona showed me how engineers could help people. A presentation by Martin Fisher in college showed me how design was being applied in poor parts of the world. Cathy Leslie of EWB-USA was someone I admired for being a woman leader of a successful non-profit.

MK: Catapult was recently named one of the 30 best places to work by GOOD. Do you think these types of accolades and media coverage have changed your business? If so, how?

HF: Sure! We haven’t had a traditional marketing campaign and rely almost solely on word-of-mouth to find our clients. The only way that works is if people are hearing about us through a variety of sources. We’re very grateful for the interest in our work and the media’s interest in sharing our story.

MK: As one of the pioneers in your fields, how did you get the idea to design for social good?

HF: Interesting, I don’t really consider myself a pioneer. I think there’s a misconception that this is a new field simply because lots of people are just now learning about it. But a lot of the terminology and philosophy we’re building on today was formalized at least 50 years ago by economists, engineers and designers working together. (Read: “Small is Beautiful” by EE Schumacher.) Prior to Catapult, I was volunteering my time with Engineers Without Borders and working at a product design consultancy. From there, it wasn’t too much of a stretch to combine the two.

MK: What do you see as the biggest opportunities in the developing world in terms of improving people’s lives based on sustainable design?

HF: I think some of the challenges we face in the U.S. regarding renewable energy, green product adoption or sustainable business models are less relevant in rural or impoverished communities. That’s pretty exciting to me. For example, small-scale renewable energy is notoriously expensive (when compared to the grid) and almost financially infeasible in areas where the electrical grid is present. Whereas, in impoverished nations, the cost of implementing an electrical grid is so high that renewables make more sense. There’s also a lot of buzz in the U.S. these past couple months around collaborative consumption (read: Lisa Gansky’s “The Mesh“ or Roo Rogers’ and Rachel Botsmans’ “What’s Mine is Yours”) and how that will contribute to more sustainable lifestyles. Rural communities in impoverished communities have been living their lives by the principles outlined in these books for decades, not for sustainability’s sake but out of necessity. I think that’s interesting because it means we can’t assume that our consumption patterns resonate in other parts of the world. Consumers in developing countries could (and in many cases will) leapfrog our old school ways of doing business or buying and owning products.

To learn more, follow Heather on Twitter: @heatherfleming

Or read more about her work on Treehugger or Wired.