Refugees: Design for Permanent Solutions






PHOTO: Environmental Justice Foundation

Over the years, awareness regarding the refugee crisis and their living conditions has increased significantly and has brought forward many concerned individuals and groups who want to do their part and offer their assistance such as designers. Many designs for daily life, living arrangements and emergency items have been made and distributed, however do these provide refugees with the help they need? As designers and architects, we have an ethical duty of care towards our target audience and to blindly follow the “micro solution” trend without considering social repercussions is simply naïve design.

Speakers from the “Good Design for a Bad World” talk at the 2017 Dutch Design Week claimed designers are approaching aiding refugees wrongly. “They’re not a species so there is no need for tech for refugees or design for refugees or architecture for refugees” explained Kilian Kleinschmidt. What Kilian means by this is there shouldn’t be a need for these things in the first place, and by taking part you are contributing to the dehumanization and acceptance of their situation as “others”.[1] If designers want to physically help then we need to approach design problems surrounding the origins of the situation, problems with traveling and integrating rather than camping or designing camping accessories.

Dutch Design Week – PHOTO:

Rene Boer follows up from Kilian explaining that “micro solutions such as backpacks fabricated from life-jackets were unhelpful”, while the BAG2WORK bags are a symbolic and poetic gesture to provide refugees with autonomy, they merely contribute to the ongoing cycle. It’s a fine line for micro solutions that actually help and those that act as metaphors for a “one like equals one prayer” Facebook post that only wants the attention surrounded with helping. We need to shift the focus and attitude towards how we design for humanity. It shouldn’t be about stopping migration or making migration comfortable, it should be about outlining planning and integration issues concerned with providing economic prosperity. We need to provide design solutions that give the power back to those affected and destigmatize migration.


Don’t design fancy recycled goggles for someone who is drowning, instead design something that prevents them from drowning in the first place. It’s not about designing sustainably for the sake of it, these projects need to help beyond their surface level functions. Alex Honnold’s solar foundation has designed solar lamps and torches for poverty-stricken communities around the world, these items not only help functionally but act as steppingstones to solving the greater problem at hand, that these communities don’t have access to power. Alex describes the success of these projects as, “the power of incremental progress” which since 2006 has exponentially expanded from torches to providing more than 9,500 solar-powered systems.

Alex Honnold (replacing kerosene lamps with solar lanterns) – PHOTO: ROAM Media

Being limited to the impact our fields can make means that we need to approach these issues carefully to make the most of what we have to offer, other than just the surface level. We won’t be able to directly influence government policies as designers however with correct design communication we can change attitudes and help fight against prejudice and as planners we should accommodate for independence rather than “temporary” isolation. In conclusion I believe that micro solutions are just that, micro in solving anything, however it is important that everyone is helping in their respective fields and capabilities any way they can.


[1] (Grinceri., 2016) p.188.


References :

Grinceri., D., 2016. Architecture As Cultural And Political Discourse. London: Routledge, p.188.

Amorós Elorduy​​​, N., 2019. Displacement By Design | Forced Migration | Roca Gallery. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 1 April 2020].

2020. Highlights Of Dezeen’s Talk On Refugees For Good Design For A Bad World. [image] Available at: <> [Accessed 25 March 2020]. 2020. BAG2WORK – No Mad Makers. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 2 April 2020].

Dawood, S., 2020. How Design Has Helped Refugees And Asylum Seekers In Times Of Crisis. [online] Design Week. Available at: <> [Accessed 1 April 2020].

Serrels, M., 2020. Alex Honnold’s Next Big Climb Isn’t Free Solo, It’s Free Solar. [online] CNET. Available at: <> [Accessed 2 April 2020].

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