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Computer-Aided Design Meets Human-Centered Design

There I sat, surrounded by dozens of classmates, staring up at a hulking computer monitor, pecking away at a beige keyboard. We were buried...

There I sat, surrounded by dozens of classmates, staring up at a hulking computer monitor, pecking away at a beige keyboard. We were buried in our “Introduction to AutoCAD” final project and I dare say that we all believed that a little computer know-how was the ticket to scoring a job when we graduated architecture school.

From as far back as the 1960s, Computer-Aided Design (CAD) sparked a migration from hand drawing on thin tracing paper rolls, to designing buildings, products, and everything in between. But as I looked around the hot, windowless computer lab, I vowed to forge a career in design without relying on CAD. I wanted to work with humans, not computers.

Life takes you full circle sometimes. Today, I find myself working with Autodesk, the company that invented AutoCAD. And I’m proud to say that it is a company standing on the brink of playing a transformative role in the “human-centered design” movement.

Earlier this month, Autodesk launched a first-of-its-kind foundation, focused explicitly on design for a better world. While multiple other companies dabble in design philanthropy, sponsoring events or donating to nonprofit design organizations (a growing number of private foundations are also eyeing and investing in design), Autodesk is the first to set up an entity dedicated to fusing design and philanthropy.

In many ways, it’s a logical extension of the company’s focus on helping people “imagine, design, and create a better world.” In other ways, it has required some radically new ways of thinking for such a big company, even introducing new terms and phrases to the corporate jargon.

The foundation and its focus on “impact design” are the brainchild of Lynelle Cameron, a seven-year veteran of Autodesk, who leads the sustainability and philanthropy efforts for the company. Cameron made a bold pitch for the Autodesk Foundation in 2012. She started by crunching numbers, comparing Autodesk’s thirty years of charitable work to industry peers and other major corporations. She studied the ways design was infiltrating the social sector, engaged in events like the Society of Consumer Affairs Professionals (SoCAP) and the Skoll World Forum, and interviewed leading nonprofit design organizations, like

With each discovery, it became more and more clear that design had a deeper role to play in addressing broad issues, ranging from climate change, urbanization, and water access, to education and health. These are all issues that Autodesk believes to be “epic challenges.”

At face value, epic challenges often feel entirely intractable; no foundation has the resources to single-handedly solve them. They’re also inherently interconnected—a country’s water access and economy, for example, is related to an imbalance of natural resources. But growing cadres of innovative design organizations are at least chipping away, and we’re starting to see the value and benefits of their work.

Here’s a great example...The Butaro Hospital is built on a hilltop in rural Rwanda—a district of over 340,000 people with a loose network of clinics, no electricity, nor running water until the time of the hospital’s completion. The founder of Partners in Health, hailed for its philosophy of “preferential treatment of the poor,” Dr. Paul Farmer happened on an overly eager architecture student while giving a college talk back in 2006. That student enlisted the help of some friends and together they designed that hilltop hospital and co-founded the game-changing nonprofit MASS Design Group.

The group didn’t set out to design an award-winning hospital; instead, they aimed to measurably reduce communicable diseases, such as tuberculosis, that had devastated clinics and communities in the region. They started with a hypothesis that increased airflow and the elimination of congested waiting areas would reduce the spread of disease, and it has. From an economic perspective, MASS and PIH employed 4,000 locals to construct the hospital, training many new, marketable skills. On top of it all, the hospital was completed with two-thirds the budget and a third faster than the nine other district hospitals in Rwanda.

Inspired by the impact of the Butaro Hospital, the Autodesk Foundation recently supported MASS’ design of an alternative to government-issued maternal waiting homes in the East African country of Malawi. Malawi has one of the worst maternal mortality rates in the world, with 1 in 36 women dying during childbirth (compared to 1 in 2,400 in the U.S., for example). Maternal waiting homes provide a refuge, adjacent to clinics and hospitals, where women can access critical care if needed during labor.

MASS is just one example of our grantees using design for impact. There are scores of related nonprofit organizations, social enterprises, as well as individual practitioners following their lead or blazing new trails.

And just as MASS started while its founders were still students, university-based programs—ranging from Auburn University’s acclaimed Rural Studio design/build program, to the Net Zero House program at the University of Minnesota, to the Entrepreneurial Design for Extreme Affordability program at the Stanford—are crucial incubators of future organizations, practitioners, and projects. These are the types of grantees we expect to fund in the months and years ahead.

When this year’s graduates are plotting their future, I hope they better understand the potential marriage of technology and human-centered design than I did all those years ago. They can start by joining Autodesk and the Autodesk Foundation in using design to tackle epic challenges. Our communities, countries, and countless others around the world need measurable, impactful, human-centered solutions more than ever. So, let’s get to work.

John Cary is the founding executive director and Impact Design program curator of the Autodesk Foundation, Autodesk's new philanthropic venture. He is the author of the book "The Power of Pro Bono."

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