March 26, 2014 - DESIGN + INCLUSION


Interview with Antoine Choumoff, director of Humanitarian Design Bureau.

As we strive for a more humanistic and ethical design, some real solutions are emerging. Here is an example of a committed individual. Antoine Choumoff who initiated the first humanitarian design agency: Humanitarian Design Bureau. Here are some questions to which he kindly answered.

What is your professional background and how did you get the idea to start a humanitarian design agency?

After more than 20 years working as a consultant in cooperation between Russian and French companies, specifically in complex international industrial projects, I decided to gather together tools and precision of the industrial conception, financial plan and partnerships contract rules and the designer’s specific approach in the service of humanitarian aid and to create Humanitarian Design Bureau SAS.

Born in Leningrad (USSR) in 1968, I arrived in France in 1974 where I did all my scholarship. I initially graduated with an international commerce MA at INALCO (Paris, France) and a MA in international project negotiation at UPV (Montpellier, France) then I obtained in September 2012, a MA in Contemporary creation and technology at ENSCI (Paris).

It is during this last training that I developed the exclusively humanitarian design agency project which became my degree project. I started with a simple observation: when it comes to a car, a vacuum cleaner, a mobile phone or a fryer, we gather together dozen of idea men, engineers or designers around a technical issue but no one has never thought about doing so around products issues for humanitarian aid. Thus, humanity launched in 1977 the space probe Voyager 1 which left the Solar system in 2013 but can not produce a sustainable solution to provide water to population into a humanitarian crisis. Food for thought!

Antoine Choumoff, founder of the Humanitarian Design Bureau
Antoine Choumoff, founder of the Humanitarian Design Bureau

How do you define humanitarian design?

In fact, we speak about design for humanitarian aid. We do have a conceptual process on global solutions. It means products and their scenarios of use. Our aim is to bring aid to aid.

To reach this goal, Humanitarian Design Bureau SAS gathers together, organizes and oversees the collaborative works of all of the actors and stakeholders that humanitarian aid requires to conceive possibly repeatable products and solutions which can answer to its constraints, expectations and needs in all of the areas and successive steps of humanitarian aid. It concerns all the planet’s territories. It is made by respecting human beings and their environment. It reduces the interventions’ costs.

Humanitarian assistance should be understood in it’s a wider definition of aid brought to populations which need it especially in five intervention domains which are health, food, water clean-up, housing and education on three steps from emergency, post-emergency to development.

But aid to the aid also concerns our developed countries as regards those who are called dependent persons.

You are the first humanitarian design agency. How can you explain that there are no other agencies specialized in this field?

This is a title that seems pretentious and we launched it as a provocation so one can prove us we are wrong.

For the past two years since we created this company, nothing has changed. There is one Norwegian NGO « Design Without Borders » which navigates on the same seas…but it is an NGO which works with subsidies and not a profit-making design agency like ours.

One should find this review unfortunate.

Facing the difficulty to spread the word concerning what design can bring to the humanitarian world, it would be helpful to be hundreds… or thousands.

This is exactly this difficulty that could explain why there are no other design agencies in this field. However one should not only overcome the futility prejudices which design conveys and explain that it can provide to humanitarian aid by its specific process but also integrate a particular accompanying approach of the projects in the agency in order to bring products to life:

•► management of the projects to bear them from the idea, the experience feedback and through the production.

•► collaborative design to make solutions emerge from the humanitarian stakeholders themselves by making them work together (which was not a straightforward matter)

•► industrial conception itself

•► the need to find financing for this accompanying

The economical stakes in the humanitarian design are important because they lead to new markets and users in addition to require even more constraints. How do you bear in mind your objective?

Economic stakes in the humanitarian world are not just important but also extremely complex, sometimes contradictory and partially tinged with stereotypes and image constraints that complicate them even more. One must dare to call it as it is, a market, without seeing into it the speculative part commonly associated with this word. This is a market occupied by many companies which offer many products which mostly are not conceived for this specific use or do not consider users. But who are they by the way: the backers who pay for humanitarian aid, NGO’s which distribute and/or the recipients’ humanitarian world call the victims.

We are a young organisation as we exist since March 2012 and we have not deviated from our objectives yet. However, I would say that the humanitarian world is constantly looking for a fault. Thus it is essential to scrupulously respect these three fundamental rules: humanity, impartiality and neutrality with operational fairness.

two caps bottle by Humanitarian Design Bureau
Two caps bottle by Humanitarian Design Bureau

We often picture humanitarian design as something that takes place on the other side of the globe. Do you have more local projects?

As I said to you in our definition of humanitarian design, humanitarian aid is everywhere a person aids another. So it is neither in the South nor in the North: it is everywhere.

Humanitarian Design Bureau at Designer's Day 2013, Parc de la Vilette, Paris, France
Designer’s Day 2013, Parc de la Villette, Paris, France

When one starts like you a pioneering process, it is important to communicate about it. NGOs use impressive advertising campaigns. Which tools do you use to raise awareness around your cause?

Since March 2012, we communicated in many different ways.

We participated to events as Designer’s Days 2012 during which we occupied 800m² of grass in the Parc de la Villette (Paris) and by making the visitors participate in order to make them discover what design can bring to humanitarian aid.

The international biennale of Saint-Etienne invited us in 2013.

We also organized an exhibition called [FOKUS] about Humanitarian Design Bureau at the ENSCI (Industrial Design School in Paris) in 2013.

We mediate our website and we link our events on social networks.

We participate or organize talks, round tables debates and workshops.

But above all, we meet with indispensable, interesting and inventive persons.

FOKUS exhibition at ENSCI Paris, 2013
FOKUS exhibition at ENSCI Paris, 2013

You created in May 2011 the first multitask database for humanitarian design, Humanitarian DataBase, which allows centralising the impacts of humanitarian aid. We are in March 2014, where does it stand?

It is, unfortunately, a project which is difficult to set up especially because the humanitarian field is very compartmentalized and not inclined to share information each actor holds. It is a good example of this field’s difficulty: they all say how much they need such a tool, numerous specialized databases already exist but humanitarian actors hold the information that, if shared, would improve their aid. Humanitarian assistance lacks data which would enhance their interventions. We own the name « Humanitarian Data Base ». None has thought about it before.

The project is packaged and it just needs to be developed.


How do you imagine the humanitarian design’s future? Which are the drifts to avoid and the rules to respect?

In 1970, Victor Papanek in « Design for a Real World » advocated that the designer should work for UNESCO or UNICEF. In 2012, we founded the Humanitarian Design Bureau. We cannot wait forty years more for the design to be integrated into humanitarian aid as a fully used tool.

These facts show that the moment is favourable for design and humanitarian aid to meet: the latest evolution of humanitarian aid towards professionalization, a wider sensitivity of its products and the impact of its interventions on men and environment, but as well design which starts to be interested in more complex markets as a BOP (Bottom Of the Pyramid) or co-conceptions processes.

Tomorrow design in the service of humanitarian aid will be as natural as a carrier or an advertising agency nowadays.

The drift that should be avoided is the same as for other stakeholders in humanitarian aid, and maybe someday for all the fields: cupidity without humanity.

Thus humanity could be enough as a guarantee… But in humanitarian aid today each has its own definition of humanity. One should not be lured and believe that designers could be better than others. But as they are the last to arrive, bearing an image at the opposite of humanitarian field, they would have to win their spurs for a long time and remain respectable in following humanitarian aid rules and probably to invent others.

Thank you Antoine Choumoff. All pictures are the courtesy of Humanitarian Design Bureau­.
Table ronde: l’humanitaire peut-il continuer à ignorer le design? ENSCI, 2013 :
Designer’s Days Talk part 01:
Designer’s Days Talk part 02:
Designer’s Days Talk part 03:
Designer’s Days Talk part 04:
Designer’s Days Talk part 05:
Designer’s Days Talk part 06: