Heather Fleming and Catapult Design: Thinking Creatively, On Purpose

April 16, 2014 at 12:36 pm Leave a comment


Heather Fleming, Founder of Catapult Design, is a trained product designer who helps foundations and non-profits apply design thinking to global development challenges. She visited Portland last week for a lecture at the Mercy Corps Action Center, and shared her authentic insights on a variety of issues ranging from water access on Navajo reservations to running a startup in San Francisco to product design for rural development. She presented her experiences candidly, and her demeanor was so casual and familiar that one might have missed the profundity of her big idea: the potential impact of design is that it can empower.

Like many innovators and entrepreneurs, Fleming can identify a few pivotal experiences that led her to where she is now. It started with her life in New Mexico on the edge of the Navajo Nation. Her extended family lived on the reservation and few of them had access to running water. She was inspired when her cousin went to college and later got a job building wells for some of those rural homes. When Fleming herself was in school, studying product design at Stanford, she noticed that both design and entrepreneurship required creative problem solving. Finally, Fleming saw something that would change the course of her work and her life. She saw that design had the potential to empower individuals and communities anywhere by engaging them as creative problems-solvers.

While there are countless ways we can (and do) define design, Fleming was able to identify some key qualities of design during her time at Stanford that fit with her values:

  • seeking to understand
  • multidisciplinary
  • a team sport
  • thoughtful
  • a process for problem solving

Combined with her experience developing consumer products, Fleming embedded these processes and concepts in her strategy as she launched Catapult Design, which strives to reintroduce the basic concept of creative thinking to address development  challenges. Why is creative thinking at the center of Catapult Design? Fleming proposes:

  • Social and environmental problems are complex, so solving them requires systems thinking
  • Social and environmental problems are always changing, so solving them requires iteration
  • Adoption of a product relies on users, so an effective product should be a user-driven idea

To get from the basic concept of creative thinking to leading a product design firm that embodies these principles, Fleming focused on the intersection of design, international development, and entrepreneurship.  Now Catapult Design, a small team of designers, engineers, and educators, is working with forward-thinking organizations using technology as a means to drive social change. Some examples of products they’ve created include a 50-cent scalpel for clean child delivery – because over 50% of the women in the world give birth at home – and rolling barrel-carts to transport clean water.  The ideas are simple, on purpose.

SketchNotes_PDXCatapult_web jpeg
A visual synopsis of Heather Fleming’s presentation by Stefanie Koehler, of Biomimicry for Creative Innovation

Entry filed under: Design Thinking, Social Entrepreneurship, Social Entrepreneurship Certificate, Uncategorized. Tags: , , , , , , .

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