Beyond Human-Centered Design

07.04.216 min read

By now, it is pretty clear that human-centered design is not going according to plan.

It goes without saying that design needs to be good for the many. After all, the purpose of design is to solve problems and create solutions that make everyday life better — from objects in the home, to what we wear, how we travel and communicate. Naturally, we can only design good solutions if we understand the needs and dreams of the human beings for whom we’re designing — otherwise, we run the risk of designing something that will not work, or will only work for a select few.

For decades now, designers have been taught to consider human needs in their work — only human needs. But design that is good only for people, without looking at the well-being of our planet as a whole, has gotten us into trouble.

At SPACE10, we believe we need to change the definition of what constitutes good design. We have grown disillusioned with a design method that puts people first, and has, as a result, overstretched the resources of our planet many times. We know that a design that is not good to our planet is ultimately not good for people.

We need to look beyond the narrow horizon of human-centered design, and start designing in a way that meets the needs of the many without going beyond the limits of our planet. We call this the ‘people-planet’ approach.


Human-centered design: An important paradigm…

Upon first glance, there is nothing wrong with human-centered design. Popularised by Stanford’s, it is a refinement of a century of thinking carefully about the needs of the person who might use the product, dating back to early 20th-century functionalism, Bauhaus and the Nordic funkis. As such, it has played an important role in bringing many technologies closer to a greater variety of people.

From ergonomic kitchens and adjustable lighting, to touchscreens and voice activation, human-centered design has helped shape the objects surrounding us into something more intuitive, friendlier, easier to interact with. For instance, just think of the time when operating a personal computer required typing in lines of code. ‘The roots of human-centered design begin with the efforts to make early computer technology easier to use, to expand its reach towards more and more people,’ says Tommy Campbell, our digital design lead. ‘Since then, we have made great strides in developing ever-more natural interfaces, bringing technologies closer to the ordinary, non-expert person — and into new contexts, such as health, education, and government.’

Hero Image 1 – SPACE10 – Conversational Form – Web
Conversational Form

It has also broadened our outlook on who constitutes our society. Closely observing real people has helped us move beyond the ‘Reference Man’, and realise that societal solutions need to be designed for people of a variety of cultural backgrounds, ages, mental and physical abilities; black, indigenous and people of color (BIPoC); and for a range of genders and sexualities. ‘We have long been tackling many societal problems wrong, because we were leaving the majority of people out of the equation,’ says Johanna Fabrin, SPACE10’s strategy design lead.

‘Human-centered design has forced us to think more broadly, and less simply, about who we design for.’

Over time, human-centered design has evolved into a standard set of steps, based on user research and observation, ideation, and iterative prototyping. This repeatable procedure, often referred to as “design thinking”, is today taught in leading design schools and applied to everything from airport check-in kiosks and snack packaging, to welfare services and contraception. At its core, it is a deeply empathetic, participatory approach to problem-solving grounded in listening, dialogue, and humbleness. In fact, many of us at SPACE10 were trained to think and work in this way.

…or a new dogma?

However, as design students the world over are trained with the mantra of ‘focus on the user and all else will follow’, have we stopped to consider the shortcomings of what has become a default framework?

‘The unintended consequences have been many,’ points Campbell. As we have become great at facilitating the psychological relationship between humans and their devices, we have designed ourselves into addiction: the average American interacts with her smartphone a whopping 2,617 times per day. As we have rushed to ‘move fast and break things’, we have often not stopped to consider the societal consequences of our products. And, crucially, when we design solely for humans, it is easy to forget that humans are not the only ones affected by what we design. Making user-friendly objects may be the goal, but what when this makes us consume more, throw away more, and deplete more of our planet’s limited resources? The single-use coffee pod may be the pinnacle of user-friendly espresso-brewing at home but, since it was invented in 2010, it has resulted in more than 60 billion non-recyclable, non-reusable plastic pods thrown into waste — enough to wrap around the Earth 10 times! Tommy Campbell sums it up:

‘In the pursuit of frictionless user experience, we have prioritised usability over everything else — including our health, and the well-being of our planet.’

SPACE10 – Future Food Today – Dogless Hotdogs – Web – Photo by Kasper Kristoffersen – 133 copy
Dogless Hotdogs, Future Food Today

Like many others (and many more), at SPACE10 we have grown increasingly troubled by an approach to design that places the needs of humans above the limitations of our planet. Or, as Campbell likes to ask: your design may be good — but does it do good? That is why we believe that we need to start moving towards a people-planet design — where humans are part of the equation, but not at the expense of the fundamental well-being of our planet.

People-planet approach

We do not want to discard human-centered design altogether. We do, however, want to move beyond it. ‘We should not see people and the planet in competition with each other’, says Johanna Fabrin. ‘Humans should be part of the equation, but not at the expense of everything else. We can only create a good life for people if we create a good life for the planet.’

We are in a climate crisis today because we have been putting people at the centre for far too long. So, what steps can we take to remedy this? We have designed our way into this mess — can we design our way out of it?

We have to rethink the relationship between humans, technology, and our planet. It is no longer a linear relationship; rather, it has become a complex system of interdependencies. For example, when we are designing an app such as car-share, home-share or food delivery, we are also designing complete social and environmental systems that encompass hundreds of restaurants, thousands of delivery people, and a large back-end infrastructure that includes kitchens, packaging — and yes, a tremendous amount of waste. How can designers approach this task with a people-planet-centric mindset? ‘As designers, we have to be aware that we are designing ecosystems of living and non-living elements that relate to each other,’ says Campbell. ‘And to create an ecosystem is a huge task, and a huge responsibility.’

Approaching everything we design as part of a huge, interconnected system means that we start with a values-based approach: an attitude, not a manifesto. ‘Think of people-planet design as building an ecosystem that supports what we’d like to thrive,’ says Fabrin. ‘We are building the conditions for the future we’d like to see tomorrow.’

‘We know we’re on the right track if our design has the potential to last us a long time,’ says Campbell. ‘If it has a lasting power, a regenerative ability, if it can be built upon rather than discarded every year — then it establishes a sense of calmness.’ Beyond designing products that last, it also means designing solutions that are more circular, and more inclusive — available and accessible to many more people. ‘It doesn’t matter if you design a fantastic sustainable product if no one can afford or access it,’ says Johanna Fabrin. ‘If we can design inclusively — not just products, but supply chains, manufacturing, distribution, etc. — , we can empower many more people, both individually and as part of a system, to tackle the biggest challenge of our generation.’

Designing with an awareness that we are putting in motion social systems means orienting ourselves towards impact and meaningfulness. It is slower and more deliberate. It means prioritising long-term investment over short-term returns: our time is well spent when we choose to look at problems that cannot be solved quickly.

‘Single-use plastics, deforestation, social equity, data privacy… Tackling these problems means redesigning entire systems,’ says Campbell. ‘But these are the problems truly worth solving.’

SPACE10 – The Urban Village Project – Grow, Share, Eat – Made by EFFEKT Architects for SPACE10 – 4
Urban Village, a community of livable, sustainable and affordable modular homes

Beyond the pandemic

The challenges ahead of us are significant: beyond the COVID-19 pandemic, we are facing an accelerated climate crisis, growing inequality, lack of access to affordable services and equal opportunities for all. But it is the role of designers to clarify a vision and propose solutions — for a future in which the needs of human beings and the needs of our planet are in balance.

The pandemic has forced us to go back to the essentials and consider what is truly important. As the world turns towards recovery, now is the time to address other major challenges with renewed optimism. We have seen and experienced that governments around the world can act on a global challenge, and that people can change their behaviour, in a very short amount of time. That should make us stubbornly optimistic about our collective capacity to design a more hopeful tomorrow.