Humanity-Centred Design or Designing for Living Systems?

The focus on human qualities in understanding design can come at the cost of disconnecting people from the world they inhabit.

Don Norman, one of the most widely known designers, recently attracted a flurry of attention with his call for something called Humanity-Centred Design. The idea is central to his latest book. The argument that Norman makes is that the dominant discourse in professional design for human-centredness is no longer sufficient. It’s important to note that human-centred design (HCD) is something that Don Norman has been at the forefront of and has spent most of his career arguing for and articulating.

Norman begins his argument by placing HCD in context:

Why Humanity-Centered Design? How is it different from Human-Centered? The meaning of the phrases cannot be inferred simply by the words: it is necessary to view the context. “Human-Centered” was developed in the late 1980s. The focus was on the people for whom the design was intended. Now, four decades later, we have increased sensitivity to the biases and prejudices against societal groups plus increased concern about the environment.

We can’t continue with HCD in its current form because of the limits it imposes. This approach to design limits where we focus our attention and neglects the natural world we are a part of. Norman’s solution? Change HCD to refer to Humanity-Centred Design.

“Humanity-Centered” emphasizes the rights of all of humanity and addresses the entire ecosystem. It represents the ultimate challenge for designers to help people improve their lives. Where “human-centered” puts a face to a user, “humanity-centered” expands this view to the societal level of world populations. When we design for humanity, we cannot stop with people. We must consider the entire globe: all living things, the quality of the land, water, and air. The loss of species. The changes in climate. We are an integral part of the system called “Earth,” where changes in one component can impact every component.

We see Norman speaking to the idea of ecosystem awareness. He acknowledges that we (humans) are affecting the world around us and that our place in this ecosystem is something to consider. So far, this sounds OK. It’s getting us further than HCD takes us, but it begins to commit us to the same problems that HCD generates.

Problematic Principles of Humanity-Centred Design

At the core of this approach are five principles:

The Five Principles of Humanity-Centred Design

  1. Solve the core, root issues, not just the problem as presented (which is often the symptom, not the cause).
  2. Focus on the entire ecosystem of people, all living things, and the physical environment.
  3. Take a long-term, systems point of view, realizing that most complications result from the interdependencies of the multiple parts and that many of the most damaging implications upon society and the ecostructure only reveal themselves years or even decades later.
  4. Continually test and refine the proposed designs to ensure they truly meet the concerns of the people for whom they are intended.
  5. Design with the community, and as much as possible support designs by the community. The professional designer community should serve as enablers, facilitators, and resources, aiding the community to meet their concerns.

This is where Norman’s suggestions fall apart; in my view, it begins with the first principle of solving the core, root issues. This perspective follows the same human-centred model of design that it seeks to replace in that it focuses on solving problems. Not all designs solve an explicit problem. I’d argue that very few of our designs are explicitly problem-based.

The process of design might be undertaken with solving a problem in mind, but the results might go far beyond that. It is often in implementing a design — the actual translation of an idea into a product for real-world use — that we truly understand what problems are addressed by our creations. We may set out to ‘solve’ a problem through design, but the actual solution might not be what we seek.

Norman’s second and third principles encourage us to think in systems about our problems. The implication is that we can know systems and, through analysis, make a proper decision. There are many flaws in this assertion that are visible throughout what is called systems thinking, not just in Norman’s principles. This approach takes systems as knowable and static. Living systems are complex, dynamic, and unknowable to the extent that we can analyze solutions from available data.

Evaluating Design For Living Systems

The fourth principle is admirable — evaluate and test our work — and reflects language rooted in convention, linear, knowable, modernist science. Evaluation is critical and deeply neglected in design. Yet the emphasis here on testing does not reflect a systems view of life. Instead, this is the original HCD.

Lastly, the principle of designing for the community is, in my opinion, lazy. It’s HCD with communities, not individuals. Is this better? I’m not sure.

Communities aren’t some generic body that we enlist. A community is dynamic and context-sensitive, and engaging them requires focus, authentic communication, and shared purposes. The portrayal of the community in this context is far too simplistic. The community might be your client or your partner, or they might not be interested at all in what you, the designer, have to offer.

The planet, however, might have a different take. Communities — and the humans who make them up — are interested in things that may have little benefit for the ecosystem around them. I’m not sure many of the species at risk in our world are providing tangible benefits to the community enough that they want to design solutions with you. That doesn’t mean they don’t need our (designers’) help.

What this change of perspective means is adopting a stance that Bruce Mau argues for: Life-Centred Design. I think we might go further to what I call design for living systems.

Designers: Changing Our Ways

Human-Centred Design is everywhere in design writing, scholarship, and education. Search HCD online, and you’ll get thousands of articles, videos, resources, and polemics on the subject. Entire design departments are being created for HCD.

Are our ecosystems — the air we breathe, the water we drink, animals and plants we live amongst — better because of HCD? Has HCD managed our desire for more stuff better? HCD has helped sell things — including more HCD. But I don’t think we’re better off as a planet (or as people) because of this fact. I love my stuff. I love that much of what I have is more usable than what I had growing up, and HCD is a part of its reason. But it’s all come from a place that is no longer sustainable.

As Mike Monteiro writes, design is damaging to the world around us when done in particular ways. And that means MANY ways. We can do better.

We can do better by taking a different mindset to what we create, for whom, and in what forms. Designing for living systems, not just human ones can get us off this track. This is a new way to think about design. This means taking complexity and systems seriously. Designing for living systems also means designing for humans as they are, not as we want them to be.

Humanity-Centred Design only takes us part of the way. Proper design for humans and ecosystems requires us to go further. I’ll be exploring this in many more future posts because I believe too much is at stake for us to keep doing things the old way.

Image Credit: Michal Matlon on Unsplash for both images.

1 thought on “Humanity-Centred Design or Designing for Living Systems?”

  1. Hi Cameron… really enjoyed the paper… and reconnected me with something I posted earlier today… John Nash said Adam Smith was wrong… actions should be those which benefit the individual AND the group… which is rather similar to Russel Ackoff’s comment… Never improve a part unless it also improves the whole.

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