Designing for humanness: a radical (re)vision for human-centered design

What if we put the aspiration of humanness — the process of being alive — at the center of our creative efforts?

Hero image
Illustration by Ben Young
Hero image
Illustration by Ben Young

Understanding the human condition

As a strategist, researcher, professional creative person, aspiring philosopher and permanently confused and frustrated optimist/dreamer I spend a lot of time thinking about people. What drives them; what they care about; what they want; what they think they want; (what they really want); why they do, or don’t, or would, or wouldn’t do something (or, indeed, anything); what governs or guides their actions and judgements and on what basis they can trust those rules or instincts; why they treat themselves or others the way they do; what makes them happy (and if being happy is even the right thing to aspire to or judge in the first place)? — stuff like that.

I’m endlessly fascinated by these questions (and the many more they lead to) because in trying to understand other people I can gain a deeper understanding of myself, and then use that understanding to better understand others again, and through that roughly circular process (hopefully) better understand the thing we all share: the human condition.

What does it mean to be a good human?

The question that captivates me most is, ‘what does it mean to be a good human?’ Not necessarily good in the moral sense, but in the how-can-I-best-use-the-time-I-have-alive-? sense.

How can I (or anyone) live a life worthy of the billions of events that have conspired to make me a conscious, thinking, living being for a blink in time?

The spellbinding, frustrating, exciting, illuminating and defeating part of this all is that I’m just one tiny speck in a long, long line of people to ask these same questions. I suspect that every human being ever has asked themselves some version of these questions. Not to mention the artists, writers, scientists, philosophers, and thinkers of all kinds and disciplines who have broached this unknown with talent, originality and dedication I admire above almost all else. 
 
Martin Buber urges us to ‘live in constant discovery…to stake our whole existence on our willingness to explore and experience’. James Baldwin holds up a mirror to our denial of death — ‘the only fact we have’ — challenging us to confront with passion the conundrum of life in order to ‘earn our death’. Stendhal warns us of the happiness-denying limitations of seeking a life without discomfort. Victor Frankl found — in the most testing conditions imaginable — that meaning is discovered not in the discharge of tension, but in striving and struggling towards a worthy goal. Rilke asks us to live in the question instead of rushing towards an answer. Seneca urges us to use our lives to learn how to live. Alan Watts hopes we can understand that the meaning of being alive is just being alive.

My own search

For my part and fledgling contribution, over the last 18 months I have been exploring the human condition through the phenomenon of creativity and creative people. In Search of Fuel and Fires is a project I started as a way to expand my creative horizons, perspectives and potential — an excuse to meet with, interview, and learn from different types of creative people in different parts of the world. In the 28+ hours of interviews I’ve conducted up until now, the interactions that have inspired and provoked me most are the ones that illuminate creativity and the creative process as a lens through which to examine, model, enrich, understand, or just experience what it means to be engaged with life:

“It has to be all about how you feel when you’re doing it. I don’t care if you’re a chef or a designer or a writer, or whatever, when you go to that place where you feel alive, when you’re just in that, when you’re just lost in that thing. If you’re doing that thing where you go get a cup of coffee and you set it down and you tear into your whole world and you’re lost in it, and you reach out for that cup of coffee 5 seconds later and it’s ice cold because it’s 3 hours later, not 5 seconds later — come on, that’s the shit!” Craig Wiseman, songwriter, Nashville, USA.

Creativity is my way of carving out my own little space in the world. It’s essential to my happiness and well-being. Without it, I’m only ever consuming; never making, exploring, or contributing.” Katie Lee, designer, Seattle, USA.

“I examine my life through my work. The work helps me to do that. During the process of making something, you encounter questions — a lot of questions — that somehow relate to living. All these objects that you’re using become somehow symbols or metaphors for life, so there’s a correlation between these objects and living.” Mark Justiniani, artist, Manila, Philippines.

Mark Justiniani working on his piece, ‘The Long Leash’ in Manilla, Philippines
Mark Justiniani working on his piece, ‘The Long Leash’ in Manilla, Philippines
Mark Justiniani working on his piece, ‘The Long Leash’ in Manilla, Philippines
Mark Justiniani working on his piece, ‘The Long Leash’ in Manilla, Philippines

And so it is in the middle of this pursuit of understanding what it might mean to be worthy of this chance to be alive — from those I can’t or might never meet, to those with which I can talk and discuss — that I return to my day job and wonder if the two are, or can be, compatible.

Evolving understanding by design

Over the last ten years I have been involved in the fields of design and design research — from my education, to academia and ethnographic research, to, most recently, commercial innovation and brand design. In my current job as a strategy director, for a company that designs how brands and people come together, I spend the majority of my time thinking about the kinds of interactions and experiences that will affect, move, and connect with people.

Over this time I have seen evolutions in the way I, and those in the industry and industries around me, talk about and engage with the people for whom we design. Evolving the way we refer to, and treat, the intended or imagined recipients of our designs or services by moving from thinking of them just as consumers, to include the expanded notion of them as users, and then further to try to see them as people or humans.

My experience of this evolution is that the broadening of our nomenclature, from consumer-, to user-, to human-centered design, reflects the expanding nature of our appreciation of the people we design for — how they live, move, and act beyond the limited sphere of the designs we made, make, and might yet make for them. More than ­that, it’s also representative of a move to actually include those people in the process itself so that (at least some of them) can contribute to and shape the resulting solutions they might one day use or purchase.

The talented people at IDEO have been some of the foremost champions of human-centered design: developing, sharing and popularizing many techniques, ideas, processes and success stories. For a working definition of human-centered design, I defer to the ideo.org Design Kit:

Human-centered design is a creative approach to problem solving… It’s a process that starts with the people you’re designing for and ends with new solutions that are tailor made to suit their needs. Human-centered design is all about building a deep empathy with the people you’re designing for; generating tons of ideas; building a bunch of prototypes; sharing what you’ve made with the people you’re designing for; and eventually putting your innovative new solution out in the world.
What is Human-centered Design? from Ideo.org
What is Human-centered Design? from Ideo.org

As a product design student in Glasgow, a student of Participatory Innovation at the University of Southern Denmark, a design researcher at the Interactive Institute in Stockholm, and a Brand Strategist at Hornall Anderson in Seattle, I have encountered, embraced, used, developed, shared and enjoyed human-centered design ideas for over a decade — and happily thought of myself as some version of a human-centered designer.

Amongst the necessary level of arrogance required to become a designer in the first place (to presume to have the ability to make something, or someone’s interaction with something, better — or, even grander, to make someone’s life better) I found following and supporting this evolution to be something to be proud of. I liked being able to think of myself as someone who wanted to be able to appreciate as much as I could of a person’s way of living, to involve them in the process of design, and to help create something they actually wanted or needed — even if we were just coming up with vacuum cleaner instructions, garden tools, snacks, breakfast foods, or, more recently, packages, brands and experiences.

I’ve recently begun to seriously doubt how much I can congratulate myself for the seeming progressiveness of this pursuit.

To the people participating in projects I was part of, I was (I thought) saying, “I see and respect you as complex, nuanced beings with varied motivations, histories, aspirations, realities and desires — and in order to design something you really want (and can’t get somewhere else), we have to make more of an effort to involve, know, respect and understand you in this process.”

At the same time, I was saying to employers, clients and myself, “In order to be innovative, to think of solutions we haven’t thought of before, or to provide something different and necessary and useful, we have to appreciate and understand these people in new, more expansive ways — their lives, aspirations, ways of being and knowing, and the frustrations, difficulties and opportunities we, and they, might not even know exist yet.”

However, I’ve recently begun to seriously doubt how much I can congratulate myself for the seeming progressiveness of this pursuit. And to doubt if it’s even possible — stripped of linguistic and conceptual gymnastics — to call this search for solutions human-centered design at all.

What’s the true goal?

Despite the comparative breadth and inclusivity of our research and creative processes, the fact remains that in seeking to create products, services or brands that are good/easy/enjoyable/reliable enough for humans to consume or use, we are equally — and necessarily — seeking to create consumers and users for those products, services, and brands.

One can’t really exist without the other.

Creating successful consumer goods requires the successful creation of good consumers. User-friendly design requires friendly users.

Creating successful consumer goods requires the successful creation of good consumers — people who buy or consume with sufficient faith and regularity to support production and (in most cases) profit.

Likewise, user-friendly design requires friendly users — people willing to engage and interact faithfully enough with the service, product or software to support its existence.

Image by Scott Webb on Unsplash
Image by Scott Webb on Unsplash
Image by Scott Webb on Unsplash
Image by Scott Webb on Unsplash

This parallel creation — of uses and users, consumables and consumers — is something we, as designers (of all kinds), do really well. It’s something we can do imaginatively, creatively, empathetically, thoughtfully and often very beautifully. It’s one of the most powerful tools we have to affect our comfort, health, and standard of living. It’s one of the main engines driving wealth creation and economic growth.

It’s time to ask: if creating pairings of uses and users, or consumables and consumers, remains our ultimate goal — can we really call it human-centered design?

Practices and practitioners working from/with human-centered perspectives, have done amazing work to create wonderfully useable products, services and solutions for all kinds of people — many of whom would’ve been ignored, forgotten, underserved or excluded in previous approaches to design. Quite fundamentally, thinking about humans and human behavior can lead to designs for things as basic as railings and bannisters that allow us to use a simple set of stairs or steps more safely, comfortably and easily. Thankfully, there are medical and nutritional applications in which human-centered approaches (in both the design and physiological sense) have created miraculous solutions that literally allow people to be and remain alive and human.

However, making individual groups of humans the hero of the process creates an inherent danger of forgetting, or minimizing, a multitude of others who will be affected by the outcome. Too narrow a focus on the needs and wants of the people who’ll initially use the solution mean that broader critical thinking about factors like environmental impact, sustainability, unintended consequences, life-cycle, and supply-chain can be insufficiently prioritized or addressed.

Even in today’s increasingly cross-disciplinary corporations, most designers are paid to deliver specialist solutions to narrow, profit-seeking problems, rather than as holistic thinkers who work for society as a whole.
John Wood Emeritus Professor of Design at Goldsmiths, University of London

More insidiously, knowledge of humans, human desire, psychology, and physiology allows us (if we choose to) to design products, services and all kinds of interactions, ideas or messages that play to the aspirations, hopes, weaknesses, fears, greed and frailties of people — without measurably improving their lives. There are many products or services — from social media to manufactured foods — that ‘solve problems’ for people in ways they like, ‘need’ or want while also having negative effects on their health and wellbeing.

This understanding of human needs and wants is particularly open to abuse — whether conscious or unthinking — in the context of a consumerist society in which a dominant narrative is already focused on building identity through the things we buy, follow, subscribe to, watch, wear, use, consume, or otherwise exhibit.

Despite making large changes to the participants and process of design, the goal of human-centered design is still, invariably, a solution to be used or consumed.

Can human-centered design be human-centered?

Although less progressive and cool sounding, consumer- and user-centered design are at least honest terms. Honest in that they clearly telegraph one of the main goals of the process: attracting and creating good users and/or good consumers for, or through, the things we design.

It’s time to ask: if creating pairings of uses and users, or consumables and consumers remains our ultimate goal — can we really call it human-centered design?

Navigating questions, challenges and uncertainties is at the very core of our humanness.

I am no longer able to think of the way I’ve approached creative processes in the past as very human-centered at all. But, I am excited by a new challenge: what might the honest goal of a true human-centered design process be?

What kind of design is capable of attracting or creating good humans for, or through, the things we create?

My initial reaction to writing that sentence is to delete it — who am I, or anyone else for that matter, to presume that I can attract or create good humans?

But the question is just too compelling to ignore.

I can’t know (much less articulate) a comprehensive definition of what it means to be a good human — but at this point I feel confident in pursuing the hypothesis that it’s something to do with making the most of our time alive. Not just existing — even living — but being and feeling alive.

My initial reaction to writing that sentence is to delete it — who am I, or anyone else for that matter, to presume that I can attract or create good humans?

But the question is just too compelling to ignore.

I can’t know (much less articulate) a comprehensive definition of what it means to be a good human — but at this point I feel confident in pursuing the hypothesis that it’s something to do with making the most of our time alive. Not just existing — even living — but being and feeling alive.

As I look upon my own experiences bounced off witnesses across time, space, pages and conversations I can’t help but notice that being alive — confronting conundrums with passion; earning our death; living in constant discovery; being present; asking questions; resisting the trappings of comfort; learning how to live; exploring and contributing; struggling towards a worthy goal — involves a lot of things that feel like challenges, and has very little to do with solutions.

That’s because negotiating and navigating questions, challenges and uncertainties is at the very core of our humanness. These experiences are the ones that force us to be vulnerable and invite us to understand and appreciate ourselves and our capabilities. These experiences aren’t easy, but for that very reason they have the potential to be immensely rewarding. They ask us to give something of ourselves and refuse to let us be passive bystanders. They bring out the best in us and result in something that feels like growth, fulfillment, and greater self-knowledge. They want us to engage, understand how little we can control outside of ourselves, and to enjoy that realization.

“If you don’t live it, it won’t come out your horn.”
“If you don’t live it, it won’t come out your horn.”
“If you don’t live it, it won’t come out your horn.”
“If you don’t live it, it won’t come out your horn.”
This way of being — this process of aliveness — is not one in which everything is comfortable and predictable and frictionless — or where we can rely on others for neat solutions we can readily use, consume or hide in.

I’m compelled by this notion of being human — of being alive. Because, I think that to feel alive is to get to know what it means to be human. To be our mosthuman — to be in a state where we’re not thinking about being human, or trying to accomplish tasks, or collect objects, or save time, we’re just being human.

What if we put the aspiration of humanness — the process of being alive — at the center of all we did and created? That, to me, would be true human-centered design.

Our lives are not destinations, but beautiful, enduring, enlivening, never-ending questions we can lose and find ourselves within.

They are constant beginnings and middles, not endings or solutions.

What if — what if! — we could design experiences, invitations, provocations, engagements, interactions, encounters, or some kind of other unknown ‘thing’ that would give the gift of these question-y beginnings and middles? What if we put the aspiration of humanness — the process of being alive — at the center of all we did and created? That, to me, would be true human-centered design.

I want to see if human-centered design can set its sights on asking evermore powerful questions.

Maybe this thing I’m imagining is closer to art than design. I honestly don’t know (or care) at this point. I just want to enjoy the process of trying to find out.

As consumer- and user-centered design approaches seek beautiful, effective and elegant solutions — I want to see if human-centered design can set its sights on asking evermore powerful questions.

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