Why designers should be rebels

Disruption across industries, increasing market competition, consumers’ rising expectations: these factors threaten most — if not all — brands in the market. For many experts, Human Centred Design (HCD) would be an effective way to create differentiated and value-added solutions.

This article by Nadim ChoucairLaura McDermott was published in The Beam #8 – Subscribe now to read more.

Many of the best products, services and experiences that we have access to today are the products of HCD. Let’s take a pair of superbly designed high-end trainers that have cutting-edge shock absorbers and breathable fabrics which enhance the athlete’s performance by enabling them to jump higher, train longer and be more comfortable.

These trainers would seem to solve both the needs of the business: differentiation in the market and increased sales, and the needs of the user: an exceptional experience. But what if these same trainers cause destruction to life?

Design for life VS short-term user experience

In his posthumously published Vision in Motion, the Hungarian painter, photographer and professor in the Bauhaus school, László Moholy-Nagy wrote that “ultimately, all problems of design merge into one great problem: ‘design for life’”.

"Designers have the ability to influence human behaviour and decision making at an unimaginable scale."

Designers tend to put the user at the centre of everything they do. And so should we, according to HCD. But the truth is that humans are not the centre of everything, and should not be put on a pedestal above other life forms.

Another issue that designers face is the question of time, or rather, durability. We often design for the time in which the solution will be used, rather than considering what happens well before or long after the usage period. Short-term solutions always win. The goal is to improve people’s lives now, without regards to the dramatic consequences on other life forms in the medium to long term.

Let’s go back to the example of the trainers in the HDC context. Their feature and usability is considered to be a leap in technology. But when we later learn that employees who produced these shoes had very poor working conditions and that the packaging of the trainers is non-recyclable, these impacts then stretch beyond the timeframe of the person’s use of the product, and are often overlooked by designers.

That is not to say that HCD doesn’t work. We would argue that it works, but it is limited. Limited in the sense that it only works when we design for one life — the customer’s life — rather than considering the ‘bigger picture’.

Considering the bigger picture and all of the moving parts that affect, or are affected by, the solution: that’s what the systems approach does. In the example of our high-end trainers, a systems approach would consider the origins and acquisition of the materials, the conditions of the workers in the supply chain, the carbon footprint of the transportation, the reusability of the materials, and so on.

Sustainability through design

Designers find themselves in a position of growing influence and power. With that comes a fantastic opportunity to make a statement through their work by driving sustainability initiatives. More than an opportunity, this is their responsibility.

Designers have the ability to influence human behaviour and decision making at unimaginable scale, and businesses acknowledge this. “Design Thinking comes of age”, as Harvard Business Review puts it, helped solidify this position by elevating design from the misperception that ties it strictly to aesthetics and into a strategic tool and skill set. Design ‘Thinking’ was translated into a toolbox, making it more accessible for people to tap into that power and therefore increasing the influence of designers.

That’s why we are calling for designers to be rebels. Rebels against their own tools. We are calling for designers to create a wider lens through which they can focus the power of design, a new lens through which they can frame their design challenges and develop innovative solutions. This new lens is the planet.

More than the single end-user, this new design toolbox considers the larger ecosystem at play. A system that affects lives and resources, human and animal rights, prosperity and inequality. A system through which we can work towards the possibility that humans and other life will flourish on earth forever, as John R. Ehrenfeld explains in Sustainability By Design: A Subversive Strategy For Transforming Our Consumer Culture.

Human(kind) centred design

Rebel designers are invited to join the movement and create a new kind of design: the Humankind Centred Design — in opposition to the Human Centred Design. This approach integrates itself in a context where humans and other life will flourish on earth forever. It looks at the system and time surrounding the user and the solution, and it gives value to the many factors that are often forgotten in the design process.

The Humankind Centred Design toolbox should empower designers to “take the bold and transformative steps which are urgently needed to shift the world onto a sustainable and resilient path”, therefore contributing to reach the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDG).

The UN’s plan includes human centred goals such as the ‘Good Health & Well-Being — to Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages’ (SDG3) or ‘Sustainable Cities and Communities — to make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable’ (SDG11). It also includes planetary-state goals with a focus on other life, such as ‘Life Below Water, to Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development’ (SDG14) and ‘Life on Land — to Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss’ (SDG15).

The SDGs should be used a kind of ‘north star’ for designers as they provide clearly defined goals on which to base design decisions. It should even be a framework from which to frame design challenges. Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. The SDGs show designers the way to get there.

As well as adopting sustainability by design, Humankind Centred Designers are in the best position to create a heightened level of consciousness among consumers. They have the ability and responsibility to create awareness about how our behaviour and use of products heavily impact the wellbeing of the planet.

We’ll conclude by another quotation from John R. Ehrenfeld’s book: “To be a powerful force for redesigning the present, hurting world, sustainability needs to avoid becoming just another thing to measure and manage, and instead become a word that will bring forth an image of the world as we would hope it to be”.

Laura McDermott is an innovation consultant, born in Dublin and based in Madrid. She is passionate about ethics and social innovation, and works as Design Lead at IE Business School, Madrid.

Nadim Choucair is a founding member of Cabinet, a Collective of individuals wanting to make a (+) difference, and leads the 2030 Cabinet initiative, building early stage partnerships for the SDGs to help achieve the 2030 Agenda. He coordinates the Global Goals Jam Germany and is an UNLEASH SDG Talent. 

Nadim holds an MBA from IE Business School and a Master of Arts in Law & Diplomacy from the Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy at Tufts University. He is Lebanese-Canadian and has been in Berlin since 2017.

This article was published in The Beam #8 – Subscribe to The Beam magazine for more on the subject.

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