An introduction to 10 design practices that work together to make human-centred design more sustainable, regenerative, and fair
Today’s linear consumer system of ‘take, make, and throw-away’ is immensely inefficient and wasteful, devastating to the environment, and a major contributor to climate change.
Unfortunately, decades of human-centred design have contributed significantly to today’s wicked problems due to its focus on satisfying just the target-user needs and business profits without regard to the environment and people impacted by the supply chain.
Life-centred design is an emerging framework that enables product design (for physical and digital products) to consider the impacts of their entire product lifecycle to minimise the impact on people and the planet, reduce waste, and regenerate the human and environmental systems they take from.
An analysis of 20 such approaches that take a wider and more inclusive view suggests an optimised life centred approach emerges when 10 key design practices are combined:
- Circular design — Reducing the waste of the use and manufacturing of physical products, extending the value of materials through reuse, and regenerating the human and environmental systems they take from
- Inclusive design — Designing for the diversity of race, gender, sexuality, etc., with a focus on accessibility
- Pluriversal Design — Broadening the Euro-Western-centric perspective of design to defend the equal, just, and thriving existence of many ways of being and knowing
- Systems thinking — Understanding the problem and its relationships as part of a greater system to find leverage points for change
- Distributive design — Distributing and localising design and manufacturing
- Sustainable digital design — Minimising the carbon footprint created by the energy used during digital experiences
- Behavioural design — Guiding and nudging user behaviour to be more sustainable and kind
- Biomimicry — Looking to nature’s brilliance for solutions to design problems
- Foresight — Speculating multiple possible futures to protect future stakeholders and back-glancing to understand alternate perspectives and drivers of the future
- Human-centred product design — Designing with users to empathise with their needs (including product engineering, UX, and service design)
The core of life centred design is designing for The Circular Economy, an alternative to our liner and reductionistic economy. With 80% of the environmental impacts of products determined at the design phase, the circular economy seeks to redesign how we produce goods and services so that they fulfil their intended purpose and meet human needs in more sustainable and regenerative ways.
Designing for the circular economy involves changing business models, product design, and consumer behaviour by:
Designing out waste and pollution
- It is argued that waste is not natural, that it is a man-made phenomenon, because any resource produced but not used by one organism in nature becomes food for another. Circular design reduces waste and pollution by converting any waste into a resource for something else and substituting fossil and critical materials with reusable materials recovered from products already made, which also reduces waste and pollution created from mining virgin materials
Keeping products and materials in use
- Keeping products in loops of reuse, repair, renew, and recycle extends the value of their materials by giving products and their parts more than one life
Regenerating environmental and human systems
- Creating products and services that exist as symbiotic components of other systems also means designing in ways that heal damage and further enrich both environmental and human systems, moving sustainability from ‘do less harm’ to ‘do more good’
Key circular strategies include:
- Take a systems view to leverage unseen connections
- Convert product to service — Circular designers use a service-first mindset, seeking to minimise resource use by converting a product to a service and/or maximum digitisation of the experience. Designers and product owners work closely with manufacturers and suppliers to troubleshoot, adapt, and innovate design to maintain circular integrity
- Extend longevity through durable design and materials
- Modularity for user maintenance, upgrade, adaptability, and user-repairability
- Dematerialise the design so it needs as few parts as possible
- Energy efficiency during use
- Safe, sustainable, and recycled materials to optimise sustainability, durability, and resilience
- Design for loops of reuse/repurpose, repair, collection, disassembly, refurbish/remanufacture, and recycling
- Design out waste, or convert waste into a resource for something else
- Use of renewable energies throughout the lifecycle and supply chain
- Digitise with digital technology to monitor resource and energy use, monitor the circular changes, and allow customers and supply chain partners to share feedback
- Be nature-inspired by drawing inspiration from the sustainable and regenerative forms, functions and systems in nature
- Distribute and localise manufacturing
- Regenerate environmental and human systems by leaving them better than how they were found
The circular economy provides a holistic view of the true lifecycle of a product’s materials and the loops for circularity extending far beyond today’s use-take-waste model.
There are at least 64 genders and 46 types of sexuality, over 3800 different cultures and more than 6900 languages, and at least 7 types of disabilities. Over 1 billion people (about 15% of the world’s population) have some type of impairment that affects their ability to properly access the web.
The users of your product could experience any combination of these — and considering we all age and lose abilities, “we are all only temporarily abled”.
Inclusive Design is human-centred design that considers the full range of human diversity, including but not limited to race, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, age, social class, physical ability or attributes, religious or ethical values system, national origin, and political beliefs.
Its aim to ‘design for one, and extend to many’ inspires innovations that improve value and benefits for all customers.
Accessibility advocates Henny Swan, Ian Pouncey, Heydon Pickering, Léonie Watson provide this simple and succinct list of accessibility interface design principles:
- Provide comparable experience
- Consider situation
- Be consistent
- Give control
- Offer choice
- Prioritise content
- Add value
UX Designer, Researcher and Gender-Inclusive Design trainer, Vale Querini, beautifully articulates the scope and complexity of what inclusive design could be as an approach that should ‘enable the delivery of solutions that are not just easy to access, but also make people feel welcomed, safe, and valued’ and to include those ‘who likely experience exclusion in many aspects of their daily lives due to being part of an oppressed group or a statistical minority.’
Author and media scholar Böjrn Rohles shares principles for UX in his excellent article Principles for diversity in UX design:
- Respect diversity and understand it as a strength for society and design
- Ensure functionality and comprehensibility for all user groups
- Consider ethical trade-offs in every design decision
- Keep an open mind and question all design decisions
- Ensure flexibility and customisability of the product or service
- Develop digital products and services iteratively and test them continuously with as many (and as diverse) people as possible
- Prioritise security, privacy, accessibility, and good user experience
- Consider the design from many angles (systems thinking) and weigh the effects of a design in a context for which it was not intended
With a product’s lifecycle potentially weaving through multiple countries and cultures, the process and solution need to respect ‘ways of being’ that differ from the dominating capitalistic, patriarchal, hierarchical, heterosexual, white-supremacist culture of Western society. While inclusive design considers the human range of ability and diversity, its roots in Western design leave it unaware of the range of ‘ways of existing’ on and with the planet.
Pluriversal design is a practice born out of the Global South in response to these values being embedded in globalisation and modern design, thereby becoming a global force marginalisation and the destruction of older and alternative knowledge and ways of being. It is also about challenging perspectives and terminology, such as ‘inclusion’ itself, which suggests ‘others’ were never in the process and need to be invited in.
But pluriversal design is beyond decentring whiteness, maleness, straightness, able bodied-ness, etc. It’s about decentring the current dominating Euro-Western-centric ways of existing:
- Capitalistic — Individual and private ownership of resources for the purpose of personal profit
- Hierarchical — The culture of order and rank according to pre-defined levels of importance
- Patriarchal — Male domination and privilege
- Colonial — The control or governing influence of a nation over a dependent country, territory, or people
- Heterosexual and Cis — A binary male/female concept including only cis people, who identify as the same gender as they were presumed at birth, and who are attracted to the opposite sex
- White supremacist — beliefs and ideas fostering or perpetuating a sense of superiority of the lighter-skinned, or ‘white’ human races
While pluriversal design is practised more at a community and global level, it becomes more relevant to product and service design when we consider the full product lifecycle and the various cultures, social systems, locations, and ecosystems the lifecycle impacts.
Also, digital and product designers are often creating experiences for mass use by multiple cultures, so any small exclusion or marginalisation can be greatly amplified and perpetuated. This risk is being further amplified by emerging technologies, such as the virtual and augmented realities of the metaverse, an innovation already enabling monopolisation and privatisation of digital space and experience.
This means the impacts of the lifecycle systems on all peoples and ways of life are considered so that no one people benefit while others are left behind.
Shifting from linear to circular requires systemic solutions. Life-centred design uses systems thinking to think beyond the product or service, and to see the connections of our creations and processes along the entire lifecycle so we may intervene in ways that optimise the entire system.
Systems thinking is a mindset and a set of tools to holistically view the complexity of our world as interconnected and interdependent systems, to see beyond the apparent and linear views, to identify the root causes. It is opposite to the current dominant reductionist view that sees things as many separate and independent parts — a view that can oversimplify perspectives and see parts out of context, which can cause attempts to improve a system to actually make things worse.
Systems thinking views things as how they function as part of a system, and how the parts relate to one another, providing a holistic view of the dynamics. This approach allows us to see:
- What is evolving rather than just what is planned
- Non-linear interactions and flows outside the designed linear flows
- The whole and the relationships rather than just the parts
Systems Mapping is a powerful visual modelling tool to capture a system’s elements, interconnections, stocks, purpose, and boundary. Systems maps create a shared vision, foster collective intelligence, and help identify leverage points. They are often used during a discovery phase, or for big problems where you don’t know where to start. They can also be used at any phase of design to zoom out and diagnose a part of the user journey, supply chain, end-of-use phase, etc.
Like foresight, systems maps are not designed to predict what will happen — they enable exploration of what could happen when different factors or changes are applied. It’s also good to remember that systems maps are just artificial representations of reality, so they can have gaps that can prevent us from seeing all the details.
System thinking can be applied to global, state, city, community, and organisational levels, or to a specific problem domain.
When used as part of a business model, distributed design digitally connects ‘nodes’ of globally-distributed, citizen-led manufacturing spaces that share design and manufacturing knowledge, distributed methods move data instead of things and enable local creation through global collaboration.
Decentralising and localising manufacturing uses global interdependent collaboration to reduce costs and waste, keep needs and systems close to users so they remain in symbiosis, and reduces negative impacts to wildlife, the environment, and invisible humans.
It also supports social justice by decentralising power to enable local creation and equitable sharing of value, which in turn fosters autonomy and ongoing localised optimisation.
The nodes are physical ‘maker spaces’ that give anyone access to the place, tools, and resources to design and create almost anything. The nodes can take the form of Fab Labs, maker spaces, or be local crafts- and trades-people.
Decentralizing and localising manufacturing reduces costs and waste, keeps needs and systems close to users so they remain in symbiosis, reduces negative impacts on wildlife, the environment, and ‘invisible humans’, and fosters autonomy and ongoing optimisation.
Digital products have real-world impacts, too, from the physical components supporting the service, such as servers and their air-conditioned rooms, to the carbon produced by the users engaging with the digital experiences.
By employing strategies like optimising content and using web technologies powered by renewables, sustainable web design reduces the environmental impact of digital experiences by reducing the energy needed to power and enjoy cyber life.
The best place to start reducing the emissions from your digital channels is to check your options for green web hosting—browse green hosting options (powered by renewables) via thegreenwebfoundation.org, although the cost of green hosting might be a barrier for some
Key sustainable web design strategies
- Optimise content (Use images and videos sparingly and optimise, use SVGSs for Icons & logos, and use system fonts)
- Minimise styling
- Design for mobile-first
- Maximise user journey efficiency
- Minimise emails and communications
- Encourage sustainable behaviour
There is a lot more to these strategies, and many other technical and system-based ones!
Behavioural Design uses a scientific and systematic understanding of human decision making (Behavioural Science) to design products and experiences that influence people’s behaviour.
For decades, the commercial world has employed psychological, behavioural, emotional, and social interventions to motivate users to consume, influence their prioritisation of self over others and the environment, and, in so doing, support existing power structures.
How do we get people to carry reusable coffee cups, use separate food scrap bins, choose electric vehicles over petrol vehicles, and choose greener options when shopping online?
Today’s thought leaders in digital behavioural design have outlined three principles to guide ethical digital design:
- Alignment with social good
- Alignment with a user’s desires
Behavioural design uses behavioural science to understand how people make sense of information, make decisions, and take action empowers designers to identify intervention points and design for motivation.
To inspire these sustainable and regenerative solutions, life centred design draws on biomimicry to emulate nature’s forms, functions, and systems that have evolved over billions of years.
Nature has already solved many of our problems, and in sustainable, regenerative ways, through natural selection’s billions of years of ‘research and development’. Designers can study a tree to invent a carbon-capture machine, a leaf to improve solar panel design, or the water repellent quality of a lotus to design waterproof fabric.
- Interrobang from San Jose produced their CactiShirt concept for the Biomimicry Institute’s Youth Design Challenge 2021–22 which was designed with microscopic folds mimicking desert cacti to increase surface temperature for more heat release, and a waxy surface inspired by the ephorbias plant to repel heat
- The swarm intelligence of birds, bees, and fish inspires collaborative behaviour for robots
- The tiny hooks on burdock plant seeds that adhere them to clothes and fur inspired the hook and loop design of Velcro
- The serrated edge of a whale’s flipper inspired serrated-edge wind turbines
- Dragonfly brains inspired the AI for a missile interception system
Biomimicry examples for digital design
- The 24-hour circadian rhythms of physical, mental, and behavioural changes in most lifeforms are replicated by programs and apps which help users maintain their rhythms by changing the colour and brightness of device screens according to the cycles of the sun
- The way human’s brains work as they think inspired the input-processing-output model for computers
- The Golden Ratio is a proportion found everywhere in nature, from sunflower seeds and the cochlea of human inner ears to spiral galaxies in space. Architects, renaissance artists, and modern designers have used this ratio to create the best proportion and balance for their creations. The Ratio inspired the Golden Spiral and Phi Grid which are design tools used for composing images, web page layouts, and designing logos and fonts.
Along with other collaborators, Biomimicry 3.8 defined the six most common strategies used by Earth’s lifeforms and systems. They call these six sustainable and regenerative benchmarks for design ‘Life Principles’:
- Evolve to survive
- Adapt to changing conditions
- Be locally attuned and resilient
- Use life-friendly chemistry
- Be resource efficient (materials and energy)
- Integrate development with growth
Biomimicry 3.8 advise a proper process should include, at a minimum, a designer, biologist, engineer, and businessperson. However, the basics can be understood and experimented with using free online tools like asknature.org.
Nature’s solutions can be applied at any level, to form, function, or system, and therefore Biomimicry can be applied as a lens at any stage of the design process that requires ideation or solutioning.
And finally, to test these solutions against multiple future scenarios and misuses, and to protect future generations from the long term impacts of our apparently sustainable and just solutions, life-centred utilises futures thinking.
Forecasting can anticipate and explore multiple possible futures.
Key Future Potentials
- Preferred — desired states
- Projected — the predicted state based on business as usual
- Probable — likely potential states
- Plausible — less likely potential states
- Possible — unlikely potential states
- Preposterous — not impossible, but highly unlikely
Key Future Types
- Dystopia — science fiction’s favourite, dystopias represent the world in worsening states politically, environmentally, socially, technologically, and/or economically, creating unsafe, unjust, unhealthy, and less free futures
- Utopia — the opposite of dystopia, where people and the planet are free, safe, and thriving. But the problem with the Utopia concept is that everyone has a different idea of what a perfect future should look like
- Protopia — a term coined by American thinker and Futurist Kevin Kelly, protopia is the more realistic future type to aim for, as it isn’t trying to achieve some impossible perfection, but one that is better than now and always improving
While we should aim for protopia, we should still explore all future types when thinking about futures to be clear on what to aim for and what to avoid.
The overarching goal of futures thinking is to broaden our idea of what’s possible and to foster articulation of our preferred futures to better inform today’s actions and behaviours.
Human-centered design remains central to life centred design. It uses strategies based on empathy and continual engagement with users to understand their true needs and the root cause of problems so that not only is the solution built right, the right problem is defined in the first place.
The process engages those directly impacted by design throughout the process, from research to solution-testing, using empathetic research methods:
- Affinity mapping
- Card sorting
- Contextual inquiry
- Desktop research
- Diary study
The four principles of human-centred design are:
- Solve the right problem
- Everything is a system
- Small and simple interventions
The principles can be applied across four phases of design thinking:
- Discovery — Going wide to gather as much relevant information as possible about the problem and people.
- Defining — Making sense of the discovery to identify opportunities for design.
- Ideation — Going wide again by designing and prototyping possible solutions.
- Solutioning — Testing and iterating to refine one solution