People and society, and nature and the environment are woven together in a complex system. How do we design for it?
American researcher, professor, and author Don Norman discusses his 2023 book Design for a Better World and shifts the focus from human to humanity. But be forewarned, in his blog post, Discussions, Not Talks, Don writes:
I no longer give talks: I engage in discussion with the audience by answering questions. This way, I know that my remarks are of interest to the audience. I have found that audiences really enjoy this format. They often complain that the discussion was too short.
The many publications by Don Norman span 50 years. Memory and Attention: An Introduction to Human Information Processing (1969) has been translated into five languages. Centered System Design: New Perspectives on Human-computer Interaction (1986) marks a methodological shift in design practice over time represented by user-centred design, and every design shelf includes The Design of Everyday Things, a seminal work published in 1988 and revised in 2013, introduces principles that are fundamental to all designers today.
The excerpt below is from the essay, Humanity-Centered versus Human-Centered Design, on jnd.org and serves as a starting place for a discussion with Don about Design for a Better World.
The world is a mess. Our dire predicament, from collapsing social structures to the climate crisis, has been millennia in the making and can be traced back to the erroneous belief that the earth’s resources are infinite. The key to change, says Don Norman, is human behavior, covered in the book’s three major themes: meaning, sustainability, and humanity-centeredness. Emphasize quality of life, not monetary rewards; restructure how we live to better protect the environment; and focus on all of humanity. Design for a Better World presents an eye-opening diagnosis of where we’ve gone wrong and a clear prescription for making things better.
Norman proposes a new way of thinking, one that recognizes our place in a complex global system where even simple behaviors affect the entire world. He identifies the economic metrics that contribute to the harmful effects of commerce and manufacturing and proposes a recalibration of what we consider important in life. His experience as both a scientist and business executive gives him the perspective to show how to make these changes while maintaining a thriving economy. Let the change begin with this book before it’s too late.
Why the name Humanity-Centered Design? How is it different from Human-Centered? Don’t the terms “human” and “humanity” mean very similar thing?
The meaning of the phrases cannot be inferred simply by the words: it is necessary to view the context: History matters (remember the discussion in Chapter 3?). The term “Human-Centered” was developed in the late 1980s and at that time, the focus was primarily on the individual people for whom the design was intended. This has many virtues, and it is the dominant approach today. But now, four decades later, we have developed an increased sensitivity to the biases and prejudices against societal groups plus increased concern about the impact that people have had on the environment. The phrase “Humanity-Centered” emphasizes the rights of all of humanity and addresses the entire ecosystem (the term ecosystem includes all living creatures plus the earth’s environment). Here is how I describe Humanity-Centered Design to the Interaction-Design Foundation for the series on 21st Century Designs that I developed with them:
“Humanity-centered design 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 far beyond: to the societal level of world populations who face hordes of highly complex and interrelated issues that are most often tangled up in large, sophisticated, “human-caused” systems.” (Interaction Design Foundation, 2022)
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.
Don Norman at RSD4
This paper is a follow up to DesignX, a position paper written in 2014, which introduced the design challenges of complex sociotechnical systems such as healthcare, transportation, governmental policy, and environmental protection. We conclude that the major challenges presented by DesignX problems stem not from trying to understand or address the issues, but rather arise during implementation, when political, economic, cultural, organizational, and structural problems overwhelm all else. We suggest that designers cannot stop at the design stage: they must play an active role in implementation, and develop solutions through small, incremental steps—minimizing budgets and the resources required for each step— to reduce political, social, and cultural disruptions. This approach requires tolerance for existing constraints and trade-offs, and a modularity that allows for measures that do not compromise the whole. These designs satisfice rather than optimize and are related to the technique of making progress by “muddling through,” a form of incrementalism championed by Lindblom.