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We Are Surrounded by Design: Embodying an Ethical Human-Centered Design Practice

I love design. Design is all around us. Every part of our built environment is an act of design, an act of creation—and an act of human expression. Design is an act of giving—it is done to be of service to others. This is because it is through design that we navigate and make sense of our world. There are reasons, benefits and consequences in every design decision that we must consider. Who are we designing for and why? What outcomes do we want to achieve? Should we prioritize immediate needs or do we focus on long-term thinking? What are the trade-offs? These questions are at the heart of human-centered design, which is at the center of Constructive’s strategic design practice. And for nonprofits, foundations, and social impact organizations, their implications go far beyond how something looks, how it can be interacted with, or how it’s experienced. They are fundamental questions about how an organization can be of greater service to its mission and to the people that it serves. And when designers think about how to approach the problem solving that is design, we create more inclusive, equitable, and sustainable design when we include diverse perspectives throughout our human-centered design process. And in doing so, we attempt to answer not only the question of how should I design? But rather, how should I be as a designer? This is our Higher Purpose as designers.

Because it is all around us, design is, of course, multifaceted. And that’s what makes it so exciting—and an endless pursuit of human experience. As a designer, I love all of it!  I love typography, industrial design, user experience, and visual design. I love sound design, landscape design, architecture, service design, information design, organizational design, ikebana, interaction design, trail design. The list goes on and on. And it’s my belief that every designer owes it to themselves and to the people they design for to explore understanding (if not performing) multiple design practices as possible. The more, the better.

Why? Because all of the designed world—and this means literally everything but the natural world—makes up a tapestry of products, services, and experiences that become our lives. They are the things that we use every day. Design is about living our values. What does their design tell you about the designer and how they thought of you when designing these things? Is there great care and attention, or does the design feel like an afterthought? What does their design help you understand about society, the zeitgeist, or the attitude and outlook of business, government, NGOs? What about the state of the world? What does a designer’s work tell you about yourself? How does it make you feel? These are more of the fundamental questions that human-centered designers must continuously ask themselves.

The Responsibility of Human-Centered Design for Social Impact

Being a designer is an awesome responsibility. The designer’s perspectives, agendas, blind spots, and biases are directly reflected in everything we see around us. This is why a focus on learning, perspective, and understanding of the lived experience of others is so important. Look closely and you can see the painstaking lengths to which the devoted designer will go in order to create a thing of wonder—a thing that makes a true difference in your life in some way. They have accepted their role and responsibility as the creator of that experience. They will bring something into this world, where, before there was nothing. It is these painstaking lengths—and the perspectives and influences on design—that interest me the most. It’s the deep and perpetual work that excites me about design—no matter what it is that’s being designed. Design is both a verb and a noun, and this work is the design behind the design.

And so it’s these perspectives that inspire me to further examine what drives design decisions, their place in the greater ecosystem, and the designer’s ability to go beyond simply what they’re asked to do and to instead create what is needed. Because, when our goal is social impact—to design for change and to design for a better world, then we owe it to everyone in this world to bring our best in creating what the world needs right now. Whenever that now is.

John O’Donohue, quoting the thirteenth-century mystic Meister Eckhart in an interview said: “So many people come to me asking how I should pray, how I should think, what I should do. And the whole time, they neglect the most important question, which is, ‘how should I be?’”

If we were to explore one question about design, it would be exactly this: As designers, how can we be? It’s an important question because, just as society does, design firms can emphasize short-term design processes: Thinking in general terms, building quickly, testing, learning, and iterating. It’s a practice that I use all of the time as well, but I’m mindful to always keep one eye always on the long-term and its impact on the wider system. The perspective is by no means foolproof. The more perspectives you can have guiding the outcome the better. Design processes that prioritize short-term, isolated thinking prevent designers from anticipating the larger impacts of their work. They simply produce work. They’re kept on the surface.

But excellence in human-centered design is only partially a product of talent and training. Today, it’s much more of an exercise in thinking, listening, confronting biases, exploring perspectives, and nurturing a growth mindset. Again, in social design—in the work of designing experiences that help nonprofits, foundations, and social impact organizations truly move the needle on important things—maintaining this mindset is essential. I’d say it’s non-negotiable. This is especially important when we look at the democratization of the technology used in design and how much of these decisions can be made for us by that software. Soon it will soon enough be able to do much of the work for us. So where does that leave the designer?

Going Deeper into Human-Centric Design for Nonprofits

The real magic happens when we go deeper as designers. A passionate designer will be able to split their thinking into the short- and long-term in order to design better products, better brands, better experiences, and better relationships. A better world. They are able to pull in perspectives from all over. They are able to see both the whole and its parts—and act accordingly. This is why exploring so many design practices is so important. That’s what makes it possible to put holistic, heuristic , human-centric thinking at the center of our work. Every designer of every kind needs their own methods and perspectives if they intend to make a greater impact on the world through their work. They need to study those things that captivate them—whether it’s art, baking, architecture, music, history, philosophy, religion, justice, or the like. This kind of study allows us to open the lenses through which we can experience, interpret, and create the world around us. When we consciously choose to add competing perspectives into the mix of our understanding, we challenge ourselves to question what we think we know. The 16th century philosopher Michel de Montaigne had a motto: “What do I really know?”

One perspective I’ve found as an inspiration is that of Sōetsu Yanagi. Writing about Mingei in Japan—a folk craft movement similar to Arts & Crafts—he believed that the ordinary craftsperson should be able to produce large quantities of simple, useful, everyday objects. Objects that were local to the region in which they were produced, affordable to most, useful, and durable. No amount of blind and selfless repetition was too much in the creation process. Interestingly, this was exactly what the industrial revolution and machines and factory workers were doing around the exact same time: Mass production of useful, durable goods, with adequate levels of craftsmanship to satisfy the consumer. We’re also faced with a similar philosophical dilemma as designers.

Before joining Constructive, I worked on an internet-connected washroom technology product for high-traffic public spaces, the majority of my field research was centered around reducing waste, providing clean and ready facilities for patrons, and helping custodians spend less time in the washroom. In most instances, that’s enough to be considered a success. But in all of my reports and analysis, I included notes on additional value that the technology could provide. In the process of observing custodians throughout their shifts, I noticed they would help travelers find their gate, translate English into Spanish to help someone find an exhibit hall, or really get excited by the technology. It became apparent that opportunities existed for custodians to contribute to higher value work and explore their own unique contributions. The technology would tell them when something needed to be addressed in a washroom, and outside of that, the sky was the limit.

Understanding Human-Centered Design’s Role in Breakout Social Innovation

In doing this important work, I was reminded of a Stanford Social Innovation Review article titled “Creating Breakout Innovation” very beautifully describes one of its core principles for perspective building: “Legitimizing all ways of knowing.” The author could have easily made this point in a less philosophical way, but they decided to go all-in. They could have simply said, “Include different viewpoints.” And that may have been sufficient. But to legitimize all ways of knowing is a different thing entirely. It means suspending judgment and taking in everything as it is—not how we believe it should be. Similar to meditative practice, it means approaching problem solving with the child’s mind so that we are truly listening, learning, and understanding how our design will make a difference for the people for whom we create it. In the case of my public washroom project, maintaining this mindset gave me insights into how custodians could further benefit from the technology we were working on by taking in as much of their lived experience so that I could understand, reflect upon, and respond to it.

Empathy, compassion, flexibility, and self-discovery can be developed over time and contribute to the meaningfulness of a designer’s work. This is a durability that never goes away. Designers can learn to practice silence and deep listening. They should spend time reflecting. They should debate the role of the rational mind being the only source of their observation of the world. They should question their intent, and ultimately their own design work. They should explore their craft in greater detail, their processes, and the mindsets that move them as creators and makers of wonder. This emphasis on mindsets—how we determine what to put into our work—will drive the future of design. This is what will separate the designer from the producer.

Marketing’s emphasis on storytelling gets consumers to the point of trust or purchase, but it doesn’t do much to remind them of the bigger picture. And that’s where the designer’s perspective comes into play. Thomas Berry, a cultural historian and religious scholar said that “We are in trouble just now because we are in between stories.” The old stories—mythology, one of my many fascinations—helped people understand the meaning of life, their place in it, and it’s purpose even in spite of life’s trauma and suffering. These stories sustained cultures for hundreds of years. Today’s stories, however, have a much shorter shelf life. And our design methods may be contributing to this phenomena. For example, digital projects are rarely complete. They are fluid and always evolving. We don’t design for digital experiences in the same ways that we produced things in the past. We live in a short attention span world. And the impact of this transience of design has the potential to make our connection to our world and to each other more shallow. So, as human-centered social impact designers, we must always resist this and design for deeper meaning. We must also adhere to the principles of ethical storytelling if we are to design for an ethical world.

Embracing Our Role as Human-Centered Designers for Social Change

In reflecting on design and why I love it so much, I’m reminded of my grandfather. He had peripheral vision loss with advanced glaucoma later in life. He described what he could see as if he were always looking through a straw. He had to sit right up next to the screen when he watched boxing on cable, and he’d scan the television for the action. But he could still point out where we were whenever we’d drive around town—even though he couldn’t see anything past the hood of the car. If we can only see, experience, and interpret the world through a narrow opening, then our work will be limited to that as well. So, as designers with an awesome responsibility to the world, we have a duty to open these lenses wide. We have a duty to take the time to see through the eyes and experiences  of others. Because, only then can we design a world that lives up to our values and our most lofty ambitions.

About the Author

Paul Sternberg

Paul Sternberg

Paul combines 15 years of expertise as a human-centered designer, strategist, and facilitator with formal training as a journalist. He combines experience design and visual storytelling to connect people to ideas and information—and empower them to affect change in the world. Paul is an avid researcher and systems thinker who designs valuable brand experiences that are focused on meeting the interests and aspirations of audiences. As Director of Strategy and UX, Paul listens, facilitates, and leads our teams and clients to translate social impact strategies into brand experiences. Prior to joining Constructive, Paul co-founded a digital design agency, serving in a leadership role for over a decade. He holds a BS in Journalism with an emphasis in graphic communication and information design.

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