7 Opportunities for a Shift Towards Life-centered Design
In his book "Ruined by Design" Mike Monteiro (2019) describes the state of the world pretty drastically. He points his finger at a truth, that we probably don't want to hear: We design not only the good that is happening in the world but also the bad. And on top of that, some of the good things we design can result in bad outcomes in the future, if we are not careful. Design is powerful and therefore designers have responsibility. So if we want to do something about the world being on its way to ruin, we need a shift in the way we design!
After I spend four years learning about Life-centered Design, Sustainable (Web)design, Regenerative Design, and other related topics – reading books and articles, listening to podcasts, and talking to amazing like-minded designers – I finally want to write a blog post again about Life-centered Design (LCD). This time, I want to show you seven ways we can build on the strengths of design, but also the seven ways we need to transition our practice.
But before I start I want to look at the current state of design. Because in order to know how to get to where we want to go, we first need to know where we are.
The current state of Design
If I had to tell you what design is today, I would look at Human-centered Design (HCD). Because that is what I got introduced to in 2010 when I studied Information Design. And that is what I have been practicing ever since and what I see designers around me refer to – whether they call it HCD or not.
So let us have a look at the related ISO standard (ISO 9241-210:2019). There, in the introduction, HCD is described as follows:
Human-centered design is an approach to interactive systems development that aims to make systems usable and useful by focusing on the users, their needs and requirements, and by applying human factors/ergonomics, and usability knowledge and techniques. This approach enhances effectiveness and efficiency, improves human well-being, user satisfaction, accessibility and sustainability; and counteracts possible adverse effects of use on human health, safety and performance.
- ISO 9241-210:2019
Looking at that definition, it is of no surprise to us that HCD evolves around user needs and that we want to enhance effectiveness, efficiency, well-being, and satisfaction.
But what some don't know and might be a surprise is that:
- The term Human-centered Design is preferred over the term User-centered Design to emphasize, that there are more parties being affected than those that would typically be viewed as "users".
- HCD is also about enhancing sustainability.
So we see that there is a good foundation that we can build on.
Nevertheless, if we look at the tools that are most popular in the design – and the tools we use are probably what reflect the current state of our practice the best – we realize, that they are mostly helping us to empathize with human needs and help us understand the rather narrow context of use. There are almost no tools that include a non-human perspective or help us anticipate long-term effects.
If we look at User Experience Design, which is what I do for a living and what became very popular over the past 10 years, we will see that it is largely about human needs as well. The reason for that is the link between the fulfillment of certain psychological needs to well-being and satisfaction (Sheldon et al., 2001, p. 337; Ryan, Deci, 2000, pp. 74-75).
One part of Hassenzahl’s proposed definition of UX states “Good UX is the consequence of fulfilling the human needs for autonomy, competency, stimulation (self-oriented), relatedness, and popularity (others-oriented) through interacting with the product or service (i.e., hedonic quality). [...]” (Hassenzahl, 2008, p. 2).
ISO 9241-210 defines User Experience as:
A person's perceptions and responses that result from the use and/or anticipated use of a product, system or service.
- ISO 9241-210
So we see that there is room for improvement towards life-centricity, where we want to include the needs of all life into our design efforts. And where we want to look at a longer time frame (more about that later).
So should we stop being UX Designers now?
The simple answer for me is: No. There are several reasons for that. First of all, I think that User Experience Design and the general idea behind it is still valid and holds a lot of potential for the future – also when it comes to life-centricity. Further explanations for that will follow in this very blog post.
The other reason is, that I want to be realistic and follow a path I possibly see succeeding. We just arrived at the point where companies finally fully understand the value of human-centricity and the importance of positive user experiences. They invested a lot of money, resources, and time. To now go ahead and tell a whole industry to throw all of that away, would both be unnecessary and unrealistic.
I rather want to build on what we already achieved, what is already there, and what is – like I said – a very valuable foundation for LCD anyways. So
I am still a User Experience Designer and I will keep on designing User Experiences. But I am adding on to how I get there, the projects I take on, and what I consider along the way.
So we know now that there is a good foundation to build on, but also that there are things that we should change. So let's go ahead and finally look at the seven reasons and opportunities for a shift in design:
The responsibility and power of design
Victor Papanek, one of the most influential thought leaders in design, starts his masterpiece "Design for the Real World" (2019, p. XI – preface to the first edition 1985) with the sentence:
Being a designer himself, he had a pretty good understanding of what design is and also what it could be. He most certainly saw the many ways in which design has the power to both destroy but also save the world.
Design is powerful. Just think about it: We basically design behavior, we design beliefs, and we design the information that can be critical in life-or-death situations. Every product you use, every process you encounter, and every service you receive was designed. Whether the person(s) responsible for designing it called themselves a designer or not.
So we need to acknowledge, that „Either by action or inaction, through fault or ignorance, we have designed the world to behave exactly as it's behaving right now.“ (Mike Monteiro, 2019). And not everything about that is positive. Even though we have improved the quality of life for many, there are also immense issues we are facing today already, that will only increase in the future if we don't do something about that.
So with the power of design comes a lot of responsibility!
But for me, there is also good news: I believe that designers are rather easily reached with a concept such as Life-centered Design. Why do I believe that? First of all: I was easily reached and I am a designer. When I first heard the term back in 2019 in a podcast interview with Jane Fulton Suri, I was immediately intrigued. It changed everything for me. Talking about it to the more than 6k followers I had back then on Instagram, when I still actively used it, made me realize: It is not just me who feels that way about the idea of Life-centered Design. I never shared a topic that got so much resonance!
On top of that: Back then, there was near to nothing to be found about LCD on the internet. Today, only four years later, so many people who came across it – probably by accident, just like myself – adopted this concept and started exploring it. So today you will be able to find a plethora of articles, videos, and even books that cover this topic. A topic to gain that much interest from the design community in such a short amount of time must mean, that designers are easily reached with that concept.
More importantly than that though: I truly believe that it is in a designer's nature to want to do good. I think that the trades that make a person want to be a designer (e.g. being sensible and emotional) are also the trades that make us want to do good. I can be wrong of course, but I strongly believe that to be true!
So if it is true, that design is powerful and that designers are easily reached with a concept such as Life-centered Design – that means that:
Designers will play a key role in promoting Life-centered Design from the bottom up, top-down, or peer-to-peer. In that sense, designers will act as early adopters that will spread the word and eventually make life-centricity the default thinking in design – piece by piece, step by step.
What can you do today?
Take a minute or two to acknowledge that you can make a difference. As a designer, you hold the power to change the world! No matter how small the action might seem, it does matter.
Then go on to reflect on what is important to you and how you feel about the work you do, the company or companies you work for, and the projects you take on. Something does not feel right or you feel like you could do more or better? Awesome! This is the first and really important step! This will make you more receptive to opportunities and to learning new skills and principles.
About that: I think learning and getting informed about Life-centered Design is an important first step. You could start by visiting LifeCenteredDesign.Net or other resource repositories such as design for life to start learning.
Lastly: Be vocal about what you believe is right and about the things you learned. I believe that one of our greatest assets in making a difference is our „voice“ (in the metaphorical sense).
The design mindset and approach
When you ask ten people what a designer is, I bet you will get ten different answers. Some will talk about the artistry of design, others will tell you how designers create useful products and services, and some might also talk about how we create delightful experiences.
But there is one thing that unifies all of us and that is the way we work and approach our projects:
We research to understand the context and user needs, we facilitate different sources, we sketch out ideas, we converge and diverge, we build prototypes and test our assumptions and we work in iterations.
This way of working is not only helpful for designing products and services. With some adjustments, we can use this to approach large-scale issues in a life-centered manner. And the design profession appears to already progress in that direction:
"Modern design has grown from a focus on products and services to a robust set of methods that is applicable to a wide range of societal issues. When combined with the knowledge and expertise of specialized disciplines, these design methods provide powerful ways to develop practical approaches to large, complex issues." (The Design Collaborative, 2019)
To even start solving one of these "large, complex issues", we need to be able to:
- See and understand the big picture and the system behind the problem
- To that effect, we need to go beyond looking at the symptoms, we can experience, and look at what caused the problem in the first place
- Along with that, we need to go beyond short-term thinking (immediate cause and effects) and understand, how even small (accumulated) actions can have big effects in the future
- Listen to and learn from others and seek out a variety of experts to bring together the insights we need to understand and finally address the problem in a manner, that is right for the specific context
- Empathize with other (not only human) life to understand, what they need
(As a side-note: Most of these points can, in some way or form, be found in the wonderful course "Design for the 21st Century with Don Norman" by the Interaction Design Foundation (2023).)
The foundation for this way of working is there, but there are areas where we still need to go a step further and I would summarize this as follows:
We need to expand the way we approach design in two dimensions:
- (Actors & context:) From focusing on human needs and the context of use to considering the needs of all life and the whole system.
- (Time:) From focusing on the usage of a solution and the direct effects to considering the whole life-cycle and the indirect/long-term effects.
What can you do today?
A good place to start is the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – simply to understand what big-picture problems need solving.
Other than that though, I would suggest you tap into the skills I mentioned above. In the projects, you already work on, listen deeply, think about what you learn or are being told to do, consider how all life might be affected, and be the one who points out grievances. Start asking "Why" more often.
Sometimes these seemingly small steps can lead to bigger changes.
I remember one such "small" moment in a project where I did exactly that: I listened, realized items are being thrown away at some point in the process, and asked, "why?". I listened again and asked "why?" a couple of times more. In the end, it turned out, that we could save this material from being wasted with a digital solution. So in that project, my being there and simply facilitating the conversation, asking why, and listening, just like any good designer would do, resulted in a positive change. Even though – or maybe even BECAUSE – I was not the expert on the complex things happening in the process we were working on, I was able to drive the conversation towards a solution that would both be beneficial to the company and the environment.
As a final hint on what you can do today: In case it is still open when you read this, you could also consider taking the course by Donald Norman mentioned above. It will help you understand how you as a designer can use and improve your skills. ("Design for the 21st Century with Don Norman" by the Interaction Design Foundation (2023))
Design tools and innovation techniques
My impression is that people love tools and frameworks. We seem to love the idea of a simple recipe that we can follow and that will almost certainly lead to success. I guess that it gives us a feeling of security. And I believe this security is an important factor when it comes to introducing a new way of thinking and new design principles.
And if we look at the design space today, we see that there already are a large set of design tools and frameworks that designers are experienced in working with.
A lot of these tools are designed to help us build empathy with the users we design for. We might interview or observe a subset of our target audience, create personas, write scenarios, draw storyboards, and fill out empathy, stakeholder, or journey maps to get a good feeling for the user needs and the context of use.
There are also innovation frameworks like Design Thinking and its Double Diamond approach that help us approach large-scale and complex problems and finally come up with novel solutions.
We are already used to working with these tools and they have been tested and perfected to a state, where we are certain they work and are practical in the real-world projects we work on. So I think it makes a lot of sense to make use of them and build on what we already have.
But also from the perspective of the entrance barrier, it makes sense to build on the tools we already know: I think it is easier to get people to adopt a new way of thinking and working if they can use something they already know and feel comfortable with.
Nevertheless, most of those tools need to be re-imagined or adapted to consider a wider range of actors, a bigger context, and a longer period. As an example: A persona can become a non-human persona and help you and your team empathize with non-human needs. The non-human point of view can also be added to a user (or customer) journey map, empathy map or storyboard, and so on.
Even though I believe that this "re-thinking" of existing tools will play a key role in the beginning, there is also the need for new tools and for some of the existing tools to get more widely adopted. Especially when it comes to anticipating the future, like foreseeing unintended consequences, there aren't a lot of tools in general, and none of the ones that are there, seem to be popular enough yet. One particular tool I am thinking of right now is the Impact Ripple Canvas (and maybe also Future Workshops) (“Design Think Make Break Repeat: A Handbook of Methods”, Tomitsch et al., 2021).
What can you do today?
Take a look at the tools you are already used to working with and think about how those can become more life-centered. Maybe your company even has some templates for tools that the employees like to work with. I’d suggest making it a fun exercise to re-imagine those tools and share the learnings with others, as those kinds of experiences are what will help us grow as a community.
You can also find examples from amazing designers out there, who have already reimagined tools – especially personas. You can learn from them and use their findings as inspiration and a starting point for your own endeavors.
There is, for example:
- a paper called “Non-human Personas: Including Nature in the Participatory Design of Smart Cities” (Tomitsch et al., 2021),
- an article called “The case for using non-human personas in design” (Tomitsch, 2022),
- a page with templates on a website called “Non-human and non-user personas to protect the people, animals, and environments impacted by our designs” (Future Scouting),
- or a non-human persona on Ibón de Plan / Basa de la Mora (Unbeaten Studio) and many more.
As a last example, I want to point out Paola Miani's efforts to re-think the Double Diamond approach. She wrote a wonderful long article that explains all she did and the thinking that went into that. I had the pleasure to be a part of the workshops she facilitated for this purpose.
As I mentioned before, UX Designers focus on certain (universal) psychological needs due to their connection to well-being and satisfaction. But they are also connected to intrinsic motivation (Ryan, Deci, 2000, pp. 70-71). Together with other factors from behavioral psychology, they make up the ingredients for human action. That means that UX Design is, in a way, interconnected with Behavioral Design – where the knowledge of behavioral psychology is made use of to shape or influence human behavior.
Wikipedia describes Behavioral Design as follows:
Behavioural design is a sub-category of design, which is concerned with how design can shape, or be used to influence human behaviour.
Behavioral Design has gotten quite popular over the past years and I imagine you know why: For a company to have the power to (almost) design the way their customers will behave, is intriguing. And I guess with that you will also see how this power today is not necessarily used for good. Because what is good for the company often doesn't coincide with what is good for the world (e.g. buying a certain product).
When we think about it, we might even realize that a lot of the large issues we are facing today can be traced back to human behavior. In many cases, this behavior was at least fostered by design or maybe even in itself designed to be that way. I assume that the bigger picture, long-term effects, or indirect consequences are often simply ignored or overlooked when human behavior is being designed.
The good news for me here is, that we can use this power for good: Behavioral design, our understanding of human needs, and our knowledge of what motivates people to act a certain way can be applied to designing life-centered solutions and creating positive change in the world!
Although the holy grail would be to design regenerative products in that way, the least we can do is design less harmful alternatives to today's need satisfiers. "On the journey to post-growth societies, it will be necessary to change the satisfiers of needs and not needs as such (which would be impossible anyway). Even though needs are non-substitutable, unsustainable satisfiers can be replaced with better alternatives." (Helne and Hirvilammi, 2019)
(As a little side note: I even made use of this general idea for my lecture at Stuttgart Media University and created a simple framework, that would help my students uncover the connection between human needs, human behavior, and the real world. In the end, this framework helps them design positive change through human action by addressing specific human needs.)
What can I do today?
To repeat an earlier point: We should be aware of the responsibility that comes with the power of behavioral design. Even though this should already include making sure, that whatever human action we design is good for everybody and every“thing” – also in the long-term – this is generally not an easy task.
We need to be aware of unintended consequences and we need to try to foresee them. For that purpose, we can make use of some of the tools I mentioned before (especially the Impact Ripple Canvas). No matter what, the goal should be that the behavior we create through our designs enhances sustainability – better yet – is regenerative!
In case Behavioral Design, motivation theory and the theory behind UX Design are still news to you, I would recommend you start reading about them. Here is a first small list of papers and books that could help with that:
- Hassenzahl, M. (2008). User experience (UX): towards an experiential perspective on product quality. Proceedings of the 20th International Conference of the Association Francophone d’Interaction Homme-Machine, 11–15.
- Hassenzahl, M., Burmester, M. & Koller, F. (2021). “User Experience Is All There Is: Twenty Years of Designing Positive Experiences and Meaningful Technology”. i-com, 20, 197-213.
- Reiss, S. & Havercamp S. M. (1998). Toward a comprehensive assessment of fundamental motivation: factor structure of the Reiss profiles. Psychol Assess, 10(2), 97–106.
- Sheldon, K. M., Elliot, A. J., Kim, Y. & Kasser, T. (2001). What is satisfying about satisfying events? Testing 10 candidate psychological needs. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 80, 325 – 39.
- Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination Theory and the Facilitation of Intrinsic Motivation, Social Development, and Well-Being. American Psychologist, 55, 68-78.
- Diefenbach, S. & Hassenzahl, M. (2017) Psychologie in der nutzerzentrierten Produktgestaltung. Heidelberg: Springer-Verlag.
- Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux.
- Pink, D. H. (2009). Drive - The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. Edinburgh: Canongate Books.
(ICT's) environmental impact
Information Communication Technologies (ICTs) have a large impact on the environment – both direct and indirect.
Those impacts can be categorized into 3 different types (Berkhout & Hertin, 2001, p. 3):
- First-order impacts are the direct effects of ICTs that result from production, use, and disposal.
- Second-order impacts, according to Berkhout and Hertin, are the indirect effects on the structure of the economy, production processes, products, and distribution systems. Some positive examples would be:
- demobilization – so substituting travel with communication at a distance (e.g. instead of doing a workshop on-sight you meet up in a video call)
- virtualization – so substituting a tangible good with an information good (to stick with the workshop example: instead of using sticky notes and a whiteboard, you use a digital equivalent like miro or mural)
- Third-order impacts are the indirect effects that I would categorize as the ones that result from human behavior that is enabled, influenced, or triggered by ICTs. So for example more consumption stimulated by ICTs impacts on life styles and value systems.
As you can see, the effects of ICTs are manifold and complex. While second and third-order impacts can be positive, first-order impacts are always negative. And even though the internet and digital technology in general can feel rather “weightless” – as if they are not there at all – their impact is astonishingly large!
In fact, Freitag et al. (2021, p. 1) argue, that the GHG emissions of ICTs could be between 2.1% and 3.9% “[...] adjusting for truncation of supply chain pathways [...]”. That puts the ICT’s greenhouse gas emissions above the ones of the aviation industry, which accounts for 1.9% of greenhouse gas emissions, according to Ritchie (2020).
So it can very well be argued that digital is physical. There is no watching a movie without a server that uses immense amounts of energy to run. There is no reading a tweet without a phone that needs to be built. There is no sharing a photo without the energy that it needs to upload and store it.
As UX Designers generally work in the ICT sector and design how and how much we use the internet and digital technologies, we have a huge responsibility but also a large lever to do this with the impact of our actions, the possibilities of ICTs to reduce emissions, and non-human life in mind.
What can I do today?
If you are interested in what you can do to be mindful of the design and use of ICTs, I recommend reading “World Wide Waste” by Gerry McGovern and “Sustainable Web Design” by Tom Greenwood.
You will see, that the way you provide information, the media, energy source, and technology your system and the infrastructure uses, can make a large difference.
Beyond educating yourself, I'd also recommend educating others you work with about the impact of the decisions you make regarding the design and use of ICTs. Be the one in the meetings pointing out that it is worth it to consider these factors. So if you are trying to decide between two options and you are considering how both affect the users and how much effort building them would mean, be the one to also ask the team to consider the environmental and ethical impact of both solutions. That could mean considering how much energy they use, whether the systems behind them are running with green energy, considering if groups of people would be excluded or even offended, and so on.
For all the digital projects I work on together with my husband (my personal/business website, the LifeCenteredDesign.Net hub, the website of the Life-centered Design Collective and the Website of the Makers League e. V.) I make sure that the CO2 footprint of the website is as low as possible. On LifeCenteredDesign.Net we even inform the visitors about the CO2 being produced by it and what we considered to keep it low.
And of course, you can start being more mindful about your technology use as well. Small decisions sum up and matter. Each photo you take (especially if uploaded to a cloud or a service such as Instagram) matters. Saving a file in a large format rather than a small one, matters. Uploading your podcast with video on Youtube (even though it makes no real sense) matters. The amount of energy your website consumes matters. It all matters.
Information is power! We consume information every day. You reading this blog post is an example of that. And hopefully, the information I provide you will be powerful too.
Without Information, we would be lost.
Information helps us make (good/right) decisions. We need information to know what is going on in the world and to form an opinion on that. Information can create action. Information forms beliefs. Information guides us. Information can help us perform the right action in critical life-or-death situations.
Sticking with the first point about making the right decisions: Just imagine how hard it can sometimes be to know what product in the supermarket is the best for your health and the environment and to finally decide to buy one over another.
Is it the one in the glass jar? Glas is recyclable, but then again, it is also very heavy, and transporting it produces a lot of greenhouse gases. Is it the organically sourced product? But what if it had to be transported from far away? Is the local alternative without an organic seal the better decision? And just think about all the possible allergies and intolerances...
There are so many things to consider. In a situation like that, standing in the supermarket, having to make a ton of decisions in a short amount of time. We can see how good Information Design can help in those situations and also, how it can influence consumption behavior.
Not only in this example, good Information Design is of great value! It helps us understand our options and the impact of our decisions. It empowers us to make the right decision. So as designers, we have the power to help others get the information they need at a specific moment.
And last but not least: Information can be misleading. Fake news is a large issue that we need to be aware of today more than ever before.
What can I do today?
Of course, it is good if you know how to provide information in a way, that people can understand it in the specific context of use and make informed decisions.
But additionally to the HOW, it is also worthwhile to think about the WHEN and WHAT. What information do we want to provide our users? When do we have to provide this information so that it can have the effect it needs to?
There might be cases where we need to stop and think about the brief we got: Is that actually what our users need? Is this information beneficial regarding more than short-term user desires? Am I convinced that this information is accurate? How trustworthy are the sources? And so on.
So finally we can, once again, go back to the first point I made: Information Design is powerful and we need to handle it with care and be aware of the responsibility that comes with it!
Towards a sustainable view of well-being
My impression is, that the understanding of well-being we have been focusing on until today in design (especially in UX Design), is a rather personal one. It is derived from positive psychology and we mainly view well-being in the context of a person's needs – while mostly (not completely) disregarding the needs of others and nature.
"Current research on well-being has been derived from two general perspectives: the hedonic approach, which focuses on happiness and defines well-being in terms of pleasure attainment and pain avoidance; and the eudaimonic approach, which focuses on meaning and self-realization and defines well-being in terms of the degree to which a person is fully functioning." (Ryan and Deci, 2001, p. 141).
(As a side-note: In case you want to go deeper into this, Oades and Mossman (2017) present a good overview of well-being definitions and give "[...] a summary of some key theories within the science of wellbeing and positive psychology[...] (p. 20).)
But we need to expand this rather limited personal understanding of well-being. Because "[...] maintaining the status quo and holding on to the current conception of wellbeing are not an option if sustainability is to be achieved." (Helne and Hirvilammi, 2015, p. 1).
We need to acknowledge that our well-being does not exist in a silo, but is interconnected with the well-being of others and our environment. In some cases, we might feel this directly, in others not and it might take some time until the well-being on an individual level is affected. But the matter of fact is that whatever we do to fulfill our needs or even just our wants and desires, does affect others, our environment, and will affect ourselves as well at some point.
"Perhaps the concern of greatest importance, not only for psychological theorists, but also for humanity, is the study of the relations between personal well-being and the broader issues of the collective wellness of humanity and the wellness of the planet." (Ryan and Deci, 2001, p. 161).
One way to get there is to take insights from environmental sustainability and its view on well-being and combine them with the ones from positive psychology. Both can benefit from each other and therefore a relational approach is proposed by Ronen and Kerret (2020, p. 3), where interactions with other members of society and the natural environment are considered while improving the individual well-being.
While we move towards a more sustainable understanding of well-being – one that is acknowledging the complex system we live in – it is important that we no longer confuse economic prosperity for well-being. Helne and Hirvilammi (2017, p. 1) argue, that "This befuddlement has legitimized relentless economic growth which has, however, proved to be both unjust and ecologically disastrous".
What can you do today?
Make yourself acquainted with the concept of well-being and the different approaches to it. You could start by reading the articles I quoted above.
On top of that, you could research other writing by Tuula Helne and Tuuli Hirvilammi, as I found that they provide a lot of insights into how we can shift to a sustainable understanding of well-being.
Another path I see to get there is simply connecting to nature more often and deeply. I think that for many of us, it is easy to understand how our well-being is connected to the well-being of other people around us. But I would argue that many lost the connection to nature and how important it is for our well-being, health, and happiness. Smelling the moss in a healthy forest, listening to birds, and enjoying the view of green mountains are deeply healing. After feeling that pure joy nature can bring you, I bet you will be even more alert about the news that forests are dying all over the world or that whole species are being wiped out.
I know that Jeroen Spoelstra, a member of our "Life-centered Design Collective", is doing a lot of work around helping others to (re)connect to nature, with the end goal to help them empathize with the natural environment and making it a stakeholder in the design process.
For me, the last part, the one about sustainable well-being, is the key. Because if we have a full and "correct" understanding of well-being, one that sees the interconnectedness and regards long-term effects on well-being, then the tools we have and the design thinking we already apply (like in HCD or UX Design) would work much better for today's challenges. So if the products, systems, or services we build would focus on human well-being with all of this in mind, we would not face many of the problems we are facing today.
That being said, I think it must be acknowledged, that it is not simple to apply this thinking on a large scale. As an example: The convenience of fast delivery is something we got very used to. Many companies either rely on it as a customer or build their business models around it. Is it good for our environment? Definitely not. Not only because the system itself results in emitting a lot of greenhouse gases. But also because it enables faster and therefore more consumption. Is it good for humans? We know that the working conditions for at least some, if not many, of the employees, are not optimal – to put it kindly. So only because of this, the answer must be 'no'. But it must be good for the users, right? It is convenient to not have to go to the stores and search for something – so it is good for the users, right? Even though this is true, it is not automatically also good for our well-being and health. Not only because hurting the well-being of humans working in this system or the environment affects our well-being, but also because this "convenience" keeps us from going out and from moving more – which is important for our physical health and psychological well-being.
But then again: If everybody would now drive their cars to town and hunt for the thing they would instead order online – this would not be better for the environment either. Especially if we surpass looking at the private sector: If all companies would not be able to rely on these services anymore, sticking with their needs and replacing them with other solutions – that would not work and/or would probably not be good for the environment and humans either. So with the systems we build to live in today and with the habits we created, just cutting delivery services wouldn't work. There would need to be other shifts and replacements.
So we see that making it practical and applying this thinking is not easy. But I still think that it could inspire new services and also evolutions or even revolutions of existing services.
Conclusion: What can designers do today?
I want to be honest with you: I am still figuring this out myself. But for me, a huge part of it is choosing the "right" clients and projects to work on. Because if the product or service I help to create is good, then whatever I do in the project is contributing to that. Like this, applying my skills for good will be way easier, than if I work for a company whose business model is resulting in negative effects.
For example, I was working for a green energy company. In the project, we wanted to enable users to make more use of the times at which green energy is available. So applying my knowledge of Information Design, User Experience Design and the possibilities of IoT will be a good thing.
So choosing the companies you invest in carefully (here I specifically mean your time and talents), is a huge part of what we can do as designers.
The second thing I want to point out is education. Because in order to make informed decisions or to voice our opinions, we need to know about the things we should look out for.
What I try to do is build up "information systems". that means I create habits and systems that will make sure I will have a rather constant input of high-quality information regarding diverse topics that I need to be aware of.
Granted, it got way harder since I became a mom and both my husband and I are working almost full-time without having daycare yet. Nevertheless: I have a few selected newsletters, podcasts, and authors I consume regularly. On top of that, there are sometimes phases where regularly spend 20 min after dinner for a course or reading a book.
And the last point I want to make is about being vocal. We can voice our opinions and share our learnings. But sometimes it is also about asking questions, and with that, starting a conversation of which we are only a small part. Asking "why" can be a powerful tool!
I also want to use this last point to share with you, that it is not always easy for me to e.g. write this blog post, be interviewed, or talk at an event about Life-centered Design. Not because I feel like I don't know enough about this topic, but because it feels like a lot is still a theory and I am figuring out how to make it more practical in MY life and work. Even though it also makes me feel uncomfortable, I still decided to write and talk about LCD. Because I truly believe that it can make a difference. I sometimes even hear from others, that I was the one to inspire them to explore LCD. And that is wonderful!
Thank you so much for making it until here! I hope you can draw some inspiration and motivation from this post. If you have questions or feedback, feel free to reach out 💚
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