What Is Design If Not Human-Centered?
The explosive growth of interest in human-centered design raises bigger questions about traditional design education, training, and practice.
Late last week, IDEO.org—the nonprofit spinoff of design and strategy giant IDEO—announced a first-of-its-kind, five-week, experiential training program in the art and science of Human-Centered Design for Social Innovation. The program is run in partnership with +Acumen, the outreach arm of social impact investment pioneers, Acumen. The partnership is only the most recent example of design infiltrating—or at least influencing—the philanthropic and social sectors.
Human-centered design expressly involves the investigation of social problems, analysis of knowledge, engagement of users, and prototyping or iteration of solutions. At the heart is a focus on actual users, achieved via interviews, observation, and good old-fashioned listening. A powerful example is IDEO.org’s work with the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, which analyzed—in some ways, for the first time—the habits, motivations, and aspirations of the cookstove’s target market: women and girls. To date, technological advances have largely driven the field, while adoption hasn’t kept pace.
Beyond its projects, popular fellowship program, and new educational initiative, IDEO.org’s online network, HCD Connect, is perhaps the clearest indicator of the accelerating interest in this type of work. Launched barely 18 months ago, the site has attracted nearly 30,000 users from far beyond the design field itself.
The explosive growth of interest in human-centered design raises bigger questions about traditional design education, training, and practice. In short, if design traditionally is not human-centered, who or what is it centered around? At least in schools, the alternative or status quo is a mix of conceptual projects and design competitions, but these overlook the experiences and crucial insights of users themselves—and the incredible learning they provide. There’s a growing understanding that to both make the most positive impact and ensure user participation in measuring that impact over the long haul, human-centered design is a much more reliable, dignifying means.
Human-centered design should become the norm in design schools and no longer the exception. Today, we see extraordinary programs—including the wildly popular, standard-setting d.school at Stanford University, the Archeworks alternative education school in Chicago, to the D-Lab at MIT, and several groundbreaking programs at the School of Visual Arts in New York, among others. Most are elective, and a few are entirely extra-curricular. For all of their strides, these programs have not yet disrupted or altered the foundations of design education, as many see them as supplementary or alternative.
At its best, design is interdisciplinary, and should be taught and learned as such. Design majors, often well-known for their intense culture of all-nighters, and isolating and all-consuming courses (known as “studios”) should unite students from a diversity of fields. Interdisciplinarity is a hallmark of human-centered design, sometimes even in situations where traditionally trained designers are not in the drivers’ seat. Here again, Stanford’s d.school serves as a prime example, being a partnership of the business and engineering schools, while a magnet for others majors. Its prolific Entrepreneurial Design for Extreme Affordability course applies this interdisciplinary perspective to problems faced by people living on less than $4 a day, with profound results.
Students of human-centered design must see this practice, not as a set of consecutive steps but as a way of truly seeing the world—where listening to and learning from users informs and sometimes even trumps designers’ own instincts. The field of design has relied solely on instincts for far too long.