Design is not human-centred, it’s self-centred

In a world full of objects, do we need more?

Photograph © 2016 Ross O’Brien.

For the longest time, something has troubled me about the design industry.

Perhaps to an outsider this will seem odd, but to an insider it will be common knowledge. As designers, we believe that our purpose is to improve lives and better the world. In a pseudo religious manner, we still think it’s like a secret. In the hallowed and elite circles of design, only the upper echelons discuss what we know – that we can understand people and make products that will illicit the most intense emotions – excitement, surprise, delight, joy, desire and lust. We can envision and then build the thing you didn’t even know you wanted, yet.

Despite best intentions, there’s a subtle arrogance to this belief which is displeasing, but I find the core of this tenet much more unsettling. And I think I’ve figured out why.

Design is one of those few vocations that is rooted in endless possibilities. We are, after all, crafting the future. There is nothing more splendid and natural in the world than the creation of the new. The idea that you can take elements that have existed as long as time itself and create something that no one has ever seen before is not just deeply inspiring, it is magical. But just like that infamous chocolate factory, behind closed doors design is a rather bizarre and counter-intuitive endeavour.

Our job is to delve into human behaviour, make observations and understand unspoken truths. We come up with insights and then ideate around our discoveries. We then start to craft our solution, our object. It’s all done secretly and quietly – we only share our work with those inside the circle. We lock ourselves away for hours as we move from sketches, to computer models and to prototypes. We follow a process which is rigorous yet chaotic – it’s as likely and unpredictable as the weather. Finally, we nervously display our works to our audience and hope that what we have built is perfect for you, and millions of others. Sometimes we succeed, but we fail more often than you know.

This is not where it started.

We’re so focused on being the voice of the user, being human-centred, that we’ve forgotten why we design in the first place. And no, it’s not for everyone else, it’s for ourselves. The most celebrated designers of this generation did not get into design to suffer the agony of routine failure, nor out of egalitarian motives to change the world. Like so many things, the drive to design is felt before it can be understood, before it can be articulated. It starts with fun, excitement and joy – then we discover our talents might be useful.

Before design thinking influenced my mind, my first loves were trains, planes and automobiles. There’s something captivating about something that comes alive and moves – motion itself is a strong indicator of life. I can remember sitting at my old wooden table in my boxy, crammed little room as a boy, drawing robots and imagining engines that could run on air. This is the innocence and unadulterated joy of being a child. There were no consequences, just abundant possibility and hope; just as it should be.

After years of studying and working to understand design, I remember the first time it really clicked. Design is so much more than an activity; it’s a way of viewing the world. You have to be more than just a little obsessive as a designer, and everything man made has, in a sense, been designed. Towards the end of my studies though, I found a creeping sense of unease – not just about poorly designed junk, but of the seemingly endless abundance of stuff itself.

The problem with the designers belief is that it is in conflict with the world we find ourselves in. We simply have too much stuff.

We know our problems won’t be solved by another thing. Another beautifully resolved object with exquisite form and finish. Another new, another now. It’s perfect. The last one I’ll need. At least until next year. Our insatiable thirst is never quenched, our desire never satisfied. There is a growing disquiet in our internal monologues and exhaustion in our external discussions. Something must be wrong.

I could of course say that this is because we live in a world of rampant consumerism, where economic inequality appears to grow at the rate of escalating global temperatures. You might even say that economics are to blame; that we’ve built a system based on growth at the cost of all else. It’s rather easy to play into the prevailing narrative and make an ethical argument. But I think the truth is much less external than that; like so many things, true motivations lie between our ears and behind our eyes. What we really need to understand is that products themselves are emotional and tied, much more deeply than we think, to our identity.

Could there be any better example of this than the humble photograph? The picture is the epitome of a memory become manufact. Its a wonderful invention – perhaps the most emotional of all. We can see grandma and grandpa again, relive that journey down the Pacific Coastal Highway, and of course, remember how delicious that avocado salad was. As long as we have those pictures, we have those memories. We’re convinced our own mind will fade long before the paper turns to dust or the servers stop running. Whilst we have the picture, we hold a piece of what the photo contained. We’re telling the story of our lives to the most important audience of all, ourselves.

And so the same goes for all of our modern products. As industrial designers we’re taught and encouraged to make our designs more expressive, more emotional, less tool like. We do this through seductive forms, breathtaking materials and new finishes. Even the old can seem new. But of course, this is only half the job. The fan is just an object until it sits in your living room, that computer is just a machine until it has your family photographs on it, that device is just a phone until it has the final text from a loved one. Then you have invested too – this product is now a part of your life. Those pixels softly glowing on a screen mean nothing alone, until they are correlated together to make some semblance of who you are and what you’ve experienced – even if only momentary and fleeting.

All of this occurs after you’ve bought a product. But what you’ve chosen to buy and from whom is equally as important to the self. There are no tribes or communities in the modern world – ancestral traditions have become interesting articles, cultural ties have become holidays and e-cards. Our values are derived from our nuclear families and our philosophy discovered through the Internet. As we search for meaning, we look to people.

And what are companies if not just groups of people? The very best organisations know their own values and beliefs, and they are distilled in every single consumer touch point. The feel of the packaging, the architecture of the store, the way you purchase and yes, even the manner in which you are spoken to. Products themselves become central to an archetype and personality – a set of aspirations and beliefs where we can find like minded souls.

But what if you had nothing? If it was all taken away. Would you be any less?

The thought is disturbing. It strikes fear into our very being. It would appear that the heirarchy of needs applies to our products as well. I wear clothes at the most basic level for dignity and survival, but my Mac is for my creative self; for self actualisation. If you took it all away I’d work my way up the ladder as each of my needs were once again met.

Of course, this is ridiculous. I’m merely pointing out that objects, without the proper safeguards, become crutches. We project onto them that which we no longer have or desperately want. The truth is that you, yourself are enough. Being naked and bare requires courage. It requires trust. And sometimes, it’s uncomfortable. We’ll do anything to avoid that – to avoid pain or discomfort. To face the reality and truth of what and who we really are. It’s uncertain, it’s unsettling. Perhaps that’s why we created things in the first place. For a moment we’re people, not animals. Our nature is hidden from us, we’re something more. We can put aside our basic instincts and start to create tools. We create things to make life easier, more comfortable and perhaps, less natural.

The problem is, as long as we’re made up of grey matter and flesh, the base instinct will always come out. Human beings are not rational; we are rationalising. As designers, we create the narrative; we tell the story. We desperately want this one to be true, but it isn’t. The drive to create new is not utopian; it is biological and a hard-wired human need. It’s as animalistic and fundamental as sex.

And like sex, we do it because it’s fun. Because it’s exciting. Because it’s unpredictable. Because it feels good. We do it even when we have no conscious intention of creating new and absolutely no need to create new, despite the potential consequences. We just can’t help ourselves – we’re addicted to the process. It makes us feel alive. It makes us feel connected. Just look at the world around you. It’s surrounded by humans and man made things.

I don’t advocate chastity or celibacy. There is no way I can say what I will create deserves to exist any more than what you will. I just want to ask us all to consider what we want and think deeply about why we want it. As people we seek to understand others, but we must understand ourselves first.

One of my greatest heroes once argued that it’s not what you create, but what you choose not to create that really matters.

Perhaps sometimes the most human-centred thing a designer can do, is simply not to design at all.