Beyond individualism

Nov 19, 2021 · 6 min read

“I have never listened to anyone who criticized my taste in space travel, sideshows or gorillas. When this occurs, I pack up my dinosaurs and leave the room.” — RAY BRADBURY

By Kwame Ferreira

Design thinking has created a culture of narcissism and hedonism by focusing on the individual.

Since the mid-twentieth century, businesses have been creating products exclusively with the customer at the centre of the creative process. This has created a short term convenience culture. Press a button and get a taxi. Press another and get food delivered in 30 minutes… It’s a culture of narcissism and hedonism that fails, for reasons we will explore, to look past the individual.

Planet centric design is a methodology that puts the planet at the centre of the creative process. What this means is that it cares for more than just pleasing the customer, the individual. Planet centric design aligns customer needs with global goals (the UN has put forward 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to be met by 2030). It transforms problems into goals and in doing so, creates products that help meet global ambitions, not just individual ones.

People like Steve Jobs proved that design and design thinking is indeed better for business. They took Design as a set of practices that turned engineering led objects of the industrial era into desirable, ‘user-friendly’ products that put the individual at the centre of the universe — and made it big business. In doing so, they forever changed our planet.

Teenage design attitude will inherently be individualistic.

In the past 20 years, design leadership has been focused on listening to the customer and figuring out how to hack the human brain. What do you need was easily confused with what do you desire, and in a global silicon valley culture of tinkerers and doers — desires quickly became products, measured by market fit and stock market value. This playful teenage attitude turned products into the most market-rich companies ever created by preying on the individual at the cost of communities and planet.

Not science. More powerful than science.

Different designers with the same method will achieve different results. There is British design, Indian design, etc. There isn’t such a thing as British biology or Portuguese chemistry. In design, the outcome has thus far been highly determined by the individual leading the creative process. This is changing.

Because the stakes are so high, design is quickly becoming more of a science. Closer to engineering or performance marketing. Design is the glue between the two. Products are created trying to mitigate risk at every step of the process. The easiest way to do so is to focus on the individual. What will the individual pay for? What are their biases? How will they use it, share it… etc.

The creative process has become a space of confluence. Psychology, sociology, art, ergonomics, behavioral economics, materials innovation, media, computer science, ecology, etc. — all feeding the product creator’s mind and their teams — firmly focused on creating for individuals.

Design thinking needs to evolve if we are to survive as a species. It needs to evolve from products that stem from an extractivist culture (either from the individual as proven by Jonathan Haidt and/or planet) to a culture of co-creation. Product creation needs to add value beyond individual sales. Ambitious? Yes.

Planet centric design is as much about understanding best practices as it is shifting the mindset from the individual to the planet in order to create products that go beyond satisfying individual needs.

The starting point is a conversation with the planet.

In an increasingly data centric and measurable world, what spawns product creativity? If you want to change products, change how products are created.

If we want different products, let’s start product development not from a conversation between individuals and their problems and biases but between individuals and the planet. Multi disciplinary teams have a cultural advantage, so make sure you are surrounded by them. Don’t just ask what individuals will pay for. Don’t settle for market fit. Go for planet fit.

Alignment with the SDGs is vital for this to happen, otherwise the problems we are fixing with our product creativity will continue to serve only individuals.

The designer king is dead. Replaced by data machines and user research that kickstarts the creative process. Long live the designer king, i.e. where is the leadership and ambition necessary to create products that go beyond the individual sale? In order to create the future you must dream of it otherwise products will be a sequence of inevitabilities where data replaces all conversation. We need more and better strategies to start conversation at the beginning of the creative process. Don’t have meetings, have conversations.

Product creativity in its essence is terribly ambitious as it tries to make sense of so many disciplines and wicked problems in one action-oriented approach. Design has, throughout the twentieth century and early twenty first, become hostage to short-term perpetual growth market dynamics, more in tune with data centric fast fashion than the ambitious universal language that inspired me when I first started studying and practicing it. Creatives need to be more ambitious. It’s not enough to take all this segmentation data, create products and measure sales. One quick fix is find early alignment with SDGs. Very quickly your team will move iteratively from the individual to communities and planet. You will need to exercise this yo-yo throughout the product life cycle.

The Bauhaus Archiv-Museum, Berlin, Germany.


Design took products beyond the ugly, cold, rusty world of the Industrial Age and, influenced by groups such as Arts and Crafts, the Werkbund, Bauhaus and various art movements, combined form with function and ideology. A complex marriage made in product that helped shape the modern world.

The ideology, or as Yuval Harari would put it, “our ability to believe in ideas and cooperate accordingly”, is now changing. From a carbon-based capitalism believing in perpetual growth to a need for more energy efficient circular thinking with clear global goals and long term thinking.

Products are the way most of us still express our identity and interact with the planet. The choices we make are visibly conveyed through the products we use. From the clothes we wear to the furniture in our homes, to our car, our electronics, our gifting, we inhabit a product-oriented world. That is unlikely to change. What is mutating is the awareness that changing the way products are created, changes everything. Evolving design thinking will end the age of individualism.

Individualism created totalitarianism

Robert Nisbet wrote about why totalitarian movements were so prevalent in the twentieth century. It mostly boiled down to the emancipation of the individual. Breaking free from the clan, the family, the community, made it easier for fascism and communism to grow. Individuals became easy prey to mass movements in the absence of local solidarity, fellowship or love. Why is this relevant to product creators? Well, in the early twenty first century the same weakness was exploited by the new empires of connection and convenience. By us, product creators. We learned how to take the efficiency of manufacturing for individuals to the digital realm. Individualism found new channels and became celebrated as the norm.

Pew surveys shows generations X, Y and Z are commonly defined by skepticism. We are far less likely to get married, to align ourselves to a political party or defined ideology, to go to church or to trust other human beings. We are more likely to identify ourselves with products and people so long as they have products. Generation Z is already confusing individuals with products and it’s not an eyewear problem.

The age of individualism must come to an end or at least be balanced out. As we huddle in our product-centric urban environment within a warming planet, we must stop contemplating an inevitable future with our trademark skepticism and reconnect with nature. As we do so, we reconnect with each other. In the creative process realize the smallest social unit is not one but two. We are forced into optimism and love (form and function) and the products we create start reflecting this change. They stop being reactive solutions to short-term problems and start embedding long-term vision as to where we want products to take us. Back home. To our family. To our planet.

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Photo credits: Martin Reisch, Julian Hanslmaier and Simone Hutsch.


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