10 Principles of Life Centered Design

How We May Begin to Design for a Future of Inclusivity

Johnathyn Owens
Jun 3, 2019 · 10 min read

“Design won’t save the world. Go volunteer in a soup kitchen you pretentious fuck.”

Words that stuck in the back of my mind for years since the first time I saw the poster they were printed on well over a decade ago. Since then I spent my design career attending the most prestigious design schools, and working at some of what are considered as the top most innovative design consultancies in the world. One thing these companies all had in common? Their claim to better the human experience through Human Centered Design and Design Thinking.

In case you are completely unfamiliar with the world of design, Human Centered Design (HCD) is a design methodology of which the core belief is that in order to design truly applicable solutions for people, we as designers must develop an empathetic understanding of their needs. These needs can be subconscious for the user, and often require designers to be incredibly observant, and to ask the right questions and test for the right things.

Designers do this through analogous experiences (subjecting yourself to an experience that is as close as possible to the everyday struggles that the people you are designing for experience), contextual observations, user interviews, prototyping and user testing, and a range of other tools. Through this you begin to notice themes and trends which lead to key insights that inform your design solution.

And the process works. There have been incredible changes made in multiple fields from medical care to grocery shopping. The way we operate in our world now is fundamentally different than just a few decades ago, and this is largely thanks to Human Centered Design.

One of my favorite examples of HCD is PillPack, a small blue box that organizes all of your medications into “dose packets,” little plastic baggies marked with the date and time they’re to be taken. This was huge as it simplified a cabinet full of bottles all with their own labels and instructions into an efficient to-do list made of drugs. The package is mail ordered and drugs are sent to you before you run out. This has a great positive impact for seniors who take several medications a day and are forgetful, as well as young people who may be living with a condition but have extremely active lifestyles.

PillPack; making prescriptions incredibly easy and friendly for patients.

But when you take a step back and look at things from an overview perspective, you realize that we’ve been pushing HCD full throttle for decades, but we’ve barely made any impact on any of the real global problems that our planet is increasingly facing. In some cases we’ve actually contributed to it.

What do I mean by real global problems? World Poverty, Human Rights, Climate Change, Systemic Racism, Deforestation; the list writes itself and trust me it is long.

At this very moment our planet is being deforested at alarming rates, our oceans are clogged with plastic, and bees — the single force responsible for the cross pollination of 30% of the world’s crops and 90% of our wild plants — are in dramatic decline. All for the sake of profit.

At this very moment in the United States, the richest country on Earth, hundreds of thousands of people are homeless, and people are starving. Hundreds of thousands cannot afford healthcare. This is in the richest country.

A free-diver swims side by side with a Manta Ray in what is now a marine world of plastic. Photo Credit: Unknown

How much of this has HCD fixed?

Zero.

And it won’t. Because our current system won’t allow it to.

HCD can be a wonderful tool for creating a new way to tackle floor cleaning (e.g. the Swiffer), or an automatic medicine prescription system for the elderly (e.g. PillPack), and it certainly will always have it’s place in my design methodology and in this world (we need to continue to design our experiences with the experiencers in mind). Human Centered Design was created to serve the economic system we currently live in. However our current system is on the threshold of change, in which a complete mindset and culture shift will be necessary to continue as a species on this planet. In our current economic model, the incentives of production do not reward takling larger systemic problems — ironically, in a time where all of our problems grow increasingly systemic. There is money in creating a better banking experience. But there is no money in solving systemic poverty in rural East Africa. Human Centered Design alone can no longer tackle the complexity of today’s wicked problems, and something new must come into play.

Our current economic model demands a survival of the fittest kind of cut throat market competition. However we are crossing into a new (and long overdue) frontier. One in which we must rid ourselves of a culture based on competition, and embrace a culture of open source collaboration and cooperation.

When I started Sentient Collective, it was with this intent, and with this intent came Sentient Collective’s 10 Principles for Life Centered Design.

1.) Life Centered Design is designed with the full picture in mind.

Human Centered Design has become the benchmark for design that addresses consumer needs unbiasedly. However HCD that fails to take into consideration the ecological, socio-economical, and happiness costs of its production, distribution, and disposal is not truly human centered. Design cannot be considered to truly have humans at its core if it ultimately further contributes to pollution, landfill mass, and exploitation of cheap labor. Life Centered Design considers and addresses these three points as part of its core methodology.

If I design for the full life cycle of a shopping bag. I may have solved the design challenge for a more sustainable shopping bag. However I have failed to create a systemic solution for our plastic problem. I haven’t addressed or solved for the economic incentives that make single use grocery bags more accessible, nor the underlying incentives which drive our single use, throwaway culture. I’m back at the drawing board, putting out fires again.

Design can no longer be simply about the product or service to be produced. Although much more robust, it can also no longer even be about only the experience of the product. Design must now evolve to include systems of scale, and we must start designing the business models of products and services to include ecological impact and economic externalities such as happiness, and ecosystem degradation.

2.) Life Centered Design is about the future, just as much as it is about now.

Design that is Life Centered is not just a solution for current needs, it carries the responsibility of the effects that it has on people and the planet into the future, and must still be a solution in itself to how it is disposed of and or repurposed (ie how a product is deconstructed and processed; where do those parts go and how are they destroyed/reused/repurposed, how coatings/paints/dyes off-gas, what effects will the processes necessary to create and destroy each unit have on life’s ability to thrive on Earth — must be taken into consideration as part of its design).

3.) Life Centered Design is for all, not just for those who can “afford it”.

As much as form, function, and aesthetics are critical to excellent design, so is it’s intent as far as reach and scalability. Design only for the 1% is not truly human centered if it only solves a problem for the financial top 1% of the human population, while indirectly furthering the disparity gap for the other 99%. We as designers must learn to design for inclusivity, and to empower those individuals, countries, and cultures who are not within our wealthy capitalist narrative to have a seat at the table. Instead of contributing to exclusion, Life Centered Design can help to progress and strengthen the markets and demographics we will need to serve in order to move forward into a sustainable future.

4.) Life Centered Design’s bottom line is necessity, not cost.

It is a waste of time, talent, and effort to intentionally design products to be subpar, less aesthetically pleasing, or less functional simply to strategically sell them for mass market and/or lower income markets. Making shitty things with shitty processes and shitty materials in order to capture a market share is the exact opposite of problem solving. Our current economic model incentivizes companies to cut costs as much as possible. It is considered more economically valid to design in country A, manufacture in country B, paint in country C and market in country D, simply because it costs less based on the models we have created to run our society; models which have little relation to the natural systems on this planet that allow society to exist in the first place (underground aquifers of fossil water, topsoil biodiversity, bees — these are all considered to be what are called externalities — deemed irrelevant by our current economic model. To deem irrelevant that which allows you to exist is insanity). Life Centered Design is making everything to the best quality, to the best of one’s ability, and making it available to as many people as possible.

5.) Life Centered Design is designed to last, not to fail.

Life Centered Design does not set out to be fashionable, it sets out to be timeless. In a world of blazingly fast consumerism, where the average iPhone lifespan is less than 4 years, we have grown increasingly accustomed to creating more and more waste. Life Centered Design is not a rinse & repeat that holds consumers over until the next newer version. It intentionally sets out to create something of which the form, function, and performance is crafted with such a level of thoughtfulness that it can remain relevant, and be used for many many years into the future.

6.) Life Centered Design is thorough down to the last detail.

When people interact with something that is designed, they are having an experience. Often, experiences are made or broken by the small things which go unnoticed when done right, but are hell to navigate when done incorrectly. In Life Centered Design, every detail, every interaction, tactile sensation is considered out of respect for its user, and is thoroughly thought out in order to assist said user in whatever task they have set out to complete.

7.) Life Centered Design is symbiotic with nature.

We currently live in almost 100% the opposite of Life Centered Design, and have created a society made for single use, where the lifespan of objects and the impact of their death is an afterthought to profit. For example in grocery stores in Japan, bananas are sold individually wrapped with labels and tags. Bananas are already in the wrapped it the world’s most perfect packaging — their skin. Instead of an additive approach, Life Centered Design asks how can it design as well as nature does to create products and services that compliment the ecosystems we live in instead of creating extra work for it.

8.) Life Centered Design is intelligent.

We now live in an era where products and systems can communicate with each other, solve problems autonomously, and learn from aggregate data and their own mistakes. Life Centered Design is a part of an ecosystem of things. It asks, how might we empower our products and services to maintain themselves, and help us make better decisions for a sustainable future.

9.) Life Centered Design is humane.

When products are made in ways that — through their production — harm others, infringe on human rights, and perpetuate the gap between rich and poor nations, they are not human centered, no matter how well they solve a problem for their end user. Our current economic model requires scarcity to thrive. It requires many to live in poverty, so that a few may live in luxury. Life Centered Design considers not just the end user, but all users and parties involved in its production, use, and disposal.

10.) Life Centered Design is as few things as possible.

This last point sums a lot of the previous points into one, but still deserves it’s own space to breathe. By making things to last, designing them to be minimal and without clutter, unobtrusive and pure in their intent, and able to work within an existing ecosystem intelligently (constantly improving on themselves, responsibly designing not only a product’s life, but also it’s repurposing or death), we become closer to designing things that truly work for life, and not ultimately against it.

We must design to produce and consume less. And doing this starts with cutting the metaphorical fat. Our current economic model is one of consumption, which incentivizes companies to produce as many versions of something as cheaply as possible, as many times as possible. However we must begin to design with the intention of having as little waste, as little clutter, and as little versions of the same thing as possible. Because, after all, our physical reality is finite.

We’ve all heard that less is more. But we really do need less things for the sake of things, and more things designed for all.

“The world needs a new kind of design based on an ethical framework in which life is the ultimate source of value; that re-conceives mainstream notions of “development”; and that drives the transition from an extractive economy (minerals and hydrocarbons) to a restorative economy.” — David Orr, Professor of Environmental Studies and Politics at Oberlin

The Sentient Files

A series of stories and articles which deconstruct and explore our human social myths of Economy, Capitalism, and Society, and show that just as we have created these myths, we can un-create them, challenging us to see a different narrative for the future.

Johnathyn Owens

Written by

Founder @ Sentient Future Lab. Designer, filmmaker, and futurist with a passion for products and services that elevate the quality of life for all Earthlings.

The Sentient Files

A series of stories and articles which deconstruct and explore our human social myths of Economy, Capitalism, and Society, and show that just as we have created these myths, we can un-create them, challenging us to see a different narrative for the future.

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