Limitations of ‘human-centred’ design, and the need for a broader way of thinking

In order to be more sustainable, product designers and brands need to think beyond ‘human-centred’ design and adopt a thoughtful approach that considers sustainability and human and environmental needs. Ashleigh McLean and Stef Peykova write about how ‘ecosystem-centred design’ can revolutionise the industry.

Recently we’ve heard a lot of buzz words, such as ‘environment-centred design’ and ‘planet-centric design’, but are they the best terms to use and how do they translate in the world of a digital product designer? 

During an unprecedented year of global change, technological innovations have boomed and even our own team has benefitted from the use of centralised collaborative tools. However, with power and progress also comes responsibility. Shifting towards a world that demands sustainable development of goods, but also one of mindful technologies, we need to ask ourselves – how, as designers, can we adapt and use frameworks to deliver products that resonate with this global outcry?

Why we need more than ‘human-centred’ design 

Why does the design world need revolutionising, you’d ask? Well, we say we want sustainability, but we make our main focus human-centred design, rarely thinking outside of this concept from the perspective that humans are not the centre of the world. We aren’t saying human needs are not important, but we think it is important to strive to be more considerate and better balanced. 

This is an extremely exciting time for the design industry as it has created the opportunity for designers to challenge, explore, reinvent and reimagine the entire way we do digital design.

For example, designers could consider the increased energy use associated with the uptake of high-definition video streaming, and the impact this increased energy use has on ecosystems. 

Where do we start? 

First, we start with the mindset, but to change that we need to settle on the right term – words matter. If ‘human-centered’ design sounds a bit egocentric by placing ‘people’ in the centre of the world, then environment-centred design may be misunderstood for ignoring the needs of humans to focus solely on the environment. 

To adopt a more inclusive term encompassing sustainability, human and environmental needs, we arrived at ecosystem-centred design, recognising communities of living organisms in conjunction with the non-living components of their environment, interacting as a system – win win.

Great – but how do we actually design with ecosystems in mind?

It is easy to say that designers need to be sensitive towards the trends in ecosystems, but how do we actually help people develop this sensitivity? How do we start thinking about the way our product designs will impact all ecosystems and not just humans?

Research is where we begin – it’s what sets the tone and drives the quality of pain points and opportunities discovered. It’s important to ensure that ecosystems are considered when establishing the research goals for a project.

For example, while working with the Infrastructure Sustainability Council of Australia (ISCA) on their Infrastructure Sustainability (IS) Rating Scheme, we saw an opportunity to broaden our horizons in regards to what we perceive as a direct impact. Throughout the discovery phase, we explored not just means of reducing costs, resulting in the IS Rating being more accessible to infrastructure projects, but we also discovered opportunities to support projects with tools and resources to help encourage improved sustainability outcomes. Not just for the projects themselves, but for the cities and communities in which they exist.

Can you start to see the connection now? Everything is interconnected, and it is crucial to start using this interconnectivity to design more positive and balanced solutions. Try to approach research with an open mind and don’t lock yourself into preconceived expectations.

Ashleigh McLean is a marketing specialist at We Discover.

Stef Peykova is a product designer at We Discover.