I am presently reading LeonardoDa Vinci written by Walter Isaacson which has reminded me once again of the long history of ‘human focused’— i.e. humanistic—inquiry reaching back to the ancient Greeks and beyond. The Renaissance period bracketing Leonardo’s lifetime was a time when humanism was rediscovered as a focus for human agency and inquiry after a long period of neglect. The most recent interest in ‘user centered’, ‘customer centered’, and ‘human centered design’ (IDEO et. al.) is just a faint echo of those earlier periods of human centered literature, art, and engineering etc. The recent emergence of interests in ‘(something) centered design’ is an opportune time to look more closely at what the intentions of such centering of design activities are. Additionally, it is a good time to think about what may be desirable additions to such centering strategies in the future.
There are several frames of reference for depicting design centering activities nowadays that are often treated as indistinguishable from one another (see fig. 1 below) when not oppositional. But it is more helpful to see each approach as uniquely fitting the intentions of the designers involved, and the contexts and the environments of their designing behavior.
fig. 1 approaches to centered design
At present, some of these approaches are being used with ‘success’—that is success as defined or assumed for each strategy. But the world is becoming more complex and people’s expectations for dealing with complexity in competent and beneficial ways grows as well. Traditional centering approaches to designing, which are presently the norm, need to be augmented by approaches that better fit the complexities of rapidly changing realities and the growing expectations for better, more sustainable and desirable designed outcomes.
Normative centering approaches to design:
‘Artifact centered’ design is well developed having been established and expanded as a result of the consumer societies that have grown over past centuries because of advances in the practical arts, applied sciences, and engineering—including the industrial revolution. The focus here is on instrumental objects and organizational systems that provide functional assistance to utilitarian systems and individual enterprise. The Anthropocene Age is the result in great measure of this focus.
‘Human Centered’ (e.g. ‘consumer centric’) design has grown exponentially over the past few decades providing consumables, technologies and services to customers. These products and services are designed to ‘fit’ people ergonomically including social ergonomics. They are also expected to be transitory due to progress or changes in taste. They are meant to appeal to people and are not valued on their own.
Nascent centering approaches to design:
‘Human’ Centered design focuses on the self-organization of an individual’s growth and development. The focus results in well-rounded humans in general and in competent professionals (e.g. designers) in particular. This focus—not the same as the selfie centered focus so popular nowadays—is on attending to self-interests and self-improvement. Self-awareness and introspection are the primary instrumental means for action at the heart of this centering approach. The ‘design of a life’ and concomitant skills and abilities is exemplary of this approach to centering design.
‘Human-Centered’ design focuses on the creation of ties or bonds between and among people in social systems and social networks. The focus here is on the design and operationalization of ‘rules of relationship’ or protocols between or among individuals. Synergies and emergent properties are the consequences of these systemic interactions.
‘Purpose Centered’ design focuses on intentionally determining and setting the directions and outcomes of design cohorts working within the boundaries of their social contexts and environments.
‘Life Centered’ design centers on the creation and maintenance of emergent, essential properties for living systems made viable and whole. It is the basis of intentional evolution made possible by the freedom to steer change rather than merely react to change.
Where to locate the locus of centered design is the key question. Centering should not be positioned by only looking ‘at’ situations or things. Centered design is most effectual when applied at the conjunctions of constituent elements or parts of complex systems and assemblies. The loci for effective designing lie ‘in-between’ (see fig. 2) where relationships, links and connections occur.
fig. 2 conjunctions ‘In-between’