Our diverse setting catalyzes the design process as humanity yearns to make sense of it all. In design, we seek to add clarity to our daily lives and our shared human experience. And the best design embraces this beauty rather than detracting from it. Good design represents how humanity exists as a part of a greater whole.
When design becomes untethered from the humanity behind it, things begin to fall apart. Bad design can degrade culture, create chaos in communities, and infuse noise into nature’s harmony.
With our work set against this backdrop, a bigger question echoes: How do we honor the humans impacted by the decisions we make in our design process?
We can probably all agree that humans are magnificent beasts. We've even spent millennia trying to understand ourselves. Though progress speaks for itself, colossal questions remain unanswered. Even the brain has proven itself an enigmatic code to crack.
Humans are also incredibly inefficient creatures. We’re high-functioning mammals with a lot of emotions. And so while our reptilian brains can get the better of us, we’re still pretty complicated animals.
Design quickly becomes messy work because of the humanity powering it. Modernity places a high value on efficiency. We simply don’t have time for mistakes. It can seem like that the goal of progress is to eliminate the need for humans: they’re just too imperfect. In this idealized world, there’s no friction. Everything runs smoothly, and humans would only screw things up.
With this mindset, we treat each other as hurdles. Design can quickly devolve into loathsome cat-herding when we think people are getting in the way of our perfect intentions. “They’re not using it correctly!” is a common refrain from disgruntled designers. In a designer’s arsenal, a mirror is an invaluable tool. Almost always, it’s a designer-problem not a user-problem when things don’t go the way we want them to.
It can be hard to separate ourselves enough from the design process to inhabit the minds of our users. We can glorify our methods so much that our audiences become second to the way we think design should be done. Yet good design creates space to embrace all the hands that will interact with it.
Design is ecological work. It is only as important as the space in which it lives and breathes. While some of the best design transcends time and place, its genesis existed within an organic system. Its recipients had beating hearts and thinking minds.
Design impacts humans. And through individual humans, design impacts the ecosystems, environments, and cultures that humans inhabit. Design molds and shapes our perception of our lives. And so design’s value completely rests upon its usefulness to living things.
It’s also incredibly personal work. Our design solutions follow people into their daily, intimate lives. Think of the sheer amount of heartfelt communication that telephones, pens, and envelopes have facilitated. Those objects became more than simple tools, they became touchstones of our existence. This empathic shift can become overwhelming. I can often obsess over arriving at the right answers because I want to do right by the users that I’m serving directly and, more importantly, indirectly.
There can also be fear in releasing work into the wild. It’s a daunting task to see if things go according to plan. While plenty of anxiety has been generated around this reality in my career, I’ve come to find it one of the most freeing aspects of my work. What I’m designing already belongs to them not me. Creative ownership fosters amazing ideas. And yet, it is only in realizing that our work doesn’t belong to us that we can confidently watch it flourish in its natural habitat.
Good design honors life by fostering this co-ownership. When our shared solutions point to what it means to be human, the final product reflects a communal sense of accomplishment.
There’s tremendous power in the act of naming. The word design derives from designation. Marking or designating something gives it context, meaning, and purpose. So much of what we do as designers is establish vocabularies as foundation for collaboration. However complex the process, it has to start with a name.
Often it’s only when we can name something ourselves that we draw closer to it. There’s a reason we introduce ourselves by our names to one another. As humans, we greatly value this differentiation from the rest of the animal kingdom. There’s value in being able to connect a face with a name.
When names are taken from us it feels dehumanizing. I recall John Proctor’s famous line from Arthur Miller’s The Crucible: “Leave me my name!” His name becomes his only semblance of humanity in the tragic drama of his life. Regulators in the penal systems similarly know this tactic, as inmates are stripped of their named identities and assigned cold numbers in their place. Not only their freedom but also their sense of identity is stripped away.
Though we as designers may not employ anything remotely close to these harsh psychological tactics, we can abstract users’ identities so much that they get lost in the blurry masses of personas. Metrics in the form of bar charts and line-graphs have a way of distancing us from the beating hearts that we manipulate to prove our successes. We’ve also watched this play out among the design ethics conversations of our time. We know that we can use data to make better decisions, catalyze innovation, and refine our work. We also know that we can use data to remove the actual faces from the raw numbers we collect.
I’ve come to discover that the further a designer is from the real people that are interacting with his or her work, the blurrier these faces get. Technology has allowed us to connect with people all over the globe, yet we still create great distances between ourselves and our users.
The ugly truth is that sometimes we’re just lazy. While natural, thoughts like, “Getting to know the users is someone else’s job,” or “I just don’t have the time or budget to talk to that many people,” can be dividing forces that dehumanize the design process.
One of the most deeply satisfying aspects of design is its inherent humanity. Everyone is allowed to have an opinion on what good design looks, feels, and sounds like. Though many final products have deep complexities beneath their polish, the experience of them is still something anyone can sense.
Rather than viewing humans as hurdles, what if we saw their invaluable position as guides in our design process?
How do we humanize our design process? What needs to change in order for us to remove barriers between ourselves and the people we’re serving?
Here’s a start:
1. Accept the challenge.
Don’t let the complicated messiness of humans deter you from the hard work of designing for them. We’re hardwired for connection, and the more we suppress the need for one another, the less valuable our insights in helping others will be.
2. Be self-aware.
Some of the most simple advice is the hardest to embody. Though you may live and work in the role of designer, you are also someone else’s user. Chances are you may even be one of the hard-headed ones that designers love to gripe about. Design the products you would want to use.
3. Use real stories.
Creating profiles can be a helpful first step, but only when they are informed by real people. If there are people who don’t feel comfortable having their real information shared, anonymize it. There’s absolutely no substitute for the real stories.
Empathy will always be relevant. Its use in our pop-culture lexicon may fall in and out of fashion but its transcendent power will remain unflinched. There is no shortage in impact when understanding another human’s life. I believe this skill is, without a doubt, the most important aspect of our work.
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