Why Life-Centered Design is Vital for all Design Schools

For a continuous transformation towards a circular economy, the design education must widen its scope and impart regenerative and transitional thinking. All design must now extend beyond their ecosystem. Let’s start with the designers of tomorrow to ensure a lasting impact through a mindset of life-centered design.


Keywords: Life-Centered Design | Design Education | Circular Economy | Restorative Economy | Transition Design | Regenerative Culture | Resilience Thinking | Systemic Mindset

Main Take Away
  1. The shortcomings of our current economic model
  2. The deficits of human-centered design
  3. The idea of life-centered design and why it must be adopted by design education
  4. Case Study: BA Design Management International
  5. The suggested course of action

Our economic model is not farsighted enough to tackle current and future complex problems. This read discusses how design education can contribute to the development of a restorative economy through a change of mindset. It elaborates on the need for a life-centered design approach in the university environment and showcases an inspiring bachelor course in Switzerland. A suggested course of action to start this transformation can be found in the end.

The Underlying Problem

Our present economic model fundamentally depends on consumption and growth as a default action incentivizing companies to produce as many offers as cheap and as often as possible. It is high time that we start reducing linear consumption making the planet healthier to ultimately have healthier people. According to the research of the European Commission stating that 93% of Europeans see climate change as a serious problem, it seems that a change in mindset is taking place. It is gratifying to see that politics is finally setting an example with the enactment of The European Green Deal. Now concrete actions must follow. How can design education contribute to the development of a regenerative culture?

It is time to adopt a circular mindset when developing, producing, marketing, using and disposing of. We should move away from a culture based on mere competition that requires scarcity to thrive and embrace a culture of open source collaboration and cooperation. The current economic model our society created has little relation to the natural system on this planet that allows society to exist in the first place.

Human-Centered Design and its Deficits

Human-centered design (HCD) has become the most represented way of thinking to address consumer needs. However, HCD does not take into account the environmental and socio-economic implications of the make-use-dispose mentality and is therefore not really people-centered. It cannot be assumed that design has humans at its core if it ultimately continues to contribute to pollution, landfill and the exploitation of cheap labor.

Design can no longer be exclusively about creating products and services with desirable experiences. Designers must now embrace systems of scale, start redefining the questions around value and ultimately start designing business models including social implications, ecological impacts and economic externalities such as happiness, ecosystem degradation or health.

In a more favorable, regenerative culture any design, whether a product, a building, a community, or processes, services, and systems, will be judged on its overall impact on health, resilience, and sustainability. To foster such a shift of mindset a change in education can have a big impact. Therefore life-centered design should be included in every design school’s curriculum. Here is why:

The Idea of Life-Centered Design

We have to edge away from designing for one to designing for the community. Through this shift from the individual to the collective eventually unfolding across the social, political and organizational spectrum, we will also see an evolution in design from user-centered to human-centered and now life-centered design. This change must be fostered through an adaption in the education of designers.

For years, the application of user-centered and human-centered design advocated by the creative industry leaders has often separated us, humans, from the ecosystems we live in. As stated in the Fjord Trends 2020, designers must now consider people as part of an ecosystem rather than at its center.

Life-centered design extends the scope of inclusion beyond the end-user and considers all stakeholders involved in and affected by production, use, and end-of-life. Design education must collaborate with other disciplines, such as environmental sciences, social sciences, and economics to leverage the impact of life-centered design and to prepare designers for systemic challenges. According to Daniel Wahl author of Designing Regenerative Cultures, we can learn how to increase the overall resilience, health, and wellbeing of systems we participate in by paying attention to the underlying dynamics of its complexity. Resilience thinking and whole-systems thinking are crucial skills for transitioning into the mindset of life-centered design. So how do we design for positive emergence? One way is to support the ability of a complex dynamic system to keep adapting, learning and responding to internal and external changes. And so should the design education.

Writer John Thackara with his theory of designing for all life, not just human life, as featured in the Fjord Trends 2020, states that everything is interconnected and interdependent in one way or another. Thus, organizations will increasingly need a systems mindset for complex problem-solving. A systems mindset combines purpose with people and comes from many years of education and practice. Thanks to the multi-disciplinary, facilitatory role that design plays, designers are suited to introduce this mindset to any business. In today’s fast-changing landscape designers must change too and design schools are responsible to fundamentally support this change.

Case Study: BA Design Management International

To establish the practical relevance, let’s look at a course of study that is going in a favorable direction in terms of transition design education. The interdisciplinary bachelor course Design Management International at the Lucerne University of Applied Sciences and Arts prepares students specifically for the understanding of systemic wicked problems. The curriculum is characterized by multidisciplinary courses covering all the 4 orders of design according to Buchanan like Product Design, Service Design, Social Design or System Design. Furthermore, the studies dive into the management discipline through courses like Business Thinking, Organizational Structures and Processes, Budgeting and Finance, or Organizational Behavior.

Thanks to classes like Circular Economy the design world and the business world come together and are critically reflected in plenum discussions. The need to connect individual disciplines is articulated as follows: Societies are in a moment of rapid change due to environmental, economic and societal challenges. These put pressure on organizations needing to constantly adapt to new realities. Therefore, this bachelor course comprises:

  • Working in the interactions between people, practices, organizations, and systems;
  • Designing strategies, processes, facilitating dialogue, seeking understanding and knowledge, innovating and creating value;
  • Managing teams, interactions, collaboration, and complexity to implement change
Suggested Course of Action

To educate students in designing for all life and not just human life the mindset and the curricula of some design studies have to be adjusted. A good start is by thinking about the following points:

  • System mindset: Let students reflect upon the social and environmental implications of their work.
  • Circular mindset: Educate students in circular thinking.
  • Interdisciplinary: Connect with other disciplines by inviting guest lecturers and fostering collaborations among students from diverse fields.


“In an unstable, complex system small islands of coherence have the potential to change the whole system.” ­- Ilya Prigogine, physical chemist and Nobel laureate on dissipative structures and complex systems.


Fjord, Fjord Trends 2020 (2020)

Owens Johnathyn, 10 Principles of Life Centered Design, Medium (2019)

Thackara John, Designing for all of life, not just human life, This is HCD (2018)

Wahl Daniel, Designing Regenerative Cultures, Triarchy Press (2016)

Photo by sergio souza on Unsplash

1 Reply to “Why Life-Centered Design is Vital for all Design Schools”

  1. Overall, excellent work and a very relevant topic!

    I especially liked the fact that you wrote in a very objective way and based your arguments on trustful sources. Therefore, your blog is a nice short text which gives its readers an insight into the current world and how it will / must change in the future in order to treat our planet, including all its inhabitants, with care.

    You managed to summarize a huge topic with many hurdles and complex challenges into a short, concise and clearly understandable text which includes valuable information and food for personal thoughts.

    Furthermore, I think it was a strategically nice move to take a short case study of DMI into your blog post since this definitely leads not only DMI students feeling involved and attracted but also all other students who might are interested now not only about the topic itself but maybe also in the study program where these relevant courses are taught.

    Having already spoken about people and the world’s inhabitants, I must admit that I appreciate your clear statement, taken from Fjord, that humans should start design for a world where we are only part of the ecosystem and not the center of it! Provocative and catchy point of view which leads people to think about it – well done!

    The only thing I would suggest to improve, if I have to criticize something, would be that the first impression of your blog seemed to me “too professional”, meaning that the overall structure of the paper is so organized, that it gave me personally the impression of a professional article rather than a blog post. I personally took another approach when writing my blog, a more informal one. Nevertheless, since it is a very objectively written text, I agree that it might be necessary in your case.

    In a years’ time, all of us will start applying for jobs and I truly got some valuable thought-provoking impulses about what kind of company I would want to work for. Thank you for sharing your work, I definitely will talk to you about the topic to exchange thoughts the next time we see each other.

Comments are closed.