The human-centered design methodology encourages designers to develop an empathetic understanding of people’s needs to design relevant solutions. But what is with the needs of our planet? How can we include every organism and life in designing our world?
The range of life
Human-centered design is tackling the importance of fully engaging with the needs of people as the experiencer. However, we are currently faced with the challenge as well as the opportunity to preserve the living on this planet. This complexity needs a new approach to tackle today’s wicked problems.
The focus on one user must change. After all, the idea of a human-centered design seems egocentric and one-sided in its purpose around people. Life-centered design means contributing to all living organisms in a way that not only does no harm but actively helps to survive and thrive.
This thought is inspired by author John Thackara, according to which one does not develop for the life of an individual, but the whole life of every organism and our planet. Everything is interconnected, people are not separate from the planet we all live on, including the major climate systems. Because everything affects everything else in one way or another, which is why there needs to be a shift towards a culture where designers address people as part of the ecosystem rather than the center of everything.
The full picture in mind
Today, we live in an era in which products and systems can communicate with each other, solve problems independently and learn from collected data and its errors. Life-centered design is part of an ecosystem of things. It raises the question of how we can enable our products and services to sustain themselves and help us make better decisions.
After all, design can no longer revolve solely around the product or service to be produced. Nor can it be specifically about the user experience. Design must now evolve to include systems of scale, and we must begin to design the business models of products and services to incorporate environmental impacts and economic externalities such as ecosystem degradation.
Unfortunately, many products are made for single use only and are therefore the very opposite of life-centered design. As an example, a great fitness device that can be used for a variety of exercises could not be included in the product range of a sports shop because the equipment rarely breaks down and therefore does not need to be repaired or replaced. In this case, the retailer could sell the product only once per customer. Instead of celebrating this type of product because of its great design, which combines durability and versatility, it is rejected for reasons of profitability.
This shows that our current economic model is designed for consumption. Companies are encouraged to produce as many versions of a product as cheaply and as often as possible. It requires a change in thinking and the intention to design something that gets by with as little waste and disorder as possible.
“If only nature would find a way to cover these mandarins so we didn’t need to waste so much plastic on them.”
– Tweet by Nathalie Gordon
In grocery stores we find a similar phenomenon. Just recently a Twitter-Post went viral because a customer uploaded a picture from a famous food-supplier, showing a pre-peeled mandarin in a plastic packaging. An alarming indicator that our society has become too convenient as mandarins are already in the packaging, namely the most perfect packaging in the world – their skin.
Instead of an additive approach, life-centered design explores how it can design as good as nature to create products and services that complement the ecosystem in which we live, rather than harming the environment.
We as consumers should rethink what we buy and consume, but a large part of it is also on the shoulders of organizations. However, the will to change for the better must be there and organizations must recognize the opportunities for a business that works with the environment in mind.
On the example of LOOP™
Nine brands of the consumer goods company Unilever have introduced reusable packaging solutions. They are being tested on LOOP™, a global waste-free purchasing system launched a year ago. The system unites major brands and retailers with the idea of moving from a disposable model, where packaging is thrown away or recycled after use, to a circular model, where packaging is reused, and all product waste is either recycled or used in a new product cycle.
Tackling the sweet spot
If you are now wondering where to start developing life-centered goods, familiarize yourself with the innovation triangle, which can be ideally integrated into your strategy.
Similar to human-centered design, the innovation triangle can also be applied to life-centered design. In this context, we simply need to redefine what we mean by this. It is about how the ideal intersection of desirability, feasibility and viability changes and how organizations respond to it. Design must be extremely sensitive to trends in ecosystems and how they affect the triangle. This in mind, the following features are essential.
Desirability tests whether your innovation addresses the right customer problem and accurately represents what the customer needs.
The second part of the triangle, feasibility, assesses whether your innovation will enhance your business and build on the strengths of your current operational capabilities.
To return to the example above, Unilever is addressing the issue of feasibility with its system LOOP™ by introducing reusable, refillable packaging to help reduce waste.
Viability tests your value chain for a long-term sustainable business model. Viable means that everything is highly desirable and feasible, but also whether you can actually make money from it.
Unilever is investing in new business models around refillable products and services that are economically viable. According to their research, they have found out that 30% of consumers buy brands because of their social and environmental impact and more than 50% are more likely to buy products that are produced sustainably.
Checklist: 6 points to consider
Take note of the following points to integrate a life-centered design approach in your organization.
Redefine the desirability, feasibility and viability of your work and consider how your offer can be made regenerative through design. Use design as a central tool to focus on transformation and the purpose of innovation.
Explore new ways to create sustainable, resilient and long-lasting values. The processes of creation and disassembly of your product’s next life affects the environment and must be considered as part of the design.
The key is often simplicity. By making things durable, by keeping it minimal and without clutter, unobtrusive and pure in its intention, design can act intelligently within an existing ecosystem. Consumers should be able to use a simple return service to put as many used products as possible back into circulation. After all, if this is simple, consumer behavior can be changed permanently.
New business models must be designed to achieve the necessary changes on a large scale. Collaborate with partners to gain new insights into product development and the use and disposal of packaging.
Offer customers insights and incentives about your products. Make clear that you consider natural, political and social ecosystems as equal. Show that life-centered design is your new standard, not just a project.
Iteration is your friend when you integrate the innovation triangle into your process. Due to a constant gain in knowledge, many needs and expectations only become apparent in the course of development, whereby the product life cycle needs to be constantly optimized.
The foundation of a lived culture
Although life-centered design is seen as another trend of today, it is in fact a solution for current needs. Compared to the human-centered design approach, which has been a mantra for the entire industry, life-centered design represents a significant development.
Life-centered design helps to promote a way of thinking that considers not only the end user, but all users and parties involved in production, use and disposal. To incorporate life-centered design into your values, your organization needs to look beyond the direct or indirect effects of their design activities on us humans and work out solutions with the ulterior motive on the overall system to which we humans belong.
Through continuous improvement, by responsibly shaping not only the life of a product, but also its reorientation or disposal, we come closer to designing solutions that truly work for life and not ultimately against life. Solutions that are invaluable to people, that give businesses a competitive edge and are renewable for our world.
For this reason, update your design skills with system thinking. Collaborate with others and actively design in systems that encourage people to reduce their resource consumption. We all know the expression “less is more”, but we genuinely need less things for the sake of things and more things that benefit everyone.
Cassie Robinson. (2018). Beyond human-centred design, to?
Retrieved from: https://medium.com/@cassierobinson/beyond-human-centred-design-to-501a994f3123
Fjord. Life-centered design.
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Johnathyn Owens. (2019). 10 Principles of Life Centered Design.
Retrieved from: https://medium.com/the-sentient-files/10-principles-of-life-centered-design-3c5f543414f3
Kristan Orton. (2017). Desirability, Feasibility, Viability: The Sweet Spot for Innovation. Retrieved from: https://medium.com/innovation-sweet-spot/desirability-feasibility-viability-the-sweet-spot-for-innovation-d7946de2183c
Unilever. (2019). We’re introducing reusable, refillable packaging to help cut waste.
Retrieved from: https://www.unilever.com/news/news-and-features/Feature-article/2019/we-are-introducing-reusable-refillable-packaging-to-help-cut-waste.html
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Retrieved from: https://uxdesign.cc/the-brand-the-forgotten-child-in-design-thinking-74bc54ee4abe
Featured Image: Andrea Rico. Retrieved from: https://unsplash.com/photos/n-bUCycGItg