Planet Centric Design — Design for humans as part of an ecosystem.

We’ve probably all felt it or heard it: there’s been a shift towards purpose and sustainable wellbeing.

Customer values and beliefs are changing — they are hungry for guilt-free solutions that don’t have a negative impact on the planet. Employees are on a quest to do impactful work, for organisations with purpose. This is putting pressure on brands and organisations to employ more sustainable business approaches to facilitate the quest for purpose and ethical consumerism. And then there’s the changing legislation and governance, albeit slow, to ensure a more sustainable society. Such as the legislation banning single-use plastic in the Netherlands, and the EU’s nationally determined contribution (NDC) under the Paris Agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 40% by 2030 compared to 1990.

I reflect on my own behaviour as a consumer. In the past 5 years it’s shifted from a general awareness to actually voting with my wallet and changing my habits. More and more people close to me are assessing their current employment, wondering if they can do ‘better’ (and I realise this a privileged position to be in, especially during the pandemic of 2020).

As designers, we take pride in using our craft to solve problems — to make people’s lives better. And that’s where I’ve also seen a change; in what it means to ‘improve the lives of people’. Where it used to be about freeing up people’s time (e.g. taking things off the thinking list) and delight (e.g. a beautiful animated onboarding experience of a banking app), it now seems to have obtained a ‘deeper’ meaning. A better life now also means a more sustainable way of living.

For the products and services they help to create and bring to markets, designers are increasingly considering their responsibility for the impact on the state of the planet.

In history, one of the roles that designers played, was in the democratisation of design — making desirable products available to the man in the street. It’s what you might refer to as product-based wellbeing. Designing effective, accessible and beautiful products to increase individual freedom and stimulate consumerism. Designers applied the user-centred and human-centred design practises, where people are put at the centre of everything.

We have since learned that resourced are scarce. Some products or services that are deemed valuable when you consider their impact on a person or interaction, may actually turn out to have a significant negative impact on the planet. To stop the monumental scale of (environmental) havoc caused by human actions, one of the things we can do as designers is shift from product-based wellbeing to sustainable wellbeing. Sustainable wellbeing might refer to a state of being where we enable people to live as they like AND in a sustainable way, by enhancing social innovation, steering towards more sustainable ways of living. One way to achieve this may be by addressing people as part of an ecosystem rather than at the centre of everything, separated from ecosystems.

Design is not neutral. In fact, design is an inherently ethical activity. It is estimated that over 80% of all product-related environmental impacts are determined during the design phase of a product. Of course, designers are not the only ones involved in the design phase of a product, but when we are, we have a responsibility for what we put out there in the world. Now more than ever, we play an important role in building a better future.

To guard against the unintended consequences of products and services, as designers we must help organisations think harder about the implications of their business decisions and their impact on society and the planet. We must help organisations see their employees and customers as part of an ecosystem rather than at the centre of everything. Instead of just designing for personal values, we should aim to design for the collective, with the planet value at the centre of all innovations.

At Idean we design in a ‘planet centric’ way by expanding our Human Centred Design practice to not only include the perspective of user needs, but also humanity and planet needs. We intend to consider the needs of humans AND the planet at every design decision. Whether it’s when pitching an idea, facilitating a workshop, or designing an interaction. That way, unintended consequences of our designs become carefully considered effects of the product or service on the planet and society. The good thing is, there are a lot of disciplines we can take inspiration from, such as sustainability design, ethical design, regenerative design, circular design, inclusive design, futures design, etc. There’s a lot of excellent existing methods, approaches and toolkits already out there, such as The Circular Design Guide, The Fieldguide to Power Literacy, Cards for Humanity, or the Systemic Design Toolkit.

Are you ready take on the responsibility as a designer, adopt a new ‘ethos’ and take a more ethical approach to what you design? Let’s not design things people don’t need. AND let’s not design things that have a negative impact on the world. Design for people as part of an ecosystem.

Design for the planet.

More about Planet Centric Design from Idean:

· Moving away from product focused wellbeing by Idun Aune

· Sustainability by design: better for the world and resilient to system shocks by Linda Essen-Möller

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Eva Muller

Eva Muller

Designing for social and environmental impact.