What lies beyond human-centred design?

Conversations around life-centred design is emerging.

Should designers only design for the good of humanity? Donn shares how creating small ripples for good is better than trying to effect big changes, and how life-centred design could be a more compassionate alternative to human-centred design.


  • The desire to always design for good depends on the designer’s values and the inability to see the potential good that a project can bring
  • A seemingly banal design task may have cascading effects of good beyond our immediate comprehension, so there isn’t always a need to over-question your work
  • We also can’t be over-prescriptive of the value that design should bring, because different designers will have their own beliefs and value systems to guide why they do the work they do
  • There’s an emerging conversation surrounding what goes beyond human-centred design—life-centred design
  • “So that we don’t just design to help people sell things, or help people feel a certain kind of satisfaction from buying and using things, but we consider the totality of it.”
  • On feeling the pressure of always designing for good, Donn finds a happy ground of making the best with whatever projects that falls into the team’s hands, instead of focusing only on the hefty responsibility of making a global impact

Full Transcript

Maybe it’s about time in the design industry, that we start to think about things beyond human-centred.

Do you think that designers or design has the responsibility to always be towards a good cause? And, you know, is that ever too pressurising as a designer to be like, okay, everything I put out in the world has to be for something good?

I think it depends on the designer’s value, right, values actually. Now, that and also the ability to see. By the ability to see, I mean, the inability to see. Because sometimes, things that don’t seem to be necessarily immediately good for anyone—like okay, design a shampoo bottle to be a bit nicer, so that it sells better—am I dealing with here, trying to heighten consumerism, or making people buy things unnecessarily? I think it’s not always so straightforward, meaning that sometimes for example, you do not know that the formulation is quite good, for example, or some scientist is slogging his life way to make their shampoo a little better, right. And that company is just not good at selling their things when they are actually, you know, doing this work. So some chemist somewhere is doing decent, respectable work in doing these things. And your work, which may seem a little mundane, is helping to enable the livelihoods of these people.

So the cascading effects is sometimes beyond our immediate comprehension. And I would say, when it’s kind of like, seems mundane or normal, I don’t think you have to over-question your work, to say it’s meaningless.

But of course, this is a tricky path to walk, because you also don’t want to lie to yourself, you know, when you say, I always make things that make people buy things. Then if there’s some kind of deceit in there, I think you will either feel very uncomfortable after some time, or you will get so used to it to lie to yourself that—I don’t know what will happen, actually. But yeah, it doesn’t sound like a path that we want to go down.

I’m just saying—actually what was I saying ah? I was saying the effect of not being able to see right, there was another point right—oh, the values. So I would say the values are—we can’t be prescriptive of the values for everyone. Even in our own team, there’ll be different people with different beliefs and different value systems.

Now, I do want to say that maybe it’s about time in the design industry, that we start to think about things beyond human-centred. I think this conversation is emerging.

And it’s funny, because this year, I just had a thesis student propose to me say, let’s do divine-centred design. And I was like, what is divine-centred design? But the questions asked there was very interesting, in the sense that like, maybe there’s more to life than human beings and satisfying every user’s demand. Different experts are starting to question this also. And they are asking the question of like, what is an animal-centred design? What is monkey-centred design?

You know, is it always just human-centred? But a broader term that I think is emerging in the industry, and I quite agree with, is life-centred design. So that we don’t just design to help people sell things, or help people feel a certain kind of satisfaction from buying and using things, but we consider the totality of it. Yeah, I think human-centred design has—it’s time to kind of revisit this term and reconsider.

Maybe personally, as a designer, do you feel the weight on your shoulders, in gunning for, designing for this life-centred design? Does it ever, you know, feel too stressful?

No, it feels just nice. Why I say this is this, because, for me, I cannot feel like I’m carrying the weight of the world. I am not able to. But yet on an individual basis, and as a team, it’s possible to do something.

So within these two polar extremes, for us, I think we have a bit of a happy ground where we say, let’s do what comes into, falls into, our hands. And within that, the thing that is in our hands that we have a way to make an impact, let’s try as best to impact it.

Of course, we don’t do it like in a bullish way. We do it as far as possible gently. A lot of things need to align. The client has the feel a certain willingness also to orientate towards a certain way. So you can’t bash your way through. But at the same time, there is always this underlying compass.

So yeah, and because I think we fundamentally concede that our ability is finite, right. So we don’t feel like there’s this whole weight of the world to carry. In the first place, that will probably be a little bit egoistic, to feel that you can effect that level of change. So we just do what is in our lot.

Desiree Lim, Kevin Yeo, Matthew Wong


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