Design thinking that challenges perceptions, broadens inclusion and fosters co-creation

A concrete staircase curving  around a tree reaching to the sky.
Photo by Alexander Abero on Unsplash

By now, no one needs to quote facts or expert verbatim to argue that great changes are happening to both human and earth systems. And how we talk about those systems as though they are separate betrays the reason for these breakdowns — large parts of humanity have, for hundreds of years, considered themselves separate from, and unaccountable to, the planet they rely on.

While we hyper-cerebral primates deluded with narcissism have also done and continue to do many things of great empathy, resilience, and love, we are losing those of us with the wisdom to maintain our connection to nature.

But while the potential for many futures remains, there remains one future where we all survive and thrive.

Below are six design practices that could help us reach that future. Some of these practices have been practised for decades but are still ‘emerging’ into mainstream design, while others are new and just finding their legs—but all eschew commercial and modernizing goals in favour of more collaborative, inclusive, holistic and sustainable approaches.

Hallelujah!

As a means of helping to convey the purpose of each practice, I’ve grouped them as follows, with a simplified one-liner explanation:

1.Designing to challenge perceptions

  • Critical design (Challenging norms through product design)
  • Speculative design and design fiction (Challenging what we think is possible for the future via technology and science)

2.Designing products as parts of ecosystems

  • Life/planet/environment-centred design (Broadening design considerations to include a design’s impact on all life-forms and systems)
  • Circular design (Reducing product waste by making it the material for new products)

3.Design as a driver of transitioning humanity

  • Transitional design (Co-creating with location-specific knowledge, considerations, and inhabitants to shift design toward more sustainable futures)
  • Pluriversal design (Broadening the Eurocentric perspective of design to include the true diversity of the planet)

1. Designing to challenge perceptions

These practices use design beyond problem-solving to critique and provoke new ways of thinking about culture, objects, technology, design, and humanity’s relationship with each other.

Critical design

Challenging norms through product design

Critical design uses product design to challenge the design process conventions and to generate public debate about capitalist culture. It has over time also been adopted by educational courses as a term more about speculative design [1].

While the term was coined by Anthony Dunne in his book Hertzian Tales (1999) and popularised by his and Fiona Raby’s firm Dunne & Raby, the origins of critical design can be found in the Bel Design era (1956–1970) when product designers experimented with their practice outside of monetary gain [2].

Example

Joe and Adam Thorpe created the Vexed Parka in 1995 as a means of exploring increasing CCTV surveillance, civil liberties, and protesting. To create this satirical combination of the practical and political concerns of London’s 1990’s urban youth, the Thorpes researched strategies used to detain protestors to design features into the parka that concealed identity and protected the wearer from strikes and arrest.

A black parka of military grade padded nylon with a high collar and zippable hood mask.
Vexed Generation Parka, image credit to brownsfashion.com

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Speculative design and design fiction

Challenging what we think is possible for the future via technology and science

Evolving out of critical design, speculative design focuses on exploring the possibilities of science and emerging technologies by identifying ‘signals’ of potential change. Speculative design is the process, while design fictions are the future scenarios and artefacts produced by the process. These artefacts are used to widen our idea of what is possible for the future.

Speculative Design took form in the early 1990s as a response by designers to the 1980’s embrace of capitalism when they began to question their role in consumerism’s impact on the planet.

Using a signal as a starting point, speculative designers use science fiction and world-building techniques to develop future scenarios and artefacts, which are then prototyped for further understanding and discussion of these futures.

The process can proceed in two ways from there.

For a project aiming to provoke a response from the public or other wider audiences beyond the design/project team, the prototypes are shared in the form of an exhibition, installation, digital prototype, or by other interactive means, to generate discussion and feedback.

For a project assisting a cause or business to plan for the future, the preferred future scenario is optimised before back-casting is done — identifying steps that need to happen for the preferred future to become a reality. A strategy can then be created to move a business or a cause’s current situation toward the preferred future.

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2. Considering products as part of ecosystems

As designers and product creators, we are releasing into the world things that impact multiple ecosystems spanning the time and distance of the product’s entire lifecycle, from the sourcing of its various materials to the manufacturing, repair, life of use, and final breakdown.

Life-centred design

Broadening design considerations to include a design’s impact on all life-forms and systems

Life-centred design (also known as ‘environment-centred design’ and ‘planet-centred design’) expands our human-centred creation to include consideration of sustainable economic, environmental, and social solutions.

Using such tools as non-human personas and indirect consequence mapping, life-centred design considers:

  • The true life-cycle of a product
  • Indirect and secondary/tertiary consequences
  • The environment and other life-forms
  • Climate-change specific factors (highlighting the most fragile)
  • ‘Invisible’ humans (those indirectly impacted by the product)
  • Diversity and inclusivity

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Circular design

Reducing product waste by making it the material for new products

Barely a few years in maturity, circular design aims to promote wider sustainability by reusing or recycling materials used in production, mimicking nature’s flow of materials as one species waste becomes another species food.

“The circular design shifts the sustainable design principles from focusing on the product to a more holistic approach to focus on the overall business model.” — Designorate

Methods include smart material selection, embedded feedback mechanisms, understanding circular flows, regenerative thinking, and more.

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3. Design as a driver of transitioning humanity

Transition design

Co-creating with location-specific knowledge, considerations, and inhabitants to shift design toward more sustainable futures

Transition design takes an uber-holistic approach by proposing design and society-led transition towards more sustainable futures through tackling interconnected problems such as economic inequality, community decline, resource depletion, pollution, biodiversity loss and climate change.

Solutions are place-specific and include both expert and local knowledge and participation.

“Like a good gardener, the transition designer has an intimate understanding of and feeling for a particular place and its ecosystem, of the relationships between its different parts, of what its particular needs are, of what will and will not flourish, and of how it might grow and develop over long periods of time.” — Transition Design
Transition Design Framework consists of Vision for Transition, Theories of change, Posture & Mindset, New Ways of Designing
Transition Design Framework

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Pluriversal design

Broadening the Eurocentric perspective of design to include the diversity of the planet

With a focus on diversity, pluriversal design tackles the problem of traditional views of good and desirable innovation being centred in Eurocentric perspectives and values.

Pluriversal design doesn’t however aim to change this centre but to multiply it into many co-existing centres to include those often excluded from main design narratives.

The PIVOT 2020 conference gave voice to the stories, cultures, and challenges from many countries to build support and network collaborators and practitioners as this practice grows.

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“Design education for this century”

Wouldn’t it be great if these practices were part of all design curriculums?

Fortunately, vision-driven design researcher Masaki Iwabuchi has been developing a design training curriculum that includes the above practices and more.

I hope this broadens your spectrum of design potentials and hopeful possibilities for the future!

Damien Lutz is a UX Designer/Researcher, speculative designer, and sci-fi author. If values-driven design resonates with you, follow Damien or feel free to explore his website for more tools and projects.

References

  1. Critical Design in Context, P5; Malpass, Matt; 217
  2. Critical Design in Context, P19; Malpass, Matt; 217
The UX Collective donates US$1 for each article published on our platform. This story contributed to Bay Area Black Designers: a professional development community for Black people who are digital designers and researchers in the San Francisco Bay Area. By joining together in community, members share inspiration, connection, peer mentorship, professional development, resources, feedback, support, and resilience. Silence against systemic racism is not an option. Build the design community you believe in.

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