Can Human-Centered Design Save the Planet?

Activism isn’t enough to save the planet. We need more than activism to create long-term, impactful environmental change. Can design pickup where activism leaves off? To understand if human-centered design has a role to play in solving our environmental crisis, I will look at the nuances between design and activism, how design manipulates people, and role of responsibility in good design practice. Ultimately questioning if design that is inherently human-centered can solve environmental issues, where humans might not be at the center.


Design and Activism

Designers and activists have much in common. They can both create change, work to solve complex problems, engage communities, and have an impact. In his article, “Are Designers Becoming the New Activists?”, Richard Anderson discusses competing views of designers relationship with activists. Some designers, like Jazmyn Latimer and Sarah Fathallah argue that designers are not activists. They believe that “activists have committed to a solution to a problem and engage in a variety of activities to see that that solution is implemented. [Whereas] designers, on the other hand, (are supposed) to approach a problem with no solution in mind.” While the approach of a designer and of an activist may be different, the intent of change is similar.

While Ann Thorpe argues that “‘good’ design does typically work to bring about change, in its dominant forms, good design (usable, profitable, beautiful, meaningful) doesn’t usually constitute activism on behalf of excluded or neglected groups. Rather, it constitutes general improvements to daily life that are most often gained through private consumption.” So, the majority of design is small changes to daily life, not work at the margins of society. However, Thorpe continues to illustrate several examples of design as activism. She also helps define “design activism” and maps out four criteria to define as such. Design as activism “publicly reveals or frames a problem or challenging issues, makes a contentious claim for change based on the problem, works on behalf of neglected, excluded or disadvantaged groups, and disrupts routine practices, or systems of authority, which gives it the characteristic of being unconventional or unorthodox–outside the traditional channels of change.” Clearly, not all design work falls into this and thus not all design can be considered forms of activism, but some design can be and some design should be.

In fact, in his article “Radicalizing Innovation,” Pierce Gordon argues that activists can be considered designers. However, in many ways, designers have more power than activists. We are given a seat at the table and should use this opportunity to enable change in other ways. As Gordon puts it, we should be engaging activists in our work as they often have knowledge and expertise we need. He states, “In many instances, the true innovation happens at the margins of society. Many of these [innovations come from] activists, and we should work to learn from their lessons if we want to build on their successes.”

Reflecting on his own organization, Greater Good, in his article “It’s Time to Define What ‘Good’ Means in our Industry”, George Aye realizes that looking at work from other related “disciplines that are equally attuned to human behavior” helps them “create tangible, longstanding change for people who have been historically and systemically marginalized.” Aye states that good design learns from anthropology, social work, and community organizing. Design can learn from activism. Design should learn from activism.

We can argue all day about the semantics of whether activism is part of design or design is a type of activism, but it doesn’t matter. Both activists and designers desire change and we need each other to get there.

So, can human-centered design save the planet? Environmental activism is playing its part to bring about change for the environment, but is design doing enough?


Manipulation by Design

Design has the power to be doing much more in the way of environmental change. Design is manipulative. Can we use this to the environment’s advantage? Is there a way to appropriately manipulate people and society in doing better by the environment?

Let’s first talk about manipulation because that word is quite triggering. People don’t like to feel manipulated or controlled. They want to feel their own free will is the reigning control over everything in their life, but this isn’t true. As Jon Kolko puts it in his article aptly titled “Manipulation,” “most design is manipulative…Interaction design is largely about removing cognitive friction or producing a happy path — in order to manipulate someone into realizing a goal. That manipulation is typically called ‘helping,’ and it is often, actually, helpful.”

So, manipulation can be helpful, but it can also be deceitful and can play off negative emotions. In his article, “Using Attachment Anxiety in Emotional Design & Marketing,” Brian Cugelman discusses the use of negative emotions used against the user and for the benefit of the organization. Cugelman states, “Negative emotions are often used in interactive design through loss aversion tactics, as way of getting people to take on action and avoid the bad situation that would result from inaction. [They are] also used to create emotional barriers, to stop users from doing something you don’t want them to do, such as trying to stop your customers from leaving your company out of fear of your competitors, rather than because of love for your brand.” Negative emotions can be used to manipulate and deceive and they can bolster distrust and suspicion of an organization.

Fig 1. Illustration of Facebook manipulations of mood.
Fig 1. Illustration of Facebook manipulations of user’s mood.


How can we manipulate and still, as Cugelman puts it, “build long-term trusting relationships, based on authenticity, and respect?” We need to use positive emotions, be more transparent and not deceive our customers. And, while it’s difficult to fathom in the fast-paced start-up culture, we need to slow down and create lasting relationships with our customers and consider the repercussions of our actions both with individuals and with society.


Responsibility in Design

Design has impact. Sometimes we know our designs will have a huge impact and other times we make small changes that don’t seem to have much impact at all. But the reality is that design makes changes and we need to understand what those might be and what they may affect.

In her piece “The World that UX is Helping Create”, Lis Hubert illustrates the world of the “digital zombie” where everyone is glued to their phones. She reflects on herself and her role in creating this society. She states, “I’d not ever seriously considered my own UX work having a negative impact on my fellow human end users. After all, I was in the meeting rooms each day, fighting the good fight, ensuring that the products and services my teams were creating supported users as best they could. How could my work result in this digital zombie world?” All those days of keeping the user in mind and yet unintended consequences arose. Consequences that go beyond keeping the user happy and engaged to a society of people more attached to their phones than their families.

As designers, we need to be able to zoom in and out of interactions. We may become focused on the one end goal for a user, but zooming out to see how that fits into their life, how it may change other interactions beyond their use of your product is essential. You cannot ignore the ripples of change. Those ripples may amplify in society.

But the ripples of change aren’t always a bad thing. We can create products and services where the change may be small for an individual but may have large positive effects on the world. Let’s take the example of the Halibut Hook brought up by Margaret Gould Stewart in her article “Able, Allowed, Should; Navigating Modern Tech Ethics.” This fish hook created a small change for individuals, the ability to catch halibut of a specific size that would fit in their canoe. However, this hook was not conducive for catching small halibut, leaving that population to grow and mature, thus maintaining a balanced ecosystem. This small invention had an affect on entire community of people and an entire ecosystem. Stewart maps out “The Four Quadrants of Design Responsibility,” as seen below. From pixels to ecosystems and individuals to humanity, we need to be thinking about where our designs fall and what they affect. As Stewart puts it, “We need to excel at that bottom left quadrant to be sure, but we need to also get even more skilled at anticipating systems effects, protecting the health and well-being of our community, and understanding the impact on society when a much larger and more diverse population is using our products.”

Fig 2. Stewart's Four Quadrants of Design Responsibility with the Halibut Hook hitting all quadrants.
Fig 2. Stewart’s Four Quadrants of Design Responsibility with the Halibut Hook hitting all quadrants.

For the environment, we need to try to predict ways we can implement change in the pixel and individual quadrant that may affect the ecosystem and humanity quadrant in a positive ecological way. We not only need to look at how our designs can affect the environment if we implement them, we need to look at the environmental issues and implement designs to make positive change.

Humans are myopic. We’re not very good at foresight. We are bad at predicting the future beyond our own lifespan and we’re bad at predicting the future right in front of us, but we need to try.


It’s a Human-centered World, the Rest of the World’s Just (Trying) to Live in It

Not only are we bad at predicting the future, we’re also extremely self-centered. Human-centered design is by definition human-centered. Our whole culture is anthropocentric.

Fig 3. Humans are anthropocentric, believing ourselves to be at the center of the universe. This visual shows the egocentric (or anthropocentric view) and then an ecocentric perspective, where humans are not the center, but a piece of the whole.
Fig 3. Humans are anthropocentric, believing ourselves to be at the center of the universe. This visual shows the egocentric (or anthropocentric view) and then an ecocentric perspective, where humans are not the center, but a piece of the whole.


Can anything anthropocentric actually save the planet? Think about it. To solve environmental issues do we need to put humans at the center? Can we not keep the rest of the world beyond humans at the center for once?

I’m not sure we can. I’m not sure humans are capable of enacting change where they are not at the center of it. We are incredibly reliant on our anthropocentric ways. If we’re not at the center of it, we don’t really care. Or maybe we say we care because polar bear cubs are cute, but we don’t make change. If environmental problems aren’t affecting humans, they won’t be fixed. The reality is that (ironically) we need human-centered design to fix our environmental issues. The problems the environment faces are caused by humans and will ultimately affect humans one way or another.

Environmentalism in the modern age has to grow beyond activists. It has to be more than rallies and marches. We need more than “green” buildings and recyclable Nespresso pods (that end up in the landfill anyway). We need more than trendy succulents and selfies on mountains, we need cultural and cross-cultural systemic changes.

Design can be a part of this. Design should be a part of this. Human-centered design has the power to create impactful environmental change. Because design has power. Let’s use it to save the planet.