Human-Centred Design has served us well as an innovation strategy over the last decades, making things better for people and more profitable for business. Today there is growing and widespread concern about the impacts of all this innovation on a third ‘P’ – the Planet. To innovate for a sustainable future we must transform our model from Human-Centred to Humanity-Centred Design.

In a legendary business case study immortalised in the pages of the Harvard Business Review no less, PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooryi describes how she turned the business around in her early years. Her revival strategy looked to an unusual place; she turned to design for a more human-centred approach to innovation, as PepsiCo hired its first Chief Design Officer, recruited an in-house team and ensured human-centred design became part of every important decision. Over a four-year implementation period this added 40% to the share price and upped revenues by $9bn.

This shows what Human-Centred Design (HCD) can do to make things better for people and profit, becoming recognised as a mainstream management process and applied to fields as diverse as public services, non-profits, even Human Resources. But all is not well in HCD-land with one or two dissenting voices on the universality of Human-Centred Design and beginning to question its fitness for a fast-changed world.

For example, in parallel to HCD’s stratospheric rise a planetary crisis has unfolded, with issues like climate change, water shortages, plastic pollution, specifies loss, at the forefront of public and business attention. Faced with these mountainous challenges it seems right to ask if Human-Centred Design is in need of a redesign

I believe design innovation must transition from today’s narrowly-focussed HCD to what I call ‘Humanity-Centred Design’ to make it fit for a sustainable future. It’s a bold assertion and here are three practical shifts to make this happen:

From user to stakeholder empathy: First up, HCD puts people front and centre of innovation by single-mindedly representing the needs of buyers and users. Yet this fails to acknowledge the impacts on other stakeholders in the value chain; like citizens affected by packaging litter or fly-tipping, employees exploited by poor labour practices in a supply chain, or a community harmed by polluting operations. Such views would rarely if ever be involved classic HCD, but we need their voices heard. It’s the design equivalent of the emerging B Corporation (For Benefit) movement, a new kind of business which is legally required to consider the impact of decisions on workers, customers, suppliers, community, and the environment. Maybe we need a B Corp ‘label’ for good design.

From user journey to full lifecycle responsibility: Secondly, Human-Centred Design majors on the purchasing and usability stages of product life where every design consultant worth their salt has a ‘user journey’ model mapping stages of a product’s life: from recognition and awareness, through purchase, ease of transport, to enjoyable use and product delight. Yet this ignores other important stages of a product’s life when it is not in the hands of users; like where it comes from, or where it goes. These are often when important social and environmental impacts occur like upstream in the supply chain or downstream as waste in our oceans. We must shift from a narrow focus on the ‘experiential’ stage of a user journey, to take responsibility for the full product life. This would marry the user journey with the circular economy in a virtuous double-loop covering cradle-to-cradle.

From consumption-based insights to real needs: a third shift for Humanity-Centred Design targets consumer marketing insights, so central to HCD today. These use research methods like observation or interviews to unearth user insights that are then used to ideate. In my experience these processes often report sustainability concerns as lower order needs, further down the consumer purchasing priority list than convenience, usability, etc. This usually means sustainability needs get de-prioritised or dropped. However, feeling part of a community, finding time for hobbies, volunteering or to enjoy nature – all non-monetary or non-consumption based activities – are just not captured well with insight-based HCD methods. Sustainability commentator Soli Townsend puts this well, ‘Selling sustainability is not like selling soap, it’s more like getting people to use soap in the first place’. The methodological cards are stacked against sustainability and we need design processes able to unearth these wider human needs for well-being, happiness, thriving and flourishing.

The exact shape of Humanity-Centred design is yet to crystallise, but you can see weak signals of it today. Donut Economics provides the structural underpinning of this revolution with one of its seven principles is to be ‘regenerative by design’. The concept of Circular Design popularised by IDEO and now embraced even by Nike is driven by the Circular Economy’s first principle ‘to ‘design-out’ waste and pollution’ rather than simply managing it’. Those theories are put into practice in projects and campaigns like What Design Can Do and The Great Recovery Project. Elements of Humanity-Centred Design also exist in the work of the 1,000s of social innovators tackling today’s social and environmental market failures, seen through the INDEX awards and as advanced by organisations like NESTA. The deepest-green version of this may be found in Transition Design takes ecological and citizen design principles to a whole new level by conceiving entirely new lifestyles and infrastructures for life on a finite planet. The common thread in this is that Humanity-Centred Design prioritises the real needs of all people now and in the future on a finite and flourishing planet

Throughout history, design reflected and served the priorities of the time: early-21st century modernism, the post-war economic boom, the space race, 90’s bling, the dot com boom. In the 2oth Century Human-Centred Design served us well. But today humanity stands at a climate and ecological crossroads forcing us to rethink and reinvent every aspect of society and economy. Making stuff better for people and profit – what HCD has done so well for so long – no longer cuts it. The future of design is humanity-centred.

About the author

Chris Sherwin is the Director at Reboot Innovation, a creative consultancy on a mission to change what and how we innovate – for a better world. We fuse world-changing innovation, marketing and design with cutting-edge sustainability and ethical business. We are the sustainable innovation partner to brands and innovators who want to practically design a green, fair and prosperous world.



Featured image via Pexels.