Human centered design

I was having a perfectly delightful conversation with a Northwestern undergraduate manufacturing and design engineer about the faculty in the Segal Design Institute when he dropped a sentence: “So when I was taking Human-Centered Design with him last year — ”

“Excuse me – what?!”


“Human-centered design?” I said. “As opposed to what other kind of design?

Since my only exposure to design as a profession had been through the Segal Design Institute, it baffled me that design could be about anything other than humans.

It turns out, according to this junior in MADE, that Segal is unusual in its heavy focus on human-centered design; there are other design philosophies, he explained, such as manufacturing-centered design – which focuses on designing for the manufacturing process as opposed to the end user’s experience.

“But what,” I ranted, “is the point of design if it doesn’t make people happy?”

This used to be an image of the McCormick School of Engineering’s new branding. Now it’s Segal’s own branding.

Design is a new concept for me, but the philosophies and basis underlying design thinking are much more familiar. Some of today’s design innovation finds its roots in industrial engineering, which my father teaches at another university; other parts of design innovation, such as “understanding human behavior,” falls out of a combination of my journalism studies and my mother’s teachings on how to be a decent human being.

So I don’t know how to feel about the concept of designing for anything other than humans. With few exceptions, nothing we create as a species is intended for anyone – or anything – other than ourselves. Our failure to contain the environmental crisis known as climate change is a testament to our self-centered focus.

(One notable exception is the Voyager Golden Records, specifically intended for an audience other than humans; and we spent forever designing those records to inform another intelligent life form, without knowing what communication media were even available.)

And so the technologies and processes we use to make today’s products and services are supposed to serve people, not the other way around.

The processes we design and build with new technologies have always been about people. We may have shifted the predominant written media from parchment to paper to typewriters to computers to the Internet, but fundamentally we have been serving other people with our writing (by informing them) as opposed to the technologies that enable our communication.

I feel that designing for anything other than humans leads to a failure of design. When you don’t design for the human experience, then you may as well have not bothered to design at all.