What if design began to put everything but the human first? The needs of the human not paramount to the design process, but instead the other entities that we cohabit planet earth with. How may this influence the choices we make, what projects worth investing, which species worth protecting and ultimately the motivation to create. What possibilities may arise when considering whale, algae or forrest centered design?
This method of Non-Human Centered Design was initiated by Kelvin Godee and Simon Wijrdeman as a school of thought that changes the perspective of the designer. They encourage to ask questions that will undeniably give a different outcome than traditional design methods. By changing our design perspective to a non-human animal, plant or entity, we learn to research into someone or something else's needs. An empathetic process of design that moves past the hierarchy of the human.
Taught at HKU Design Utrecht, KISD Design Cologne, Sustanaible Design School Nice, Non-Human Centered Design ecourages students to behave as journalists, engineers, biologists and designers all in one. We caught up with them to discuss multi-species perspectives, the big ecosystem and the future on non-human centered design.
What is Non-Human Centered Design and who is it for?
At the moment NHCD is on it’s way to become a new design method. We (Kelvin Godee and Simon Wijrdeman) are teaching it as a course at 3 design institutes in Europe, HKU in Utrecht, Sustainable design school in Nice and KISD Cologne. Here we educate the designers of the future about a more holistic approach towards design. We do this by asking them to design something for plants or animals. Humans can be incorporated in the design but they are not allowed to be the main beneficiary.
What can we learn from a multi-species perspective?
Before we were the dominant species on this planet, fences were built to keep out the wilderness. Now fences are built to keep wildlife in special wildlife areas. The tides have turned and we are shaping not only our own world but also the ways a lot of other species are experiencing ‘their own’ world. If our designs are impacting those lifes why not adjust it to their needs? If we want to design our way out of the trouble, we and the generations after us have to design a new world. So to answer your question, what is there to learn for us? By taking a new perspective we are making the first step in designing environments that can be habitable for humans, animals and plants or finding out how we can successfully solve the problem of birds flying into windmills or rivers being polluted and uninhabited by wildlife for example. It is a needed step to solve a lot of problems that are caused by our distance to the natural world created by our industrialism.
Can you explain how an interdisciplinary approach informs the research process?
In a normal design process there is an interaction between designer and client. This is not possible with the NHCD design process because it cannot be based solely on your own human needs or experiences. The students need information about their ‘client’. For this we always ask them to contact several specialists from the field to inform them about every aspect of the life of their client. Therefore the quality of the designs are often high because there is an interdisciplinary team making sure the information incorporated in the ideas are based on facts. At the same time the students get an understanding of how important it is to collaborate with people from other fields of experience to solve a problem.
You design for nature, reinstating the position that we are part of nature rather than separate, what does this do for our understanding of the world and our relationship to it?
That we stop thinking that we are above animals and nature. We, as humans, are part of the big ecosystem, and are standing next to a whale or a flower in a non existing hierarchy. The position of the animal in relation to man has been written about for centuries. As an example, the philosopher René Descartes wrote in the 16th century that animals are equal to humans, but without a soul. He saw animals as machines. Of course, our view of nature has changed in the last decades. We hope that our method and the projects of the students can contribute to this change. Besides admiring the nature and animals around us more, there is so much to learn from the processes in nature that can be used for our lives.
Assuming our reader would not like to live in a world where there are only a few non-humans, a lot of humans and maybe some jellyfish in the sea I would suggest we change our perspective as soon as possible.
Let’s look at Apple for this. (I am a designer so I have to work in these cliche examples, sorry). We were designing computers already before Apple, and there was nothing special about it. Then there was a moment where we realised that designing something that was very handy in calculating things was not the only or the best way to design a computer. To design a great computer we had to incorporate the user of the computer. By acknowledging the users preferences, handicaps, interests and most importantly its existence we were able to design a computer that was way better then it predecessors because it incorporated it’s preferences. What I am trying to emphasise is that solely by acknowledging the literal elephant in the room can we design a world that is liveable for more than one species. I therefore don't think the question should be why are we designing for non-humans but If we want to solve some of the pressing questions of our time why haven't we incorporated all the users of the environments we want to assist.
Why is this type of design important and why now?
At this point in time biodiversity loss is dramatically increasing, forests are being burned down and we live in a world where money is the main argument for everything. Not our moral judgement. We believe that we cannot survive like this much longer and we have to change our ways from the inside out. NHCD can do this by incorporating innovation in environmentalism and animal protection.
How does designing for other species inform the process when designing for humans?
With this project we teach students to design something for an animal or a plant. This has the benefit that they actually solve a problem an animal or plant has in the world at the moment, but it also helps the students to accurately empathise with their client. For the students not to anthropomorphise is one of the biggest challenges they face. We want them to accurately base their information on interviews and research. It is easier to first learn this when designing something for another species and then to use the same tools if you want to design something for elderly for instance.
What other industries do you feel could benefit from the non-human centered design approach?
NGO’s, Architecture, food industry, consultancy, service industry, zoo’s, urban planing, governments and a lot more.
You design where markets and laws fail, perhaps non-human design should be looked at as a resource that provides design solutions. Do you see non-human design as a mediator?
At the moment we live in a big tennis court where the ball represents all our politicians who are played endlessly back and forth by on the one hand commercial companies that are trying to keep up with demand and on the other hand environmental organisations that try to limit the impact we have on our environment. I would suggest a bridge between these two worlds. At the moment a lot of companies of course already try to limit their impact but it is the wrong way around. Most of the objects they produce are designed with a narrow point of view and impact their environment quite badly. Then management plants some trees and the world is happy again. What we would like to suggest is that we design differently. To do this we need the designers of tomorrow to design in a more holistic way so the management of the future doesn't have to use greenwashing to hide their faults.
After studying product design at the HKU, you were bothered by the fact that everyone utilizes technology and creativity solely for the use of human beings. Yet, our entire (western) understanding of the world is through the lens of the human. How does the project reflect upon that?
The status quo has never resisted change. I don't think it will now. We have seen that this human centred world is not sustainable for an entire planet full of species. Let's incorporate them in the design.
How do you envision the future of design evolving with other species?
Our vision is that in the future designing in an inclusive manner. That if people are the main users of a design that a vision is developed about the impact on nature and animals as well. And even how the design might contribute to its survival. If we look at our design method, it is hoped that more design institutes will include the method in their curriculum. And that ultimately a collaboration will arise between students, NGO’s and Non-Human Centered Design.