It was sixty years ago that pioneering industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss first introduced us to Joe and Josephine in his seminal book Designing For People. Every industrial designer has encountered this couple in the anthropometric charts and diagrams Dreyfuss created; they appear in side view, front view and top view, marked with lines, arcs, arrows and numbers, quietly promoting design for the human body. With the 1955 publication of Designing for People, Dreyfuss clearly paved the way for the discipline of human factors and ergonomics. He reminded us that the objects we design are “ridden in, sat upon, looked at, talked into, activated, operated, or in some way used by people individually or en masse,” and taking into account their physiological and psychological needs should be central to the design process.. Since then, we as industrial designers have taken our task of designing for people rather seriously, and this has given rise to approaches called user-centered design, human-centered design, participatory design, and empathic design. This is design of the people, by the people, for the people.
But I wonder if this anthropocentrism in design has encouraged a myopic and self-centered conception of our goals as designers. Clearly, the things we design with such diligent research and utmost care for people do not impact only people. The consequences of design activity (human-centered or otherwise) reach far beyond humans. We are, after all, one of several million species who live on this planet. Why then, should our design be so anthropocentric? Can we not design products and services keeping in mind not only people, but also other species and entire ecosystems? Can we not envision the potential impacts of all that we design not only on people, but on all inhabitants of our biosphere? Is it time to re-examine our anthropocentrism in design?
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Perhaps we need a new paradigm that distinctly recognizes and explicitly extends design’s locus of action to move beyond anthropocentrism and towards biocentrism. This, in no way suggests that we reject human-centered design; instead, it recommends that we re-imagine our goals and adopt new methods that acknowledge the other millions of species who are our neighbors. Interestingly, it is not quite clear how many species cohabit this planet with us. While reports of the total number vary widely and wildly, according to a recent issue of Science, “the number of species on Earth today is 5 ± 3 million, of which 1.5 million are named." Modern day humans are but one subspecies called Homo sapiens sapiens, with Homo sapiens being the only surviving species of the genus Homo. And while we might be the apex predators seemingly ruling land, water and air, biologists are quick to point out how hopeless things would be should insects, microorganisms and other creatures cease to exist. Louis Pasteur famously said, “life would not long remain possible in the absence of microbes.” This notion has since been refuted by biologists who contend that we might still survive, but with a significantly degraded quality of life. As we start learning more about the other species we share this planet with, it is not unusual to encounter startling facts. For instance, according to biologists Bert Hölldobler and Edward O. Wilson, "all ants in the world taken together weigh about as much as all human beings." Surely this must give us pause.
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If we refresh the paradigm of anthropocentric thinking and human-centered design to biocentric thinking and life-centered design, our solutions might start exhibiting a sense of care that extends beyond people. Of course, sustainable design, green design, ecodesign, and other similar practices do address issues of the environment. However, what I am suggesting here is an essential expansion and unambiguous reframing of whom we identify as the target user. Can our target user include all living beings?
In addition to acting in neighborly ways towards other species by including them in our design goals, we can also learn from them. And this is where we can turn to biomimicry, an emerging field of study described by Janine Benyus as “innovation inspired by nature.” In her groundbreaking book published in 1997, Benyus explains the new paradigm that biomimicry represents. “Unlike the Industrial Revolution, the Biomimicry Revolution introduces an era based not on what we can extract from nature, but on what we can learn from her." Implicit in this explanation of biomimicry is the focus on sustainability. Biomimicry can certainly inspire ingenious solutions to thorny problems, but its true promise lies in helping us devise solutions that are ecologically sound.
Soon after the publication of her book, Benyus teamed up with biologist Dayna Baumeister to further the concept of biomimicry. Their partnership has resulted into two organizations—Biomimicry 3.8 and the Biomimicry Institute—that are constantly developing new resources to practice design and innovation inspired by nature. One of the more powerful tools developed by these organizations is called Life’s Principles, a collection and distillation of deep patterns in nature that help organisms adapt to and survive in their ecosystems. According to Baumeister, “Life’s Principles are intended to represent nature’s strategies for sustainability, that is, how life has sustained on Earth for 3.85 billion years." And these principles can inspire design strategies which, in turn, can be used to create new products, building, business plans, engineering solutions, resource management strategies, and so on.
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At Arizona State University (ASU), we are exploring the concept of life-centered design as a means of developing sustainable solutions inspired by natural systems. In 2008, we started working with the Biomimicry Institute to introduce principles of biomimicry to design, business and engineering students. This week Biomimicry 3.8 and ASU launch a new partnership and initiative called the Biomimicry Center. This center represents an interdisciplinary effort by biologists, designers, engineers, business professionals, writers, ecologists, material scientists, chemists and others to address the complex opportunities and challenges we face today.
The rapid urbanization we have witnessed over the last few decades is distancing us from the “realities of the natural world,” warns Sir David Attenborough in an interview in The Guardian. Speaking about the world’s population, he says that “over 50% is to some degree out of touch with the natural world and don't even see an animal from one day to the next unless it's a rat or a pigeon.” Have we, through our concrete jungles, created artificial boundaries between the human-made world and the natural world? Do we think of ourselves as distinct from nature? What is the nature of our relationship with other organisms? Biologist Edward O. Wilson believes that people have a hereditary affinity for other living creatures. His term for this human proclivity is biophilia, and he defines it as “the innate tendency to focus on life and lifelike processes." This notion has inspired biophilic design, described as “an innovative approach that emphasizes the necessity of maintaining, enhancing, and restoring the beneficial experience of nature in the built environment." It also inspired Icelandic singer and songwriter Björk to release a multimedia album titled Biophilia in 2011 as an artistic response to some of the ongoing environmental challenges in her native country.
Prasad Boradkar is Professor in Industrial Design at Arizona State University (ASU) in Tempe. He is the Director of InnovationSpace, a transdisciplinary laboratory at ASU where faculty and students from design, business, sustainability and engineering partner with corporations to develop human-centered product concepts that hold societal benefit and minimize impacts on the environment. He also serves as the Co-Director of the Biomimicry Center at ASU, an organization dedicated to the exploration of biologically-inspired solutions to problems of sustainability. Prasad is the author of Designing Things: A Critical Introduction to the Culture of Objects (Berg 2010). He is the co-editor of Encountering Things, an anthology of essays on the cultural meaning of objects, and is currently working on a book on Indian design.