Contemplations: Beyond Human-Centered Design

Designing our way towards a better future.

We live in a designed world, surrounded by built systems and objects. No object, no matter how small, is designed in a vacuum. Design is in close conversation with other complex forces like labor, the environment, our planet’s resources, technology, communities on a local and global scale, and more. 

Historically, design has centered the human experience. The value of a product has come from its beauty and/or its ability to make life ‘better.’ With roots in early 20th century functionalism, this perspective was an attempt to think about the lives of everyday people. However, over time, we have seen that even this people-centric approach has unintended, though nevertheless destructive consequences. When we design solely with humans in mind, it is all too easy to forget that humans are not the only ones affected by what we make. In an effort to make our world easier, faster, and cheaper, we have compromised our health and the well-being of our communities and the planet. 

But can something be truly good design if it’s bad for the planet, wildlife, local communities, and workers? What if the perceived value of design was inextricably bound to these considerations? Early pioneers like Buckminster Fuller, Hundertwasser, Sim Van der Ryn, Lina Bo Bardi, the New Alchemy Institute, and landscape architect Ian McHarg, among others, were interested in weaving a more harmonious relationship between design and various ecologies. Today, this paradigm shift is gaining momentum: Look to the Parkroyal on Pickering, a hotel in Singapore that decided to adorn its facade with lush plant life to provide habitat for birds all the while absorbing CO2, or the 101 Freeway’s planned wildlife crossing here in Los Angeles, designed to correct for roadway planning that failed to consider animal migration patterns. 

Thinking beyond human-centered design means thinking outside of ourselves and our immediate desires, impulses, and preferences. To think beyond human-centered design, we zoom out to consider communities, the planet and its resources, as well as future generations. The decisions a designer makes have an ecosystem of impact that reverberates far beyond the acts of ideation and creation, and every choice is a chance to support something — or not support something. By knowing this, we can design with intention, and activate the political, social, and cultural aspects of our respective practices. In recognizing the opportunity we have, we can build ecosystems that actively support what we want to see thrive and the conditions for that better future. At the core of this less human-centric approach is an effort to design our way towards this better future. It’s an inherently optimistic and hopeful stance. 

By moving beyond human-centered design, we redefine what constitutes good design to include whether or not something has been produced in a supportive and sustainable way. Along the way, we can continue to embrace beauty, innovation, and progress as helpful tools. Kalon is about aesthetics insofar as it is a means to achieve our mission of creating design for a sustainable culture. With something like furniture, where the product is inherently linked to human use, the goal is to have our community find just as much value in the way a Kalon piece has been made — all along the chain of custody, including the communities and methods of production supported along the way (beginning with where and how a tree has been harvested, and by whom) — as they do in how beautiful the finished product is. We take our name from the word kalon, an ancient, philosophical concept of ideal beauty that considers moral worth and usefulness as inextricable from aesthetics. When an object is kalon, it is beautiful because there is an inherent goodness that radiates from each detail. The truly beautiful is one and the same with the truly good. It’s an ethos and a call to action, a helpful and inspiring reminder for every decision we make.