Re-Centering Nuances, Ingenuity, and Diversity in Design

6 min read

This article is written to be part of the Society of Digital Agencies' Report On Human Centered Design. 

While human-centered design (HCD) is a well-established approach, in its day-to-day practice, the term "human" can often be defined either too broadly—leaning heavily on demographic data—or too narrowly—relying on lagging feedback from existing users. The pitfall of this approach is that it, too, follows the grain of systemic biases that affect not only our socio-political landscape but also the design domain. As a result, more often than not, the human in HCD tends to serve as a proxy for an imaginative profile that conjures images of able, cisgender, and Western individuals.

Practicing human-centered design in today’s ever-changing socioeconomic and technical landscape means recognizing and attempting to mitigate systemic biases. Advocating for this imperative, this article offers three strategies and a closing thought through which human-centered design can be revisited to broaden its scope of humanity.

  1. Empower marginalized communities to solve their challenges 
  2. Preserve and incorporate indigenous wisdom in design  
  3. Employ artificial intelligence as a cultural sparring partner 

1. Empower marginalized communities to solve their challenges

Although the Vessel building checks the technical accessibility box, riding its elevator is not an equivalent experience as if one were to discover the building through its signature design element: the interwoven stairs. 

There is a common saying in the design community: “Art is for yourself. Design is for others.” This sentiment is brought up not only to differentiate design from its artistic cousin but also to remind its practitioners of their ultimate goals: serving others and solving others’ problems. In the context of designing solutions for marginalized communities, this seemingly benign saying can convey an implicit separation between those who design and those who are mere subjects of its design, positioning the former as fixers and the latter as beneficiaries. This segregation often results in perfunctory solutions that seem like an afterthought. 

Take Vessel, the famous public sculpture and building in New York City, for example. One of the building’s most important design features is its 154 elaborate staircases, crafted to provide visitors walking through the interlocking structure with a trance-like experience. Although the Vessel building meets the technical accessibility requirements, riding its elevator does not offer an equivalent experience to walking its staircases. Protesting against this reductive design approach, Shannon Finnegan—an artist, designer, and disability advocate—shares, “We need to focus on centering disability culture and acknowledge the complexity and nuance of disabled people.... This will not happen without the presence of disabled people as designers, artists, thinkers, leaders, and creators.” A better and more human-centered design approach involves not only designing for marginalized communities but also empowering them with design tools, training, and most importantly, opportunities to address the unique challenges of their communities.

2. Preserve and incorporate indigenous wisdom in design   

For thousands of years, indigenous communities have employed fire as a means to safeguard the land. In the picture above are volunteers initiating prescribed fires as part of an Indigenous Women-In-Fire Training Exchange program in the Karuk ancestral territory. Picture courtesy of Joe Rondone/The Republic.

Important to the development of human-centered design practice is the articulation of “human-centered systems” by Mike Cooley. In his 1980 critique of the automation and computerization of engineering book—Architect or Bee?—Cooley explains that human-centered systems aim to preserve and enhance human skills in the context of manual and office work. Reflecting on this dual nature of human-centered practice, preservation has historically taken a back seat. Much of the innovation discourse since the '80s has fixated on pure technological advancement, prioritizing the augmentation or reduction of “human resources” in production. As a result, we are observing a culture in which technological solutions are often seen as the sole answers to humans' most complex problems, including climate change.

From carbon capture to cultured meat, some of the most celebrated sustainability interventions involve considerable investment in technology. While these measures hold their own merits, it’s important to equally explore, preserve, and incorporate the existing trove of indigenous innovation when it comes to climate modulation and adaptation. Some examples of this ingenuity include North Califfonia’s Karuk tribe returning to prescribed burning to ease wildfire problems, Washington state’s Tulalip tribes of relocating nuisance beavers to traditional watersheds to lower river temperatures and assist salmon populations, or Alaskan tribes using microscopy to identify harmful algae blooms spurred by warming waters, among others. 

Indigenous people are acknowledged with “high confidence” by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change as the most effective stewards of biodiversity. Similarly, a study shows that deforestation rates across the Amazon were two to three times lower in indigenous-held lands. As we look towards the future of human-centered design, it is prime time for us to take on its dual imperative: not only enhancing human skills with technological development but also preserving and incorporating our very own ingenuity—starting with the indigenous communities—in design. 

3. Employ artificial intelligence as a cultural sparring partner is training AI with African history by digitizing old Nigerian newspapers.

Design is as much a practice of spontaneous ideation as it is a culmination of one’s visual and experiential heritage. The life of a designer can be an inexhaustible source of inspiration for their work: from the places they visit to the people they encounter. While this personal approach can yield work that resonates with the fundamentals of the human condition, it can, at times, limit a designer's worldview to their cultural context. Coupled with the use of artificial intelligence (AI) trained on Western-centric datasets in daily design practices, there arises an urgent challenge: to genuinely center "all” humans in the heart of design.

In an interview with Rest of World, Jerry Chi, Head of Japan at Stability AI, emphasizes the necessity of addressing the needs of diverse languages and cultures globally. He notes, "It would actually be dystopian if globally all the AI systems had the values of a 35-year-old male living in San Francisco." As a response, Stability AI is developing models that counter Western biases with Japanese nuances to assist users in crafting solutions with a Japanese context. Similarly, Fu'ad Lawal and his team at are training AI with African history to ensure accurate representation of Nigeria's history in generative outputs.

Given the nascent development of large language models with non-Western focuses, designers should not only explore ways to enhance productivity with AI but also consider how different AI models can serve as their cultural sparring partners. With the capability to conduct cultural sense-checks and stress-test concepts within seconds, designers now have the opportunity to actively confront their biases and broaden the scope of humanity within their human-centered design practice.

Closing words

2023 has been an existential year for many design practitioners. Almost every month, a new AI-powered tool is released, surpassing what was once considered unique to human creativity. The predominant question among the design community is: Will AI replace humans, and to what extent? While admittedly a tempting question, it prompts another existential inquiry: 

How has the design practice found itself in a position where the idea of AI replacing us is imaginable? 

Is it because, long before the release of ChatGPT, we became reliant on algorithmic discovery? Or is it because our design systems, templatization, and pro-efficiency design processes have made our work formulaic and replicable? Perhaps it's us, modern workers, who have reduced our craft to predictable and clean data, paving the way for our own demise.

Reflecting on the state of machine learning might reveal more about how we, as humans, have stopped learning from ourselves and others. This is why the discussion of human-centered design is perhaps as timely as ever. The rapid development of technology around us should serve as a wake-up call for a return to human ingenuity, provoking us to question not how we might be replaced, but what it means to design with and against technologies for the benefit of our shared humanity.