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Nesta is an innovation foundation. For us, innovation means turning bold ideas into reality and changing lives for the better. We use our expertise, skills and funding in areas where there are big challenges facing society.

For people and planet: moving beyond human-centred design

Is human-centred design still fit for purpose, or is it time for a new, more sustainable approach to how we design everything – from cereal boxes to political policies?

Human-centred design (HCD) rose to prominence in the 1980s as a best practice for design that puts users’ needs at the centre of the design process.

Whether we’re designing products or systems – a child’s car seat or a social care initiative – HCD prioritises the needs of those who will use the end output, thinking carefully about their experiences throughout the design process.

This approach has measurably improved our day to day lives, even though many of us are completely unaware of it.

However, this user-centric mindset also has a dark side. We know now that, in the attempt to make users’ lives easier, HCD has overlooked the needs of the environment, non-human life and the planet, resulting in harm to our climate and natural systems.

The products, services and systems that emerge from this approach all have an environmental impact, whether this is the carbon footprint of web design or physical waste from consumer products.

Design principles have matured a great deal since the ‘80s. Now, as we enter the third decade of the 21st century, it’s time to expand HCD to a best practice that puts the needs of the planet on an equal footing to those of people.

Charting the shift towards planet-centred design

Since HCD came into mainstream practice, corporations have come to realise the value of empathy and emotion as key promoters and differentiators of their offering. For businesses and government, when done well, a human-centred approach fuels the creation of products and services that resonate deeply with an audience, ultimately driving engagement and growth.

For designers, HCD has provided a seat at the table – when planning products and systems, the design community is now rightly involved in important decision-making and impact discussions.

The HCD approach also enables decision-makers and creators to look beyond their shareholders, to people who use products and services, reframing their interactions from ‘consumers’ to important stakeholders in the ecosystem.

But today, our narrative is more holistic and global in nature – key issues include the climate crisis, societal inequality and social justice – and our problem-solving needs to evolve to meet these pressing needs.

As an alternative to HCD, Don Norman, the American researcher, professor and author, recently proposed a set of new 'humanity centred’ design principles. This approach differs from HCD in an important way. Norman explains:

"When we design for humanity, we cannot stop with people. We must consider the entire globe: all living things, the quality of the land, water, and air."

Other thought leaders across the design world have created similar movements, coining phrases like ‘society centred design’, ‘life centred design’ and ‘planet centred design’.

So what is this new approach asking us to do? To put it simply, it’s asking us to consider the key stakeholders that have been overlooked to date – the planet and all other life on the planet – alongside human needs.

To do this, designers must consider the long-term impact of a product or service beyond the first use, moving from a linear model of ‘make, use and dispose’ to a circular, regenerative vision in which services or products have minimal impact and where possible can be reused without creating waste.

By placing the planet itself as a stakeholder in the design process, planet-centred design calls on designers to ensure that products and services create long-term value for the environment, not just for users. This means designing for low-impact and sustainability.

The pandemic has shown us that it’s possible to shift focus away from individual needs and towards societal safety. Now is the time for a renewed approach to design – one that looks beyond individual needs and considers how our actions can create changes for non-human life on earth.

The principles of human-centred design have improved the lives of millions of people – broadening these principles to incorporate a planet-centred approach only expands our work to deliver fairer, more holistic ideas.

Nesta's missions work across the big societal issues of the day. In the search for ideas that work for all, planet-centred design may provide new opportunities for innovation.

Ultimately, whether we’re designing products, services or policies, we need to balance the needs of organisations and users with those of the environment. This shift to a planet-centred approach is the best way to create solutions that ensure a better future for both people and the planet.


Andy Marsden

Andy Marsden

Andy Marsden

Designer, Design & Technology

Andy is a designer for the sustainable future mission.

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Geetika Kejriwal

Geetika Kejriwal

Geetika Kejriwal

Designer, A Healthy Life

Geetika was a design practitioner for Nesta's healthy life mission. She believes in an interdisciplinary and collaborative approach to design.

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