Beyond human-centred design, to?

Cassie Robinson.
10 min readDec 26, 2018
Counter-balance design, Collective awareness design, Worker-centred design, Relational design, Beyond-human design, Ecosystem design, Consequence design, Life-centred design.

Just over a year ago I wrote a blog post called “Putting users first is not the answer to everything” — it’s been popular — in fact it’s Doteveryone’s second most read blog post, with over 6,000 reads. At the time I wrote it for several reasons — the first was because whilst in my role at Doteveryone I was looking at the impacts of technology on our communities. It seemed obvious that the individualised way we’d been designing digital products and services — to be “delightful” or frictionless experiences, was not a helpful model when considering longer-term consequences and the cumulative affects beyond the individual. Zooming in on user needs to design around “what’s happening to this individual in this moment” is problematic when you need a broader and aggregate input.

The second was because whilst training as an organisational and relationship systems coach (I’m now ORSC certified) I was given new language that helped described my own personal experiences of how care services (for example) are often designed for the individual when in fact they need to be designed for the system, unit or in systems coaching language, ‘the third entity.’ The Third Entity is that which lives outside the individuals in a particular relationship system whether a work team, family, community or society at large.

Since writing the post I’ve had many different conversations with people and in my head there are threads emerging about new practices and principles for design. In this first post I try to simply segment them.

I’m not sure I have done so in a helpful way — in some cases there is a lot of overlap. I’m not sure if it even makes sense to segment them — perhaps all design needs to incorporate all of them. Or it might be a sequencing thing — one of them makes sense before the others. Or a context thing — some of them make sense if you are designing digital systems, others if you are designing a new organisation or a new philanthropic fund.

Personally as a designer I’m looking for a better framework through which I can work. I know it’s about more than service design (as I agree with Lou Downe that service design is simply the design of good services) and our lives exist outside of and far beyond services.

In writing this though, I hope to gather feedback, critique and generally work out how these approaches can be useful if you care at all about designing for a future that, a)exists at all, and b) if we get that far — is fair, just, sustainable and equitable for everyone.

7 types of design

I’ve tried to describe the different types of design and then listed for each one (where I have ideas) some of the questions we might ask for each.

Relational Design

This one is most closely linked to my original blog post from last year — designing for a set of needs at different scales — an individual, a street, a community, an organisation, a planetary system — and recognising the interdependencies of these. This kind of design acknowledges we are complex beings in relationship to one another and the wider systems of which we are a part. Health care is a good example of this — the needs of a dependent, their family, a carer, a health professional, the wider demands on the NHS — are all different but closely inter-related — no one exists in a vacuum our access to vital services is not linear, and our use of such services has a cumulative affect on the wider system.

  • Whose needs do we start with?
  • How do we balance individual needs with the needs of communities, and of society, and of the planet?
  • How can we prioritise the whole, alongside individual needs?
  • How can we design in a way that recognises the interdependencies we all have?
  • How can we design for these interdependencies — the relationships between things?
  • If we design for a particular group, do they also have the institutional support they need?
  • What else do we need to include to ensure we are acknowledging the interdependencies here?

Counter-balance Design

This doesn’t feel like a very catchy term! How do we design for something that balances out what people may have expressed a need for individually, versus what we need collectively as a society? Libraries are a good example of this — whilst I may not use my library very often there is a bigger social implication for the wider society of which I’m a part, if libraries didn’t exist at all.

Other names could be Cumulative Effect Design or Micro-Macro Design.

  • This person may not need this (a library) but does the community?
  • Who is not in this data? And how can we represent them in our decisions?
  • What happens if we only use this data over time? (Cumulative affects?)
  • Which needs do we start with?

Collective Awareness Design

I think of Collective Awareness design as the intent of building collective awareness at every part of the design process.

The father of complexity science, Ilya Prigogine, said that “in an unstable complex system, small islands of coherence have the potential to change the whole system.” This is why I think collective awareness design and ecosystem design (below) are important, because they can help identify and build that coherence.

  • Who else is doing what you’re doing?
  • Who else is trying to do this?
  • What other assets and strengths are in proximity that could be useful?
  • How could you use tech and data better together?
  • How could you be stronger together?
  • What are the opportunities for linking up?
  • What could be assembled together from the collective, that makes the sum of the whole greater than the sum of the parts?

This links to my blog post about how funders could encourage collective awareness at every interaction they have with applicants and with the blog I wrote about Building the Field — some of the questions in there might also be useful and relevant.

Ecosystem Design

I think of ecosystem design as an ability to recognise oneself (or ones organisation) as part of a wider ecosystem and to have intent to coordinate your efforts with that ecosystem.

  • What are your strengths within the ecosystem?
  • What are you best placed to do?
  • How can you make yourself useful to others?
  • What do you need to make visible so as to be useful and understood within the ecosystem?
  • How can you strengthen the relationships around you?
  • How can you move from being proprietary to open and collaborative?
  • How can you incubate and value the liminal spaces in the ecosystem?
  • How can you make the ecosystem ripe for connection? (and enable trust and relationships to form and thrive?)

Consequence Design

Consequence design currently makes most sense to me when thinking about technology and its impacts on society, however it must be common practice in things like place-making and systemic change. This feels like a conscious and collective awareness that’s needed throughout a design process and in an ongoing way. As designers we create user journeys and experience maps to show “if this then that” but we should also ask “if this then what?” — something that those of us who work more systemically already do through consequence mapping — if this for an individual, then what for a community? If this for a social enterprise investment, then what for society?

  • If you design this, then what? (for this group, community, society)
  • What could you displace?
  • What are you accelerating?
  • What are you encouraging or incentivising over time? (new norms or behaviours — what will people do more of, what will they do less of — what will they do instead?)
  • What could this harm?
  • What could this normalise?
I love this tweet from cameron tonkinwise that brings this idea to life.

Worker-centred Design

This is a term that Jennie Winhall introduced to me, and I like the idea of centring and designing for a specific group of people, especially those whom are under-represented or have less power.

This reminded me of the work we did at Doteveryone about the portability of workers reputations. Whilst doing user research the workers themselves didn’t express much concern individually about the platforms owning their reputation data, but what this represented in terms of the rights of workers more generally, was recognised as important.

  • What is best for the worker?
  • How are workers rights being upheld?
  • How can the worker benefit from this?
  • How does this take care of the worker over time?
  • What does this mean for workers beyond their individual needs, and for their collective rights?

Beyond-Human Design

Beyond-human Design could be viewed as Collective Intelligence Design or as “extended intelligence”. In early Autumn, the IEEE Standards Association (IEEE-SA) and the MIT Media Lab joined forces to launch a global Council on Extended Intelligence.

“Instead of thinking about machine intelligence in terms of humans vs. machines, we should consider the system that integrates humans and machines — not artificial intelligence, but extended intelligence.

And Geoff Mulgan talks about a “bigger mind” — human and machine capabilities working together — and having the potential to solve the great challenges of our time.

Whilst I’m interested in the role of design in collective intelligence (and am still to write up a blog from the workshop I ran on this at the launch of Nesta’s Centre for Collective Intelligence Design) I’m especially interested in how we intentionally design for all uniquely living intelligence and collective consciousness (from humans and nature) to be strengthened and have a clear purpose and contribution in how the future is shaped. So less about the machines, and more how we, as humans and the planet, interact with them and absorb them.

  • Are we strengthening the intelligence that differentiates humans from machines?
  • Are we investing in our innate abilities as humans to create, problem solve, trust and connect? Can we strengthen these?

There are definitely more to add here! Something I’m working on in 2019 with Samantha Roddick and Deborah Szebeko through is how we strengthen our ability to access and connect to collective consciousness, which feels like an important conduit to greater extended or collective intelligence.

“Growth for humanity’s future should not be defined by reductionist ideas of speed or size alone but as the holistic evolution of our species in positive alignment with the environmental and other systems comprising the modern algorithmic world.”

Life Centred Design

Life-centred Design starts from the premise (or worldview) that everything is connected, human beings are not separate from the planet that we all live, including the biggest climate systems, and therefore everything in one way or another effects everything else — even if we can’t identify that. Life-centred Design means contributing to all living systems in a way that not only “does no harm” but actively helps them survive and thrive.

John Thackara talks about a “more-than-human” centred approach “growing in a new way where we add health and vitality to the places that we all share.”

  • Are you adding health in to this system?
  • How can you give prominence to care in your interactions?
  • How can you repair or maintain this system?
  • How are you being care-full (like Iroquois Philosophy where decisions made today are subjected to the 7th generation test)
  • What happens if you include nature, the planet, living ecosystems in the design? Bring in their intelligences? Their ‘voices’?
  • What small actions can you take that will start to generate something better than what exists today?
  • What do you have the power to do something about? The different choices you can make?
  • What can you learn from ancient wisdom traditions? How can we bring both our ancestors and future generations into how we design?
  • What can you contribute to the health of the planet? (this might be actions, energy, healing etc)

“Rather than saying, oh my God, we have to stop doing all these evil things. How can we make this river healthier, this forest healthier, the air in our cities, healthier? And break that down into tiny actions like growing food at the school yard or restoring a part of a little creek that feeds into the bigger river. There’s always things that you can do. And I just think that those little actions are very kind of therapeutic, even if they don’t automatically save the world.”

In 2019 I’ll be working with Deborah Szebeko, Jennie Winhall and other designers to explore what Deborah is calling Collective Wisdom Design — a design practice that’s an evolution of co-design and co-production, towards something that brings together contemporary design practice with ancient wisdom practice.

Thank you for reading all the way through. I’d especially love to hear from people who have thoughts about how each of these are related, what’s missing and what already exists that links with any of them. I know I’ll have missed things too — like Planetary Scale Design — which I feel has relevance to a few of these. It’s worth also looking at Shift’s work on relationship-centred design and look out for Simon Robert’s book on embodied intelligence.

I hope this will be the first in a series of blogs to explore design beyond individuals and services, and ultimately create some resources that are useful for others.



Cassie Robinson.

Working with Paul Hamlyn Foundation, Joseph Rowntree Foundation, P4NE, Arising Quo & Stewarding Loss -