DesignMind: 5 Characteristics of the Human-Centered Approach

President's Blog

At our fall 2017 convocation, with our students and faculty gathered to reflect on our accomplishments and consider what the new academy year offers, I unveiled the guiding motto for NewSchool of Architecture & Design: Human Centered by Design.

The faculty did not come by this lightly. The human-centered approach emerged from a faculty retreat in September of 2016 to better define who we are. At that time, I shared that human-centered design is our northern star. I have also talked about the importance of citizen architects and designers.

At this year’s faculty retreat we articulated five characteristics that define the human-centered approach. These are:

It is never about the object. The sole pursuit of the object undermines and distances the human experience from design thought and amplifies the tension between the humanistic inquiry and the idealistic principles.

It is an approach that begins with critical thinking. Such an approach results from face-to-face interactions with people emphasizing values and getting a true feeling of daily life.

It is not the conveyance of a set process. The product of an education is the student. Therefore, it must be discovered from within the students where they begin, allowing them to frame the process.

It is about deep observation derived from understanding the situational context. In the classroom, this requires reflection on teaching and learning styles requiring the interaction and evolution of each.

It is about designing an educational path for students and a scholarly path for faculty. This approach is intended to foster a lively culture of discourse debunking myths and contradicting the herd mentality prevalent in so many schools, defining our community as thought leaders for the design professions.

The added expression, by design, declares that we have consciously chosen a path that places human activity ahead of abstract notions of form and theory in the evolution of project development. We do not reject the exploration of beauty; our wish as design professionals is to place this search it in its proper perspective.

We are making a clear statement that we desire to engage the human and environmental condition as a first priority of our actions. By doing this we are raising the bar of expectations for our design efforts. Design for us is not a noun, it is a verb. It is a way of seeing and doing that connects with the vitality of life.

Following the expression “human-centered” with the words “by design” specifically articulates how important we hold the critical and creative actions that comprise design thinking. For some, design thinking is misunderstood as a cacophony of free expression and the human-centered approach as an activity of speculation and specification listing.

Perhaps this interpretation is best explained as a revival of the of expression “form follows function.” At NewSchool, we understand the expression to be a disciplined process infused with the vitality of experience that leads to the golden moment when we begin to see processes, places and artifacts that do not yet exist.

I believe my grandmother had a more interesting interpretation of the word function. For her it was an event, as in a church function. Her interpretation of this word was vitally infused with place and human interaction guided by a greater belief in community and faith. This holistic understanding of the word function better reflects the intentions of a human-centered approach. It leads me to the conclusion that the best explanation for the expression Human-Centered by Design is that all design begins with the dance of life.

What does Human-Centered by Design mean to you?