Towards More Than Human Design

Questions and Considerations

Over the last 20 years, human-centred design has been a core part of our practice here at Stby. Understanding the needs of people and how these needs operate in wider contexts, often complex and dynamic, has been incremental to delivering insights that help our clients innovate towards positive and meaningful change. However, the raging climate crisis and realities brought forth by the COVID-19 pandemic have painted an increasingly clear picture of how fundamental the natural world is for solving many of our contemporary challenges. It has shown us why a shift towards more-than-human-centred design practices, where we account for the needs of nature, is more critical than ever. 

This has inspired many conversations here at Stby, both internally and with our clients. However, widening perspectives from human to more-than-human-centred design has also raised several questions for me personally. Perhaps there are too many questions to detail in this particular thought piece, but I’ll start with one worth noting. 

In her book Braiding Sweetgrass, author and botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer states that:  

To be native to a place we must learn to speak its language

This raises the first question that I have been grappling with. Over the years, the majority of humans have relied on science to explain how nature works. It has helped us understand how plants make their food, what food chains are and how they are linked together, and even that rats laugh when tickled. Science has and continues to open up worlds of insight into how the natural world operates with us and around us. Nevertheless, I may understand how photosynthesis works but when the leaves on the plant in our office turn yellow, do I really have the tools to understand what the plant needs? Does it need more water? Less water? Is it dying? Or is this just a part of its natural cycle? Maybe it just likes the look of yellow? I have no idea. 

AI generated met firefly

This goes to say that I may know some of the science, but do I have the language to understand what the plant needs to create the circumstances that allow it to thrive and continue to decarbonise our office space? We can ask a similar question on a wider level. We have the science, but do we have the language to effectively shift to more-than-human design practices, particularly ones that do not require a higher level of understanding of the biological workings of a Scindapsus Aureus (our studio hanging plant)? Kimmerer states: 

Until quite recently no one seriously explored the possibility that plants might ‘speak’ to one another. But pollen has been carried reliably on the wind for aeons, communicated by males to receptive females to make those very nuts. If the wind can be trusted with that fecund responsibility, why not with messages?

As abstract as this may sound, perhaps developing less anthropomorphic perspectives requires us to be a little abstract. Indigenous groups have for centuries been able to develop and maintain a dynamic language that has helped them understand what their natural environments need and allowed the nurturing of mutually beneficial systems that more often than not, flourish. So how can we become a little more native to the places we inhabit by learning to speak the language of our natural environments? Moreover, how can we, as design researchers, pioneer this in our shift towards more-than-human and life-centred design?  

That rounds up my first question on shifting to more-than-human design; thoughts and insights are welcomed!