Holistic design: a sustainable way forward?

A holistic design approach can be seen in how Gaudí worked with craftspeople to design everything from the building itself to the gates, windows, furniture and down to flower pots. This is a holistic way of designing a building. What if we take this approach as a way to solve today’s large-scale and complex problems?

Casa Batlló, house designed by Gaudí
Casa Batlló, photo by Raimond Klavins on Unsplash

Although marvelous as is, the work of architects in the early 20th century was still limited to buildings. Holistic design applied to architecture is easy to imagine, and has been exemplified in other articles, such as this one from Interaction Design Foundation.

But, what if we take a few steps back? What if we use this way of thinking, the way of looking at every aspect of an experience, when we design solutions for some of our greatest challenges today?

Designing today

I was involved in a design research project where we looked at the user interface design of ticket machines at a train station. Standing there observing travellers interacting with these ticket machines, I had an epiphany (that seem to be reoccurring) that so much of people’s experience is coloured by everything else around them, not just the machine.

There are people everywhere, they are stressed, their bags are heavy, their children want to buy ice cream, the sun is shining on the touch screes, someone is waiting behind them, if they miss this train they will miss the connecting train and then be late for their appointment etc.

What if our client had tasked us with designing a train station, including ticket machines? Or if we take a step even further back, what if we set out to design a transportation system, rather than a station? It would involve getting to the station, toilets, train lines, way finding, and everything people experience when getting from point A to point B.

All these things exist today around most train stations. They’ve been designed obviously, but have they been designed as a part of a greater experience, or as individual pieces? I believe in many cases it’s the latter. I know that the ticket machine UI I was working with definitely was designed in isolation.

Holistic design and sustainability

There are many different ways to identify and describe holistic design. Jack Strachan wrote about it in this article, as an interconnected system of the different touch points users interact with. I would say it’s bigger than that, or at least as a method we can use it to solve bigger problems.

Looking at the solutions we design today to combat problems with climate change, war, poverty and other man-made problems, when doing it in isolation it might not reach it’s full potential. Designing a CO2-neutral t-shirt, an app for ride sharing or food donation is like designing the interface on a ticket machine without considering the travelling experience. It is only one touch point in a much bigger and complex experience. The experience of life in our society on this planet.

A holistic approach is to take one, two or three steps back, and each time ask the question why. The idea of a designers classical double diamond changes to an ever-expanding diamond. It’s not simple, nor easy, but the complexity of a fair and sustainable life on planet earth for all beings, is also not an easy or simple challenge, is it?

Redefining the role of a designer

If design is all about problem-solving, using a holistic design approach to work on global solutions for complex global problems should be the easy choice. Instead of working on isolated features for e-commerce apps or photo sharing websites, we could use our skillsets to tackle wicked problems. But we need to redefine the role of designers.

And wait, there’s another problem. That problem that there’s currently more (at least financial) incentive for me as a designer to take a paid job designing small scale interactions, than setting out solving the problems of the world. Michael F. Buckley framed it nicely in this article, below is a quote from it.

In the business world, designers will always be subservient to a corporate culture that primarily values objective outcomes such as profitability or market share.

As designers we are part of an economy that keeps us from designing holistically. It is not just the role of the designer, but the role of business that affects the way we work. The way we measure success is determining the way we live and work.

Designing a sustainable world

I believe a holistic design approach could be a key tool to solve complex global problems, but there is no large-scale framework for how to go about it. No one writing a brief and handing it out to designers, no one who will implement a solution. There is no job currently listed for designing a sustainable world, but if there was, I’m sure that whoever hired a holistic designer would be pleased with the outcome.

A good start is still to use the idea of a holistic approach to tackle the problems we can tackle. I can use the approach to highlight that the interface on the ticket machine at the train station is a part in an interconnected web, and it is affected by everything in that web. And that web is infinite. It reaches beyond the station, the trains and the travelling. Because all of us know how a bad nights sleep, a sick friend or a lost job opportunity can affect everything we do, including buying a ticket.

Read the full article here

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