News and Insights

Design and the Human Condition

Kerry Grady, Founding Principal
People have accepted that their work environment doesn’t matter. We often find ourselves between rigid work environments that are void of character and intrigue, and human factories where people and things are dumped into a sea of chaos.

The challenge in dealing with human needs is that we have lost awareness of the intangibles, and there’s no easy way to catch up. I recently made the decision to expand and remodel our Chicago office in an effort to make it more responsive to our design-forward culture. I was surprised that every member of our team didn’t universally share my wild enthusiasm for the proposed improvements. When designers like me believe that we have a great idea, and everyone else doesn’t immediately see it that way, we are prone to take it as a blow. The challenge for us, is to get into someone else’s skin.

As a student, I was taught that the responsible designer is dedicated to improving the human condition. It’s a noble aim, this idea of a career dedicated to the service of others, and it turns out that it’s not as easy as it sounds. It requires an extraordinarily high sensitivity, and a lot more homework than we typically are willing to devote to such matters. Part of the problem lies in the belief that we have little or no interest in human needs, thus consequently, we know little about them. We are lead to believe that if you give us the expert, we will deliver the solution.

Human needs are not the problem; they are an integral part of our shared existence. But because we are dependent on experts, self-proclaimed and otherwise, we have become docile and often easy to manipulate. As we continue to look to the experts to solve our problems, the solutions they present often lead us to negative outcomes. Despite those results, we continue to rely on expert opinions. One of the reasons for this is that environments are contexts in which we exist, but we rarely notice them. We do not marvel that every time we draw a breath, the air pressure in our lungs increases to 15 lbs per square inch; much like the fish that doesn’t think about how amazing it is to live under water. We live in a world where we are conditioned to take the opinion of technical specialists and experts for granted. The elaborate mechanisms of modern society discourage independent thinking, and by the time we leave grade school, we have lost the habit of asking questions.

I have always felt that when dealing with student audiences, one does not fool around. There is a responsibility to tell them, as precisely as possible, what one believes is true, and why – and to emphasize the high level of their responsibilities as future designers – to leave some awareness of the nobility of their calling, both in terms of the past, and future. Maybe its time for design schools to shift their curriculum to include humility, listening, and the habit of asking questions.

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