Rediscovering humanity in design

“ … One of the roles of design is to bring humanity, intelligence and beauty to the world of business, and indeed to everyday life.” – Michael Beirut

Is design losing its humanity? No one would suggest that computers are as adept as talented humans at creating innovative designs — yet — but technology has been making a significant impact on design-related professions in the last few years.

In some cases, technology has lessened the amount of contact designers have with clients, colleagues and professional development organizations, causing a shift in the way the public relates to the profession.

But when used judiciously and with some forethought, technology can reintroduce a strain of much-needed humanity into these essentially creative disciplines.


Technology’s impact on the design process

I never design a building before I’ve seen the site and met the people who will be using it.

– Frank Lloyd Wright

When undertaking to design something, one has in mind the intended function of the product one is creating. One of the biggest challenges a graphic designer will face is to work with the client to triangulate the visual elements, ergonomic concerns and brand qualities that will result in the most efficient realization of the product’s intended function.

In product design, this could mean creating the most elegant and ergonomic computer mouse. In graphic design, it often means creating a logo. Web designers need to understand the quickest and most effective ways to translate their clients’ business ideas into functional and marketable websites.

In the past, the process of turning a client’s brief into a product was conducted by face-to-face meetings. Now, many clients prefer to submit briefs electronically and get work back the same way.

Without these face-to-face meetings, which were the cornerstone of the client-designer relationship, designers who lack writing or technical skill might find themselves unable to accurately convey their technical and creative prowess. And without the face-to-face experience of discussing a project, can a designer ever be sure they know what the client wants?


Increase speed, decreased efficiency

Design is a plan for arranging elements in such a way as best to accomplish a particular purpose.

– Charles Eames

While working long distance may seem like an efficient change to the industry’s business model, on closer inspection and experience, one realizes that without human contact, communicating ideas effectively is harder and less precise. Without clear communication between client and designer, the process is prolonged, thus reducing the designer’s efficiency.

Some of the risk can be minimized by bringing multiple ideas to a client. But basic misunderstandings can still creep in, requiring additional rounds of design and feedback, and taking time away from the designer’s other projects.

Such situations can be avoided if the designer slows down the pace and makes an effort to truly understand the client’s need. Hiding behind a screen might bring in clients quickly, but you won’t get far if you don’t get to know them personally.


How humans interact with the products of design

People ignore design that ignores people.

– Frank Chimero

Humans are increasingly influenced by their interactions with technology. When designers forget to consider humanity in the design of their products, then they are serving an ideal instead of a practical use, thus undercutting the very definition of design.

Human interaction with a design is required if the designer wants to create a product that elevates and serves humanity, rather than frustrates it.

Tapping into feedback on how humans are using a design can’t be done long distance or over the web. Designers must connect with end users and others in their industry, and that must be done in person. Whether this takes place in informal weekly gatherings in your home town or at industry-wide conferences and seminars, the opportunity to network and connect with others in the field enables the designer to continue improving their craft over the span of their career.


Designers making a difference

Every designer’s dirty little secret is that they copy other designers’ work. They see work they like, and they imitate it. Rather cheekily, they call this inspiration.

– Aaron Russell

Designers influence each other’s work; that’s partly why it’s so important for designers to take part in networking events, conferences and other experiences with colleagues in their field. More importantly, when designers commit to keeping humanity in mind in their work, they often contribute to worthy social and charitable movements.

An example of this is the Designers Support Japan effort, in which design professionals and celebrities contributed designs and then donated the proceeds to help disaster relief efforts in Japan. Some got involved by gathering talented illustrators to create some amazing designs for a charity sale.

Some organizations, including the Department of Design and Construction in New York City, encourage the use of good design in public works. And national awards exist for design disciplines: in the US, national awards are given in architecture, interior design, fashion, product design and more, thereby recognizing the role that design plays in improving the quality of life of citizens.

In an environment where many consumers and clients show a commitment to social causes, designers who demonstrate their own commitment through their work could gain a competitive edge.


Using technology to rediscover the humanity in design

It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity.

– Albert Einstein

Designers clearly must bring humanity into their practice. So, what are some ways to do this? Reliable video conferencing is now available via a number of free Internet services; this helps to cut down on the miscues from missed body language that might happen on the phone or in email. Being accessible by email on a smartphone helps, too, because messages can be replied to quickly, allowing some form of dialogue to take place.

If a designer wants to share inspiration with their clients, they can create a public notebook on a cloud storage service like Evernote. The designer can store and catalogue ideas from the web or their own mind, making them keyword-searchable and inviting clients to access these digital “mood books.”

Another way designers can show clients that they value a connection to humanity is by bringing a “human touch” into their portfolios. During a recent hiring round at a prestigious New York City design firm, one candidate got an interview based on an exquisitely crafted hand-bound book that contained her portfolio images. The spirit of this applicant’s portfolio — a unique, artistic and functional piece that demonstrated her ability to create something that served its purpose — should infuse the work of designers everywhere.

Instead of using strict technical drawings to represent your ideas, try broader representations of your early thinking, such as in the form of informal sketches. This can help the client understand the thought process that a fellow human being — i.e. you, the designer — followed to arrive at that point. Designers can go the extra mile by educating their clients. Also, images can be drawn out by hand using a simple desktop publishing program, such as Microsoft Word or OpenOffice, and then scanned to share with clients.

While it may seem a bit passé in today’s digital world, designers shouldn’t overlook the benefit of giving clients a physical address where they can be reached. And a phone number is a must. Both will remind the client that another human being is at the other end of the line — someone who wants to help them create effective, functional and elegant designs.

Nor should designers ever discount an actual physical meeting with the client — not to mention the underestimated impact of a good handshake. These things bind people together.



Ethics and humanity work hand in hand, and designers should work within their own code of conduct, using empathy and compassion.

Bringing a human touch might not come naturally to younger designers. Still, designers who rediscover the humanity in their profession will find their work and business significantly enriched by the process.

Written exclusively for Webdesigner Depot by Aidan Huang, a freelance developer, designer and ingenious blogger. He is one of the editors-in-chief at Onextrapixel. Follow him on Twitter @AidanOXP

What are some ways designers have been affected by a sense of humanity — or lack thereof — in the field of design? What can you as a designer do to increase that sense in your profession?

  • Bud Kraus

    One reason why design has lost its humanity is that we have lost a collective understanding of what good design is. We used to have things like World Fairs where we shared experiences about what was good design. Today we sit singularly by our screens individually developing ideas of what is good and bad experience. What we end up with is boring design and that’s not good for humanity.

  • Jason Gross

    I am a little confused by the primary point of this article. I feel that if we are going to discuss any loss of humanity in design it would be between site users and site stakeholders. 

    If a design project has lost its human touch between a designer and his/her client then something has gone wrong beyond technology. As a professional who is getting paid to do the work the designer needs to step up and find a way to re-engage with clients who seem to be out of touch. The methods you mentioned, such as video conferences and persistent communication of ideas and concepts will help but ultimately having a personality needs to be a part of the entire project from proposal to hand off. 

    If a designer is lacking in personality they may just need to loosen up a bit and realize that design projects are always about people and people can be a blast to work with. 

  • Ben Stokes

    Great article – thanks for the read. Totally agree with the statement “Designers clearly must bring humanity into their practice.”