Thinking, Centered and Customer Centric are phrases that are becoming extremely common in businesses over the last 5 years.

This made me think, what were designers doing before?

Surprisingly the answer is quite simple, they were doing the same thing, they just called it design.

Design is the profession of creating an object, service or experience for a person or persons to utilise in order to achieve an outcome.

Designers have always been human centered

Massimo Vignelli’s famous NYC subway work is fantastic design focussed around how a commuter can understand which train or trains they need to catch in order to reach their destination.
Philippe Starck’s juicer is a wonderful looking piece of design, but it’s a messy pain in the arse to use. Designed by a legend? Yes, design? Debatable.
Charles and Ray Eames famous recliner and footstool, designed to be sat in by a person for ultimate comfort and style. Also designed to look good when not being sat in as it must still be seen by a human as well.
Dieter Rams’ work with Braun is still some of the best industrial design ever and is being copied to this day. It’s hard to argue that it wasn’t done with users in mind, especially if you‘re familiar with his 10 principles of good design.

The list of designers going back decades and centuries shows that they’ve always been designing for people, so why the recent obsession with being explicitly human ?

An elegant wrapping

While I was pondering my original question at the start of this article it dawned on me that I’ve never heard a designer talk about changing their tools or methods in order to cater for this new wave of HCD practices.

It’s the non-designers who talk about HCD and it’s espoused value to business and processes, usually coupled with my other pet peeve, innovation.

Designers often follow Parkinson’s Law: “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”. Meaning that there is always more we could do if we are given the time, more research, more ideation, more detailed design, more testing, more refinements etc.

Wrapping everything that surrounds the act of putting pen to paper or pixels on screen into a collective task of HCD is actually what this is all about. It allows the design professional to speak to their counterparts in business as a process and elevate their standing, getting the coveted “seat at the table”.

In that scenario I can see how the rise of HCD terminology has taken control, especially after seeing large companies with flourishing internal design teams gain said seat at the table and start pushing the business.

Wolf in sheep’s clothing

The problem I’ve seen come from this is that now non-design professionals are using these design terms to their advantage too, everyone is doing design, but few people are qualified to do so.

So we’ve come full circle, and the design terms are being used by every internal team without knowing what being a designer is, and what designing as a profession entails. If everyone is a designer, then no-one is.

There are a lot of articles going around at the moment about what having a seat at the table means and how a lot of designers and design teams are ill-equipped to work in that seat, so I won’t dive into that here.

Elevating the design profession from simple doers to proper stakeholders within the corporate environment is a great thing, but now we need to address how we got there and build some real standards in how we speak about our profession in real terms and avoid the jargon that is so easily co-opted and corrupted.

This isn’t to say that every single individual or team who talks about Human Centered Design is a fraud, far from it!

What I’m suggesting is that once the conversation within a business reaches a ceratin level of understanding the value of HCD, we as designers need to continue to expand that understanding into the details of what designing menas and what it takes to get right.

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