Should design thinking really be human-centred?

While reading Tim Brown’s “Change by Design”, I was touched by the story of the ORAL B toothbrush found among the rubbish deposited on the beach. Through this story Tim Brown asked himself and us about the responsibility of designers and design thinkers when designing. That resonates with me. We’re responsible for creating sustainable, eco-friendly change in the world either as creators or facilitators. But how to remember this and most importantly how to implement it? Does education, existing methods and tools give us any hints here? It seems that they concentrate mostly on human needs.



In early design thinking literature such as “Change by Design” or Tim’s article in the Harvard Business Review ”Design Thinking”, the subject of ecological responsibility wasn’t elaborated and included in the design thinking process. Although Roger Martin (in “The design of business”) listed social responsibility as part of Design Thinking, what about ecological responsibility? We missed placing it explicitly within existing DT models such as the IDEO one: Inspiration-Ideation-Implementation or Jeane Liedtke’s and Tim Ogilvie’s Designing for Growth approach or Katja Tschimmel’s Evolution 6² model. I browsed a few books collecting design thinking tools and couldn’t find any tools including ecological responsibility.


Tim Brown seemed to answer this need in 2017, a year when IDEO in collaboration with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation created “The circular design guide”. Check this website . You will find ready-to-use tools: workshops scripts, modified templates to use in the process of designing for the sake of the circular economy.

This is how Tim Brown talks about it:

But is it really enough?

Should it really be separate to other DT methods, just by adding “circular” to its name or should it be an integral part of every DT method? I believe it is a part of the DT mindset so I will risk saying that it should be included within every DT method and at every stage of the DT process. This is why the methods used at each stage of the process should be modified to remind all design thinkers about their ecological responsibility.

Let’s have a look at an example and try to redesign the The Elevator Pitch model from “Game storming. A playbook for Innovators, Rulebreakers and Changemakers”. We can add one more question: “What is the product/service environmental impact?” So finally we may end up with a modified version of the Elevator Pitch sentence structure:

Zrzut ekranu 2018-09-28 o 00.07.29What do you think about it? Feel free to modify it. I would love to see more DT tools transformed in the comments.

One more thought to end.

The more I delve into the subject, the more I think that a name “human-centred design” is limited as it emphasizes that design thinkers should concentrate only on humans. That is why it should be changed to “ecosystem human – centred design”, for example.

Last but not least, I would love to see more business schools teaching DT as Katja Tschimmel and Joana Santos proposed in their article “Design Thinking applied to the Redesign of Business Education” but in the above modified way. Let’s become more ecologically responsible in designing our world.

Written by: Cecylia Kundera

7 thoughts on “Should design thinking really be human-centred?

  1. I am myself into circular economy and have pondered the same thing with you – is it enough to be human centered or should the environment be mentioned as well. On the other hand the environmental factor comes to play with the systemic approach that Design Thinking has when the problem/opprtuniy has been framed with the environmental aspect included. I really like this TED TALK by Leyla Acaroglu and the example of the electronic water kettle and what a disaster it is becuase the system was not taken into account. If this talk is not familiar to you this is an interesting watch!

    • Thank you, Jenny, for your comment:) It’s good to know that there are more circular economy enthusiasts. I watched Leyla Acaroglu ted talk some time ago but it was perfect to refresh it in this context. She speaks about innovating ”in the regards to using sustainability as a parameter, as a criteria for fueling systems-based solutions” and looking across the entire life of the things that we do. That’s a very good tip for all designers/design thinkers 🙂

  2. Thanks for an interesting post Cecylia! I agree that ecological responsibility should always be taken in to account when designing services/products, and I liked that you provided a concrete toolkit (The Circular Design Guide) to help achieve that 🙂

    The question on whether a human-centered view in design (or in decision making, politics, etc.) is enough is good one. Is it pointless to focus solely on the needs and wishes of humans, when our well-being is dependant on the biosphere around us?

  3. That’s a very good point you are making here! I personally liked Tim Brown’s book because I experienced that in the book there is this ethos about a new world where there would be no mindless consuming or producing of useless goods and products, instead the economy would be more concentrated on producing a good life and interesting experiences, which then would also minimize the harmful impacts of our society on the planet. Of course, if we could also implement principles of sustainability into the processes of service design that would produce even better results. For anyone interested I can recommend Framework for Strategic Sustainable Development which has solid scientific background and clear principles to work with:

  4. Interesting thinking around the subject of bringing circular economy aspects into service design. For this to become more popular (other than on paper) it would mean taking a lot of initiative for the cause in the future, but hey, no-one said it was going to be easy. Can you come up with any forerunner companies that are already doing this?

  5. Thank you Cecylia for bringing up this important point! Very inspiring!
    I’ve also felt guilty for using so much paper and post-it notes on many of the design excercises, so making changes in how we work in our everyday life will also have an impact on sustainability.
    I will definitely check out the The Circular Design Guide and the materials Jenny and Salla also linked – thank you for the tip!

  6. As the number of previous comments shows, it´s not only me who founds that your blog is pointing out a very important issue. As the world is fighting (should fight more) against the global warming and plastic waste, environmental aspect should be considered within every industry, field and process. What disturbs me a bit is that some fields, many times related to business industry, separate (nature) ecosystems and human ecosystems, even we should see ourselves, humans, as a central part of the first one. People do not exist without the nature. Human-friendly should equate with environmental-friendly. Thus, could we even say that human-centered design includes the environmental approach? If not, it really should.

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