Can we design ourselves out of the human-centered practices that have for years dominated the field of design, in turn developing a more inclusive, multi-perspective design approach that utilizes xeno discourses and conceptual design?
This essay argues that human-centered design, which for many years has been the predominant paradigm within the field of design, has in part contributed to contemporary environmental and social problems through its servicing role within the systems that created it. It argues for resisting reduction by developing more inclusive, multi-perspective design practices, taking the complex entanglements of humans and other entities into consideration. The essay introduces the notion of xenodesign, an approach guided by principles and theories from speculative design as well as from xeno discourses and speculative realism, which are characterized by an engagement with experiences and perspectives beyond the human and an understanding of all entities on an equal level — humans, ecologies, bacteria, air, soil, artificial intelligences, etc. It explores what might constitute a xenodesignerly practice in three approaches, illustrated through examples from design.
Human-centered design has become the predominant paradigm in design for good reasons: It is a valid and highly successful approach within select contexts. It is particularly useful to understand the everyday human circumstances of problems a design is seeking to address. It can enable the creation of empathetic designs that are intuitive and suited to users’ needs.
In health care, for example, close examinations of patient needs, and their involvement in the design processes of medical products and services, have led to observable improvements in patient care and health awareness.1 In computing, the user-centered development of intuitive and gesture-based interfaces improved accessibility for those with limited previous experience.2
The difficulty with a human-centered approach to design is that it often fails to look beyond the immediate user, toward the ‘‘other’’ that might be affected by a design — not only other humans, but other-than-humans: ecologies, bacteria, air, soil, artificial intelligences, etc. Human-centered design, applied to gain an economic advantage, all too often seeks easy solutions that satisfy users within unsustainable systems in a world of finite resources. Design, in its servicing role within these systems, becomes part of the problem. To address these challenges, a new design paradigm is needed.
While this short essay cannot offer an answer as to what this new paradigm might be, it attempts to explore approaches that could lead toward it. As designers, we currently lack a framework for strategically including perspectives of the ‘‘other.’’ Contemporary conceptual design,3 the field of design perhaps most suited to critically exploring new approaches, has a limited reach by virtue of its mostly niche dissemination channels. This essay seeks to contribute to the discourse about issues of limited perspective, and about expanding audiences — both human and nonhuman — within conceptual product and interaction design.
First, it summarizes four key problems within human-centered design and gives examples of ways in which these are being addressed. Then, it formulates a notion of xenodesign guided by principles and theories from speculative realism, xeno discourses, and speculative design. It suggests three approaches that could begin to constitute a xeno approach to design: object-centered design, discursive approximations, and critical use.
These approaches are illustrated through examples from design practice — some previously existing, others newly conducted. It introduces a line of thought in design which is still nascent, leaving space for future expansion and refinement through interdisciplinary collaboration.
The problems connected to widespread, unquestioned use of human-centered design are fourfold. It can create unsustainable modes of production and consumption, leaving ecological or non-human perspectives unaccounted for. Its focus on the experience of the (human) user can limit design considerations in ways that lead to social inequalities. It also risks suppressing radical, imaginative, and poetic ideas by being too consensus-driven.
Though he originally advocated the approach, the design researcher Donald A. Norman critiqued the ubiquity of human-centeredness in design. He argued in 2005 that focusing too strongly on users may lead to advantages for some while making things worse for others.4 The platform economy exemplifies this risk, as users often benefit from services that cause difficult working or living conditions for those enabling these services. To solve this issue, Norman suggests a critical reconsideration of the original user-centered design principles he introduced in the 1980s, to shift the focus from users to activities. However, this may not suffice to address the complex and interconnected consequences a new service or product may introduce — ecologically, economically, or socially.
Systemic approaches, such as circular design and the theorist John Wood’s concept of metadesign, seek to un-center the human in order to address such blind spots. Wood posits that human-centered design’s tendency of reducing complexity to increase convenience has created an artificial world that disconnects us from the ecosystem that sustain us.5 He defines metadesign as an approach that focuses on interactions and relations between things, and on changing behaviors to reduce the negative environmental impacts of design. Metadesign is positioned as an alternative to the notion of design as a catalyst for increasing consumption, similar to circular design’s approach of rethinking production, use, and disposal streams.
A systemic approach can be effective in understanding a design’s wider context and implications, but since design has been historically human-centered, it may lack the tools for including other perspectives, and for creating empathy and a sensitivity toward the other-than-human when evaluating, rethinking, and designing these systems. Interesting work within this realm is emerging in a field of design research exploring human-animal-technology relations.6 A need for a different approach to design is also being discussed in light of the fact that design users increasingly include machines, devices, and artificial intelligences,7 as well as humans. These various user types operate on disparate spatiotemporal scales,8 introducing new design challenges.
Without specific guiding tools or techniques, it can be challenging to open our imagination to perspectives of the “other.” Also, focusing too strongly on people’s wishes and needs may lead to finding only incremental or audience-specific ideas, which reinforces the status quo rather than questioning it. It is challenging for people to imagine contexts and consequences beyond their own, making it difficult to depart from what is taken for granted as normal or given within participatory design processes. These processes are often decisively consensus-driven. But radical, imaginative, and poetic ideas may benefit more from the opposite — dissent, critique, and troublemaking9 — and from the expertise of designers, who are trained in carefully dissecting givens to imagine what could be, outside of the existing normal.
Moving forward, a framework for practices emerging within this space of the post-human-centric would be useful, increasing visibility and communicability. Building upon existing approaches, this can allow for an exploration that broadens conceptual design’s audiences, and creates tools and techniques for including other perspectives in design.
In philosophy, the speculative turn10 signifies a shift away from the correlationist view of the construction of the world, centered on human cognition, which has predominated in Western thought since Kant. Speculative realism challenges this anthropocentrism, and seeks to expand philosophical thinking to consider perspectives and notions of the “other,” including that which lies beyond human experience and perception. Object-oriented ontology, a subset of speculative realism, uses flat ontologies to understand reality. This means all objects — living and nonliving entities, sometimes even fictional objects — are considered to have the same degree of being-ness in the world.
The xeno- prefix has recently been used in the context of speculative realism-related theories to describe techniques of alienation and other-ing as productive ways to think about the unknown. This shift has given rise to concepts such as xenofeminism,11 xenopoetics,12 and xenoarchitecture.13 Although xenoarchitecture exists primarily as a theoretical concept, and thus its implications for practice are not yet clearly defined, its basic principles overlap closely with conceptual design. Aside from including perspectives of the “other,” it describes a deliberate strangeness, a radicality of ideas that opens up new possibilities.14 This has long been imperative in conceptual design, especially in Dunne & Raby’s influential work on speculative design. Similarly to xenoarchitecture, speculative design positions design as a means of asking what-if questions, and speculating about what could be, to discuss the “kind of future people want.”15
Despite these similarities, xenoarchitecture exceeds the scope of speculative design in aiming to go beyond what is and what could be to also engaging with “what actually happens.”16 Speculative design projects are usually ends in themselves rather than means to an end, frequently concluding with gallery or media dissemination. Designers seldom take part in the discussions their projects generate, forgoing the opportunity to use the work and its discourse to engage more directly with the “real” or the “other,” i.e. with broader audiences and perspectives.
Speculative design’s practices of engagement, and of going beyond what could be, may need to be reconsidered. Methods from conventional human-centered, consensus-driven design practices are possibly of limited use to address these issues if the criticality and originality of its ideas are not to be undermined. Speculative design has a history of critiquing human-centeredness for precisely this reason. Yet one of its primary aims of debating people’s preferences regarding the future conveys a significant connection to the human perspective, while other perspectives are less accounted for. The “kind of future people want”17 differs from audience to audience, and it may not be the same future that the environment, an AI, or your gut microbiome wants.
This is where speculative realism and xeno theories may be helpful. In fusing xeno approaches with speculative design, a practice of xenodesign can emerge, questioning who or what should be given agency in design, and for which reasons. It can become a practice of developing techniques for including multi-entity agency in design and for broadening both its human and non-human audiences.
While it is impossible, as a human, to fully adopt an other-ed perspective, there are ways of getting closer to it. This can be useful in order to include a variety of perspectives in the design process, but it can also create interesting design outcomes. Such outcomes can be products or interactions that invite an audience into the perspective of the other, becoming a tool for exploring it. While speculative realism’s impact on fine art has been critiqued for having led to a rejection of the role of human experience,18 xenodesign does not dismiss the human perspective, but seeks to reposition it as one among many.
Subjectivity and tacit knowledge are a part of this as elements of design’s specific ways of knowing.19 Knowledge in design is not only describable and rationalizable, but also inherent in the objects of design: a subjectivity and intuition similar to that brought forward within xeno theories, when discussing the not-fully-knowable.
The following three approaches are intended as starting points toward exploring what xenodesign might mean in practice.
Object-centered design describes design approaches related to concepts from object-oriented ontology. They assist in directly engaging with perspectives of the other-than-human in design processes and outcomes.
The works of philosophers Graham Harman and Timothy Morton, and game designer and writer Ian Bogost, offer interesting starting points for developing techniques of xenodesign. They offer concrete concepts and techniques for interviewing, analyzing, empathizing with, and taking into account the “other.” In the following paragraphs, these approaches will be linked to existing and potential future design practices, creating a set of preliminary techniques of xenodesign to encourage future exploration among designers.
When considering the broader connections and implications of a problem or a design project, Morton’s concept of the hyperobject can provide useful guidance. Design interacts with hyperobjects — pervasive objects such as capitalism, or climate change — which are of “such vast temporal and spatial dimensions that they defeat traditional ideas about what a thing is.”20
Given this complexity, a hyperobject’s interrelations with a design may not be fully knowable or describable. But considering hyperobjects that are relevant to a design, and imagining a design’s potential interactions with these, can help see the things we design on a larger scale of interconnectedness.
Perspective descriptions can help designers consider not just larger scales, but all scales. They attempt to describe and imagine experiences from a variety of viewpoints, as game designer IanBogost describes in 11 variations on descriptions for an E.T. Atari game, including:
E.T. is a consumer good, a product packaged in a box and sold at retail with a printed manual and packing cardboard, hung on a hook or placed on a shelf.
E.T. is a flow of RF modulations that result from user input and program flow altering the data in memory-mapped registers on a custom graphics and sound chip called the television interface adapter (TIA).21
Similarly enabling perspectives and analyses across all scales, ontography is a technique described by both Bogost and Harman to gain awareness about different objects involved in relationships with each other and their typologies.22 Word-based ontography is often done by writing non-hierarchical lists of all objects related to an object. Visual ontography, being closer to the world of design, describes visual catalogues, such as documentary photography or exploded-view drawings, that lead to an understanding of object relations.23 The book Learning from Las Vegas24 exemplifies how visual ontography can work in the field of design. It deconstructs and catalogues the constituent parts of the built environment of Las Vegas, revealing otherwise neglected interconnections and relations. Processes of physically disassembling designs into their individual parts are also a type of visual ontography, as in, for instance, Amsterdam-based design studio Formafantasma’s recent project Ore Streams.25 The project investigated the recycling of precious electronic waste, and included taking apart electronic devices and cataloguing their individual parts to understand these components and their potential histories and futures within production streams.
Going beyond text-based or visual ontography are what Bogost describes as ontographic machines,26 objects which more directly help speculate about the way objects relate. Bogost gives examples from game design, but ontographic machines exist in a similar form in conceptual product and interaction design, in projects which include performative techniques and ways of altering perception and taking on other perspectives, of becoming “other.”
The project Who Wants to Be a Self-Driving Car?27 conducted at urban mobility research lab moovel (Figure 1) aims to create empathy for autonomous systems by inviting humans to take on their perspective. It consists of a cart that can be driven by a person kneeling in it, using a joystick to steer. Through a VR headset, the driver sees what a self-driving car would “see,’’ letting people experientially approach the difficulties and conflicts that an AI may encounter. Designer and writer Thomas Thwaites’ project GoatMan (Figure 2) creates a similarly unusual shift in perspective, which he recounts in his book GoatMan: How I Took a Holiday from Being Human.28 Thwaites spent six days among goats in the Alps, using a set of prostheses that let him take on characteristics of goats, to achieve a meditative state of disengagement from his humanness.
Object-centered techniques reframe our perspective as being one of many, creating cross-entity empathy. Even though they, to a certain extent, bring complexity back to the scale of the human, they do not do this in a human-centered manner. Rather, they work with an alienation from our usual way of seeing the world — with human discomfort, or a strangeness of experience — to offer a change in perspective. Ontographic machines and visual ontography can be an especially productive form of other-ing in the design process, using tangible visual material and artifacts.
While object-centered design is concerned primarily with other-than-human perspectives, the term discursive approximations describes a design process with the aim of expanding human audiences and perspectives in particular. Moving iteratively from abstract and highly fictional to concrete and closer-to-reality29 designs, discursive approximations use speculative design projects as means to an end, rather than ends in themselves. Striving to build a process of engagement with ‘‘what actually happens,’’ rather than merely ‘‘what is’’ and ‘‘what could be,’’ they are concerned with staying involved in the discussions that occur as a result of a project, and developing those results into further work.
There are two types of initial, highly fictional, abstract speculative designs that can be used in the process of a discursive approximation, before moving closer to reality: provocations and hyperstitions30 (Figure 3).
Provocations do not depict entirely desirable scenarios, and ideally contain a carefully crafted balance between positive and negative implications, used as a starting point for discussions with diverse audiences. The results of these discussions then feed back into the design process to be considered in another iteration of the project that is less fictional and more concrete, thus moving closer to reality with an enriched perspective. Hyperstitions, in contrast, are fictions that enable the conditions to make them real, in which desirable futures are defined and worked toward. The design process involves backcasting from fiction into reality, developing a design iteration or a strategy that could be a first step in enabling this fiction to become reality.
The concept of discursive approximations was first explored in design practice in the project Bioplastic Fantastic31 (Figure 4), which was first developed as a provocation and iterated into the project Autonomous Agriculture32 (Figure 5).
Bioplastic Fantastic imagines a set of domestic products with biologically reactive surfaces which produce food through photosynthesis. With their abstract shapes and unusual interactions, the designs are difficult for audiences to interpret or understand with certainty. The juxtaposition of aesthetically pleasing designs and a lifestyle of utopian sustainability with dystopian artificiality, sterility, and isolation make it a provocative starting point for debates. It is a highly fictional and abstract form of speculative design with its radical reimagining of food, its difficult legibility, and a technological feasibility not impossible, but set many years in the future.
At the beginning of the project, the original intent of Bioplastic Fantastic was to produce a work about future materials, between living and non-living, that create new typologies of interactions. However, the discourse the project generated — in the press, in exhibitions, and in related workshops using techniques of object-centered design — later took it into a different direction, as it became heavily centered on discussions on the future of food production and consumption.
Abstraction can be used to move humans outside of their comfort zone, going against a widespread preference for concreteness and the human scale.33 Highly fictional, abstract designs, such as that of Bioplastic Fantastic, create a type of alienation and other-ing by using conceptual and visual strangeness. They can be starting points for interesting open-ended conversations, open to multiple perspectives and interpretations instead of prescriptively steering in one direction. A certain malleability of a project’s concept with an underlying complexity also fosters this. But perhaps most crucial is that designers keep an open mind in the discussion and iteration of a design, as it may not be clear from the beginning which direction a project will take. Ambiguity invites the agency of the ‘‘other.’’
Drawing upon the the discourse generated by Bioplastic Fantastic, a design brief for a new project was drafted. This included food-related aspects in the context of self-sufficiency and autonomous systems, and the question of how technology might merge with ecologies in ways that benefit not only humans. Autonomous Agriculture seeks to explore these themes, becoming a materialization of the discussions surrounding Bioplastic Fantastic and moving it into a more concrete space, closer to technological feasibility. It consists of prototypes of an autonomous network of farming and foraging robots, operated by algorithms as an independent business with no human employees. The network makes profits by selling locally collected and produced goods, eventually buying the land it is operating on and expanding toward other areas.
The project implies both potential positive and negative consequences, and it is not fully functional. Moving forward in discursive approximations would mean to take the most interesting aspects of it, to develop these into a design that would be feasible and implementable today — creating a design that remains critical, but goes beyond thought experiments, by critiquing and raising questions through its use.
As the discussions of Bioplastic Fantastic were heavily influenced by being situated in the mainly Western European cultural institutions of large cities, with technophile audiences, it was interesting to take the conversation from Berlin to a rural Slovenian village, Lendava, where the Autonomous Agriculture prototypes were displayed along a cultural walking path with design interventions in the countryside. Positioned in the location the robots were designed for — in a field of grass, interacting with insects, snails, and soil — the design also directly engaged with its other-than-human audiences. Even though this project iteration seemed closer to reality than those that influenced its development in the design process, in the rural Slovenian countryside it appeared quite displaced, uncovering interesting cross-audience misunderstandings, agreements, disagreements, and interests.
Discursive approximations can foster an engagement with a variety of audiences. Those in gallery contexts (where highly fictional, abstract projects are usually disseminated) are different from those that come in contact with closer to reality work, which could eventually be disseminated as functional products and prototypes. But what might characterize these functional products needs to be investigated and defined. The following concept of “critical use” is an exploration of one way of doing so.
In contemporary product design, there is a dichotomy between “design for debate” and “design for use,” with few projects incorporating both. Critical use describes design which aims to transcend this dichotomy, creating tools for use and for thinking, to allow for access to a wider range of audiences, and a more direct engagement with the ‘real.’ It enables the reflection and discussion of ideas through action.
While in 1960s Italian radical design it was common for designers to produce conceptual products and furniture which could be purchased and used, this practice has diminished in more recent conceptual product design, with a few exceptions.34 When speculative and critical design developed in the 90s / 00s, its complete separation from commercial design was productive to create a space for critique, to not have to adhere to market pressures. Speculative designs often include non-functional models, displayed in galleries, museums, or the media. But today, in a time when more accessible manufacturing, production, and financing processes have made it much easier for independent designers to bring their own products to the market, it is worth investigating whether a rejection of conceptual design as usable, potentially commercial products is still valid.
Perhaps it can be useful to compare this dichotomy in conceptual design to Heidegger’s concepts of the ‘‘present-at-hand’’ vs. ‘‘the ready-to-hand.’’35 These concepts describe how certain properties or events related to objects can change our perceptions. When a thing is ready-to-hand, it is used as a tool, to serve a purpose — a hammer in his example — and the person using it gives little thought to the tool itself. Instead, all thought focuses on the task to be done — hammering in nails or joining wood. But when the hammer breaks, or if it is used for other purposes for which its use is difficult, it becomes present-at-hand, allowing for reflections on the hammer itself and its characteristics. Or, put in a different way, there needs to be a disruption or difficulty in an object’s use in order to create an alienating shift in perception that triggers a process of reflective thought.
The project The inside is always a folding of the outside36 tests this concept in practice. It includes, among other elements, the design of a modular plug-and-play kit in which plants can be grown in microclimates that simulate potential future atmospheric or geological conditions, such as extreme CO2 levels, processes of arctic thawing, or highly saline soil. The plants are selected based on their abilities to thrive in extreme conditions, as well as their potential use for biological geoengineering. They grow within possible future microecologies, experiencing these future environmental conditions, and in reaction changing their own and their environment’s biochemical and mineral compositions. The plants can later be consumed, allowing humans to ‘‘ingest’’ potential futures.
While consisting of a series of aesthetically pleasing devices to grow plants in in the home — ready-to-hand tools for use — the designs also become present-at-hand through their more ‘‘noir’’ functions. A deliberate interaction is required to continuously subject plants to extreme conditions of climate change, making direct and domestic what is otherwise indirect and spatiotemporally distributed. The project makes the negative impacts of climate change tangible, but does not remain within the realm of dystopia. It is at the same time positioned as a tool to prototype biological remediation and geoengineering strategies, for example testing the use of bright plants to increase surface albedo and act as an insulator to keep thawing soil cool. It becomes hyperstitional in its advocacy and prototyping of these biological ‘‘soft’’ approaches to geoengineering. And it becomes a poetic tool to experience and discuss our entanglement with the landscape and its ecologies. Elevated CO2 levels, for example, impact the nutrient composition of plants37 — the outside directly affects the inside, both in the plant as well as in the human who ingests it.
But critical use can also take on a simpler, playful form in conceptual design, as in the case of German design studio Ding3000’s Kerzenhaltding38 (“Candleholdthing,” Figure 6). It is a candleholder which, instead of being placed on a table, can only be used if it is plugged into an electricity socket. Its contradiction of creating light through fire, while blocking the use of electricity at that location, encourages a reflection on personal electricity use. Electricity is usually ready-to-hand, used without contemplation. Through Kerzenhaltding’s purposeful user-unfriendliness, it becomes present-at-hand, yet the product is still a ready-to-hand candleholder.
A concept that philosopher Armen Avanessian describes as “metanoia,”39 a change in mind or a new way of seeing that can happen after reading a text, can also become an ambition for design. Critical use proposes to design for metanoia through the use and experience of a designed object. Rather than a critique and reflection triggered during a visit to a gallery or museum, it aims to enable critique and reflection embedded within the actions of everyday life.
These three approaches to xenodesign — object-centered design, discursive approximations, and critical use — should not be understood as disparate, but as interrelated. Their use may be most effective when combined, expanding and interweaving both human and other-than-human perspectives and audiences. Xenodesign encourages an inclusive, multi-perspective approach to design, and acknowledges our place, and design’s place, in a complex and entangled world. It is an approach in which the fictional aims to permeate the real directly, without losing strangeness, poetry, and criticality within the process.
Revisiting the four key issues of human-centered design identified earlier, it becomes apparent that the approaches of xenodesign described in this essay address some more effectively than others. While these approaches are especially suitable for attending to problems of limited perspective and imagination, they may be less useful for engaging with potential social imbalances or systemic consequences of a design, as they touch on these issues only implicitly. An exploration of a systemic approach to xenodesign, and of techniques for engaging with potential indirect consequences, would be a valuable addition to the discourse.
As this essay illustrates, xenodesignerly practice already exists in its beginnings, even if it is not declared as such by its practitioners. Giving this design approach a name and beginning to frame, describe, and define it can foster its development. It can offer a platform for testing alternatives to the paradigm of human-centered-design, which might later also find application beyond conceptual design in more applied design practices.
In times when robots are granted citizenship and residency rights,40 forests and mountains are given the same legal status as humans to protect them from ecological disaster,41 and in which we now understand that humans are to a large extent other-than-human, hosting more microbial cells in our body than human cells,42 our attitudes toward design and human-centeredness need to be reexamined. A resistance of reduction in design is necessary, shaped by cross-audience sensitivity, multi-entity empathy, and a reconsideration of agency. “Becoming-with each other,”43 as Donna Haraway would say. Perhaps xenodesign can help.
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