Three Ways You Can Bring Humanistic Design To Your Organization


It’s widely known that Amazon’s mission is “to be Earth’s most customer-centric company.” Countless other organizations, from Trader Joe’s to Netflix, consider customer centricity to be core to their strategies. The burgeoning business philosophy is revered as the altruistic alternative to brand centricity and widely agreed upon as the competitive advantage of our era.

As adopters of customer centricity, many corporations invest heavily in understanding customers as humans. They know that taking actions reflective of customer needs starts with establishing empathy. And that requires drawing from humanism.

In psychology, the humanistic approach looks at humans with respect to their uniqueness. One could say that the principles of universal and inclusive design take into account humanism by ensuring that products and/or services are accessible to as many people as reasonably possible. But if we were to look at humanity holistically — across our many spectrums of individuality — we would collectively include ability and/or disability, religion, age, race, identity and other distinguishing factors.

While these principles underpin humanistic design — a concept that takes everything from regulatory bodies to pop culture by storm — I believe organizations have work to do.

What Is Humanistic Design Anyway?

Humanistic design is about creating for all people. Whether you’re creating a product, a public space, a survey or a website or working in client services, you have the opportunity to ask, “How can what I’m creating be accessible to more people and cast a wider net that embraces all humans?”

While it may not have been labeled humanistic design yet, we’re already seeing widespread instances of this thinking in action. Well-known examples include the Design Trust’s “el-space” reclamation in New York City and Microsoft’s Xbox Adaptive Controller and “We All Win” 2019 Super Bowl ad. Whether you’re inspired by doing the right thing or trying not to fall behind, you can’t afford to ignore humanistic design.

How Humanistic Is Advertising?

In 2019, Adobe conducted a global survey of adult consumers. Despite making up nearly 37% of the U.S. population, African Americans, Asian Americans and Latino/Hispanic Americans feel underrepresented in advertising. According to the survey, “sixty-six percent of African-Americans said they feel their ethnic identity is often portrayed stereotypically, a sentiment shared by 53% of Latino/Hispanic Americans. Meanwhile, 51% of Asian Americans said their ethnicities are least represented in advertising.”

This suggests that we’re missing the mark more often than we’re hitting it. And this is just when it comes to advertising. Embracing the idea of humanistic design could enable increased accessibility and representation for customers and the empowerment of our employees to be agents of that change.

How Can You Bring Humanistic Design To Your Organization?

Every business is presented with the opportunity to ask themselves, “How can what I’m creating be accessible to more people and cast a wider net that embraces all humans?” Below are three approaches to bringing humanistic design to your organization.

1. Create More Inclusive Strategies With Photography

To quote disability advocate Vernā Myers, “Diversity is being invited to the party. Inclusion is being asked to dance.” Diversity is writing a blind character into a primetime show; inclusion is This Is Us casting blind actor Blake Stadnik to play a blind character.

Inclusive photography is low-hanging fruit for humanistic design. Think of everywhere your brand is using photos — website, collateral, advertisements and social media. When you look at the people represented, what do you see? Do you see different races, ages, socioeconomic levels, body types and sizes, physical abilities, religions, genders and sexual identities? Next, ask, “How are these people represented? Is it in an authentic way, or is it relying on stereotypes or preconceptions to pigeonhole them into something expected?”

2. Online Or Offline, Make Accessibility A Priority

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) provides standards for making digital spaces as accessible as physical spaces. As many companies and experiences move online, it’s understandable why digital accessibility is just as important as accessible parking. And the stakes are increasing for brands who fail to comply — lawsuits related to accessibility have been directed at well-known names like BeyoncéBurger KingCVS and Harvard, to name a very small few.

There are plenty of online resources to help get you acquainted with ADA standards and figure out how to make your online presence more accessible. Remember: The attitude here shouldn’t be, “Let’s cover ourselves to avoid potential problems.” Instead, approach with a mindset of, “How can we use the ADA to help us better understand where we’re falling short? How can we reimagine our web presence to be more accessible to more people?”

3. Spark Conversations And Continue The Dialogue

It’s incredibly simple, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. This is a powerful step whether you don’t feel like you’re in a position to institute bigger change or you’re the person who’s responsible for spearheading it. Talking about humanistic design is a lot like the Bechdel Test — once you start looking at things through this lens, it’s hard to stop. You can’t unknow it.

The most important part of talking about humanistic design is to keep the focus on having dialogues. Not everyone will be at the same place in their understanding. Asking questions can be a nonthreatening but powerful way to start these conversations: “I was scrolling through our website, and I noticed there isn’t a single photo without a white person in it. Did you ever notice that?” “I noticed we don’t have a single photo of a woman on our careers page. I wonder if that might deter women from applying?” Ask questions that can generate thinking and conversations instead of ones that seek to attribute blame or shame. Humanistic design is not something we can achieve right away; it’s an ideal we should always be chasing.

The Takeaway

Humanistic design could be a key to achieving customer centricity, which means sustainable growth and products and experiences that change people’s lives. Humanistic design is the ethos of the current age. It’s not just about profit and loss; it’s about business as a vehicle to do the right thing and make things better for everyone. And it’s something we all can do.

As published in Forbes.