Designing for Basic Human Needs

[Ed. note: Starting this week, we will be running posts every Wednesday submitted by the students at Carnegie Mellon's School of Design. We thank them for their contribution to Imprint.]

By Jenny Shirey

Each Monday and Wednesday morning at 8:30 a.m., a small group of college seniors and graduate students from Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Design meet to discuss and question how design can be used to improve people’s lives. The course is “Social Impact by Design,” taught by Professor Bruce Hanington. Design for social impact, although currently very much in vogue, is a nebulous area. During the course, we’ve had many discussions about definitions, especially the definitions of “design for social impact” and “humanitarian design.” Although these terms are sometimes used interchangeably, I believe they are not the same. Defining the difference, however, is not easy. The words are an attempt to describe movements in design that are organic and in a constant state of change.

For me, the difference has to do with whether the design meets basic human needs. It is possible—and perfectly acceptable—to design for social impact without addressing basic needs. For example, Volkswagen’s Fun Theory projects are great examples of how design can impact society by making environmentally-friendly activities enjoyable.

Video screenshot showing the “Piano Staircase” (from http://www.thefuntheory.com/piano-staircase)

Closer to home, two Pittsburgh students, Quelcy Kogel and Erin Pischke, created a project that involved baking and delivering pies made from local ingredients. The goal of the QTPi project was to create awareness of the benefits of eating local food.

Pies being packaged (photo by Q.T. Kogel)

The package included a map showing the location of the ingredients (photo by Q.T. Kogel)

My gut feeling is that both the Fun Theory and the QTPi projects, while wonderful examples of design for social impact, are not humanitarian design because they do not address basic human needs.

But even this demarcation is not entirely clear, as I found when my classmates and I attempted to create a list of basic needs. Our list contained the following:

Food, clothing, and shelter
Clean water
Sleep
Good health
Clean body and clothes
Education
Freedom from fear
Human contact—cognitive and physical
Social acceptance
Love
Empowerment
Self-worth

But the further we went down the list, the more unsure we became of whether these are indeed basic human needs. Are basic needs those that are necessary to sustain human life, or those necessary for a certain quality of life?

The Tide “Loads of Hope” truck provides free laundry to displaced people. Are they meeting a basic human need? (photo from http://www.velveteenmind.com)

In the end, I return back to the difference between design for social impact and humanitarian design. While it can be helpful to talk about definitions (especially if it helps us as designers to learn from each other and strengthen our own work), we should be careful not to flatten our conversations into arguments over semantics—a common temptation for those of us in the academic world. As my classmates and I move into the project phase of our course, I remind myself: there is a reason we all chose this class. We all share a desire to improve people’s lives, and to make the world a little bit better.

2 thoughts on “Designing for Basic Human Needs

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  2. Amy B

    I like to think about Jamie Oliver and his “food revolution” as a great example of what the design field should be doing—sustainable, holistic change for the better in organizations, government, and individual lives. Interestingly, I think the food revolution might fall within your definitions of both humanitarian /and/ social impact design! It might seem like nit-picking, but defining these things can really help us understand what issues are most imperative for designers to address.

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