There is an old story about architect Frank Lloyd Wright proposing not to lay sidewalks at a university until students had a year to walk across the grass. Supposedly, he claimed the foot traffic would tell him where the sidewalks needed to be. Whether the story is fact or fiction, it illustrates the heart of a human centered design process: building communities tailored to the needs and desires of the ones who will live there.
The journey to becoming more “human” in our design process has been an imperfect one, but we’re wholeheartedly committed to designing communities built to thrive. Tempting as it may be to simply build as fast as possible, slowing down to ask the right questions helps us make more efficient design solutions in the long term. Here are a handful of the questions we’ve learned to ask, to get past our assumptions and see what is really needed.
“Where do you want to live?”
Finding land for building communities can be challenging and costly. It’s easy to assume an “if you build it, they will come” mentality, in eagerness to get people into new homes, typically on less expensive properties many kilometers away from their current living arrangement. But the truth is, a new location isn’t a better location if it’s far away. We now refuse to relocate families more than 5–10 kilometers from their current home. It’s a simple design choice that makes a huge difference in the lives of the families. For them, moving an hour away would mean switching schools, a longer work commute, or grandma and grandpa are too far away to help with the kids. Moving families long distances away from their original homes sets them up for frustration, instead of success, in their new community.
“How would you design the community?”
In a participatory design workshop in Haiti, we presented families with an urban design featuring a central plaza to hold their market. The moment we presented it to the families, there was immediate and unexpected resistance. Mothers didn’t want the market in the middle, knowing it would be a busy space unsafe for children. Families didn’t want it near their homes, predicting it would be dirty and potentially loud. Central plazas are what we, designers from the US, would consider a great public space with equal access for the community. If we hadn’t allowed families to share their opinions with us, we would have assumed a central plaza to be a great addition. Knowing this before building allowed us to move the market to the side of the neighborhood and maximize the available space. Community members always have insights into the way roads, green spaces, and homes should be arranged — asking for their feedback allows us to build them something they’ll actually use.
“Are you happy here?”
Once we’ve completed construction, and the last family has moved in, our work there isn’t over. Even when we build with thoughtfulness and empathy, we can’t predict all the problems that may arise. With this in mind, we return 6, 12, and 24 months after families have moved in to collect impact data and find potential for improvement. In Labodrie, Haiti, we’ve learned there’s currently a mosquito problem due to standing water in the area, and we’re working with local partners to find a sustainable solution. We recognize we won’t be able to solve every problem that arises, but we’re committed to learning from what we’ve built and iterating better communities in the future. It takes time and investment, but it’s the only way we can keep humanness and empathy at the forefront of our work. We aren’t in a race to build the most houses; rather, we’re taking thoughtful, intentional steps forward to sustainably fight a billion person problem.
The last thing I’ll say is this: a human centered design process is exactly as it sounds — human. Though we’ve learned a lot and we keep learning, the lines are not always clearly drawn, and the process can sometimes be messy. When in doubt, we default to this question: “What would I do if this was my family? What care would I give?” From that place of empathy, we build.