Thomas Wendt

Decentering Design

Saturday, March 25 10:15 am – 11:00 am

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Session Summary

Human-centricity is a fundamental assumption of contemporary commercial design. And for good reason: if one is expected to pay (monetarily or otherwise) for a product or service, it should meet a previously unmet or under-met need.

However, the ease with which we—as ego-centric, “rational” beings—conflate lasting human needs with shortsighted, market-driven human wants will only lead us deeper into unsustainable futures. My central thesis for this presentation is that human-centricity promotes an anthropocentric point of view that ultimately leads to a proliferation of status quo capitalist design, unsustainability, and a false sense of politically neutral design.

I argue that while human-centered design is generally a progressive step, it fails to account for (eco)systemic, ethical, moral, and sustainability issues that are integral to design but are often ignored in commercial settings. The very idea of “centricity” forecloses on issues outside that center.

“Human-centered” is quickly and ironically becoming a euphemism for “market-centered.”

Put simply, humans need, want, and desire terrible things—from war to cigarettes to factory farms, we can trace back every cultural atrocity to market-driven human wants. So instead of human-centricity, perhaps we should be questioning whether design needs a center at all. Could de-centering design result in more sustainable, system-level design decisions?

About the Speaker

Thomas Wendt is an independent design strategist, author, facilitator, activist, educator, and speaker based in New York City. He splits his time between client engagements and independent scholarship.

His client work includes building sustainable human-centered design capabilities through workshops, training programs, and coaching, along with projects encompassing early stage design research, co-design, and service design. Thomas has worked with clients ranging from large companies to nonprofits and activist groups.

Thomas’s first book, Design for Dasein, deals with the relationship between experience design and practical philosophy. It explores the emerging practice of designing experiences through the lens of phenomenology, a philosophical perspective concerned with how humans experience the world. His second book, Persistent Fools: Cunning Intelligence and the Politics of Design (forthcoming), explores the role of cunning intelligence and deception to make more socially, culturally, and ecologically sustainable design decisions, as well as a means of resisting oppressive design.

Thomas speaks at conferences across the world and is published in both academic journals and practitioner publications on topics such as philosophy of design, design theory, sustainability, design research, design thinking, and the politics of design.

He also enjoys escaping to a remote cabin in the woods whenever possible, single malt scotch, and practicing yoga.