Empowering Artifacts

De-centering the Human in the Early Phases of the Design Process


Since the 1980s the design paradigm has been influenced by human and user centered design, which has positioned humans as the center of form and meaning making of the natural, built, and technological environment (Forlano, 2017). This humanist framework has created a binary distinction between humans and non humans as us vs. them, the living vs. nonliving, and natural vs artificial. The psychological division and othering has contributed to a wide range of complex problems regarding sustainability and the environment and has led to a false sense of human identity (Colomina Wigley, 2016, pg. 136). As human forms of intelligence are being matched by AI, human-centeredness is put to question in an immediate way. In the future, who will be the form and meaning makers: humans? Or our artificial counterparts?

In effort to decenter the human a bit I want to highlight the role of the material, natural, and technological artifact as an entity with agency, autonomy, and power. I postulate that by giving emphasis to our non human counterparts during the early phases of the design process, designers can subvert the psychological limitations of “human-centeredness” in human-centered design to one that is more inclusive of all beings. This paper examines methods that leverage artifacts as agent, anthropomorphic, intelligent, speculative and equal. Though each method has degrees of human-decentering, I postulate whether or not they are truly non-humanist by exploring if it is possible to move beyond anthropocentrism entirely to understand the subjective and relative experience of non-human entities.

The basis of this paper stems from readings of architectural theory, sociology, and ecology, all of which question the relationship between humans, non humans, the built and natural environment. According to architectural theorists Beatriz Colomina and Mark Wigley, what makes us human is our interdependency with artifacts. We create tools to help shape the world and they in return shape us. We are completely suspended in the experience of designing and being designed in a sort of synchronized call and response between humans and non humans (2016, p. 23). The blurred boundary between human and non-human derives from Bruno Latour’s Actor Network Theory which defines the artifact as an actant, or “that which has efficacy, can do things, has sufficient coherence to make a difference, produce effects, alter the course of events” (Bennet, 2010, p. viii). According to ecologist Jane Bennet, actants also have vitality, the power “not only to impede or block the will and design of humans but also to act as quasi agents or forces with trajectories, propensities, or tendencies of their own...These material powers, which can aid or destroy, enrich or disable, ennoble or degrade us, in any case call for our attentiveness or even ‘respect’” (Bennet, 2010, pps. viii & ix) The methods below attempt to give attentiveness and respect to the artifact.

Method 1: Artifact as Agent

Designers must first engage with artifacts by viewing them as equal, active players. What better way to comprehend this for visual designers than to diagram? The Actor Network Theory (ANT) diagram provides a visualization of human and non-human actors as a part of a social system (Payne, 2017). When combined with Distributive Cognition Theory Mapping (Dcog), a designer can comprehend a system beyond the individual as the visualization shows how “cognitive resources are organized within a context...as mental activity is externalized onto the world” (Perry, 2003). Through a combination of ANT and Dcog mapping, a designer can reposition the role of the human user of a system and locate actors of different levels of value and purposes. Furthermore, the designer reframes the problem question from a human-centric point of view to a systems level. For example: “How does NCSU Campus Engage Bird Culture?” as opposed to “How do NCSU students engage Bird Culture?” The subtle change in semantics shifts positions of power and reveals non-human actants as important in ways that might be overlooked.

Method 2: Artifact as Anthropomorphic

The second method I propose early in the design process is to anthropomorphize non human objects. This idea is derived from a class project in which we utilized a human-centered research method, a cultural probe to inquire about folk’s hopes and fears surrounding AI (Gaffney, 2006). My group came up with a questionnaire that probed participants to approach analogue objects in their homes as if they were “smart,” thereby relating to these objects as their partner, child, animal, and so forth. Participant’s responses revealed the ability to relate to analogue objects as if they were active, living participants in their life. The responses revealed feelings surrounding AI—whether or not some objects should be embedded with technology, as well as interspecies differences and limitations.

Method 3: Artifact as Intelligent

Once the designer understands the power of artifacts, they can enhance their cognitive and agentic capabilities in savvy ways for intentional change. Through this method, artifacts become “interfaces, enabling different forms of human engagement” and “openings, possibilities for something new in the human, even a new human” (Colomina & Wigley, 2016 pps. 24-25). In Discursive Design, objects move beyond their utility and materiality into frictional, critical space by “magnifying, reflecting, and revealing aspects of culture for its audience...intentionally distorting in order to emphasize, propose, speculate, instigate, or criticize” (Tharp & Tharp, 2018, p. 13). The argument is to leverage repeated exposure to material goods for social change. Think: coy and invisible, yet hyper exposed and political. The Nutriplate, for example, is a discursive ceramic dinner plate that includes nutritional information about hundreds of food items on the rim of the plate. The plate both informs and provokes thought about nutrition and food subtly and effortlessly through its repeated exposure (Tharp & Tharp, 2018, p. 11).

Method 4: Artifact as Speculative:

Artifacts have superpowers as well. They can function as props or act as mediators between present and future possibilities. According to Speculative Design theorists Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby, artifacts yield speculative power through their simultaneous belonging in the here and now and the world yet to be had as “their physical presence can locate them in our world whereas their meaning, embodied values, beliefs, ethics, dreams, hopes, and fears belong somewhere else” (2013, pps. 43- 44). The fictitious restaurant, Bistro Invitro, demonstrates this beautifully (Bistro In Vitro, 2019). By positioning the digital artifacts (photographs and videos of speculative food items) within the context of a contemporary restaurant website—a design that looks familiar and actual, the viewer is struck by a suspension in disbelief (Dunne & Raby, 2013, p. 100). Upon further glance, it is clear that the meat is fictitious, hyperbolic, and critical of meat grown in a lab.

Method 5: Artifact as Equal

In the preceding methods, the designer shifts position of power from the human to non human by giving the artifact agency, intellect, and speculative power, but arguably still within an anthropocentric framework. As we enter into a posthuman world where the boundaries between human and non-human become more ambiguous, what methods can designers employ to assure all points of view are being considered that lie outside of our species-centric definition of consciousness?” (Anderson, 2019). What methods can help us decenter the human to the extent that we embody the other’s cognitive, emotional, and physical experience fully—is that even possible?

The first thing that comes to mind is through full embodiment in Virtual Reality. Recently, I entered into an in-process project by an NCSU professor, Matt Peterson that provided a VR experience to understand scale and size of entities beyond our visual comprehension from the tiniest microbe to a large ship. The VR experience decentered the human to the extent that deep into the process, you felt as if you lost sense of yourself. I’d argue that his project was non-anthropocentric at best because it challenged the participants to experience scale from the perspective of the non-human.

In addition to embodiment, a radical means towards multi-species equity is to abandon the anthropocentric idea that thinking is the leading communication mode and to embrace the non-linguistic (Jeffries, 2017). In How Forests Think, Kohn focuses on semiotic form as a mediating center, and asks humans to discard “received ideas about what it means to represent something...explore representational forms that go beyond language...by going beyond human” (2013). I find the challenge of new form making interesting because that is what designers do: translate and articulate messages through form every day. In the design process, designers can aspire to bridge the communication divide between the human and non human by ideating alternative languages and symbols that cull from both perceptive centers.

Though it may be impossible for humans to design from a non-anthropomorphic center, methods to elevate the artifact and challenge notions of perception and form can lend themselves to adaptive and inclusive design solutions. As Monika Bakke states, “A planetary perspective on human life vis-à-vis nonhuman forms brings to attention not only vast spatial dimensions but also immense temporal dimensions” (2016). Decentering the human in the design process can only function to warp and shift our perspectives in ways we might not consider to develop a more nuanced understanding of the hybrid ecology of humans, non humans, technology, and society. To summarize Donna Haraway, it is through these multiple decenterings and wounds to the narcissism of the humanist that the liveliness of technological and companion entities come forth, bringing hope to our posthuman world (2004).


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Jeffries, S. (2017, August 23). Humankind by Timothy Morton review – no more leftist defeatism, everything is connected. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/aug/23/humankind-solidarity-with-nonhuman-people-by-timothy-morton-review

Kohn, E. (2013). How Forests Think: Toward and Anthropology Beyond the Human. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Payne, L. (2017). Visualization in Analysis: Developing ANT Analysis Diagrams (AADs). Qualitative Research, 17(1), 118–133. https://doi.org/10.1177/1468794116661229

Perry, M. (2003). Distributed Cognition. HCI Models, Theories, and Frameworks: Toward a Multidisciplinary Science Interactive Technologies, 193-223. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-155860808-5/50008-3

Tharp, B. M.; Tharp, S. M. (2018). Discursive Design: Critical, Speculative, and Alternative Things, Cambridge (Mass.): MIT Press.

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