The Three Faces of Human-Centered Design

Charlie Grantham’s approach to design is to create environments which promote wholeness among the people that occupy those spaces. In this article, he links that idea of wholeness to social science in an effort to show that human-centered design is a practical way to make our workplaces not just more operationally efficient, but more life-affirming, too.

Image via Death to Stock.

There are many definitions of “wholeness”. I wrote in a previous article about how we often use the word interchangeably with well-being, but well-being is just one part of it. On top of that, the general, contemporary classification of “well-being” is overly weighted towards the physical (or functional) aspects of life, revealing an underlying design bias toward efficiency and cost criteria.

Instead, I like the definition found here: when I say wholeness, I mean “the full integration of states of physical, mental, and spiritual well-being.”

This relates to what I see as the “three faces”, or foundational principles, of human-centered design: function, which concerns physical, intellectual, and environmental wellness; being, which includes social and emotional wellness; and will, which is spiritual wellness. We’ll explore each of these three states in this article and examine how we can apply them to workplace design.

Table courtesy of the author.
This is your overall design map for creating workplaces that will promote wholeness. Table courtesy of the author.

I first discovered this triad view (will, being, function) of humankind while working on biopsychosocial research in the ‘70s. Roughly, these factors signify the mental, emotional, and physical parts of our lives. And while I have been using this three part analytic framework for quite some time, it all came into focus for me when I was doing an intensive study of systematics which led me to Gregory Bateson, George Gurdjieff, and finally, John Bennet’s categories of will, being, and function.

In order to simplify things, I have selected two other schools of thought to show a correlation with Bennett’s categories of will, being, and function. Theodore Kemper has pioneered a branch of sociology called “the sociology of emotions”. And Ken Wilber is best known as the author of A Theory of Everything: An Integral Vision for Business, Politics, Science, and Spirituality:

Table courtesy of the author.
Table courtesy of the author.

OK, so what does this have to do with design? The workplace? Or my own personal leadership development? Next I’ll break each category down for you.

Function

In today’s parlance, “function” is embedded in the ideas of environmental, occupational, intellectual, and physical wellness. Translated into the realm of workplaces, function becomes how we sense the environment, the forces of hierarchy, rules, and policies, and finally, the notion of movement or change.

In the old, industrial world, forces stressed order, repetition, and uniformity. And of course, there was no sense of movement. Instead, businesses strived to impart a sense of permanence and predictability in their workplaces.

Today’s world demands collaboration and innovation. The stage is set with infinitely moveable pieces and interconnectivity. Change is now the new permanence; work is fluid and flowing.

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The flow of the process by which the three face approach can be employed. Graphic courtesy of the author.

There is a specific process where this three face perspective can be employed in workplace design. For the foundational principle of function, we are expressing arrangement and control. That leads to design objectives of collaboration and accessibility, followed by the coordination of activities and access to whatever is needed for the task.

That’s a complex way of saying we want workplaces that provide visibility to workflow (no visual barriers), and open access to resources such as maps and wayfinding guides. Lastly, we need to constantly remember that a workplace is a container for learning and provide tools such as social areas with display work surfaces to capture ideas and thoughts in real time.

The idea I’m putting forth is that there is a knowable and logical process to move from an underlying foundational principle to the exact manifesting of a workplace (see above graphic). And, conversely, when you have a sub-optimal workplace you can track it back to the principles and foundations, which have been violated.

When you stand in a workplace, or you’re looking at a set of floor plans, there are five basic questions you need to ask to make sure you are doing what is required to achieve functional balance:

  1. What kind of work process are they trying to realize? Just what is it they want to do here? What would that work process look like? Draw a picture.
  2. What energy are they trying to remove? What are the time and energy wasting processes that need to be removed or at least minimized like unnecessary movement from place to place?
  3. Time removal. What time are they trying to take out of the process? How can we arrange things so they can do it faster?
  4. Space removal. What can be taken out, or re-arranged in a more efficient order?
  5. What will be unique in its effectiveness of use? How will it be defined in unique way so that people inhabiting that space will begin to develop an identity and others can find them?

Each environment is different, designed for a certain purpose and inhabited by a different group of people. That is your design challenge.

Being

Being is usually understood as the emotional part of our lives, but it is a bit bigger than that. From a workplace design perspective, being is the experience of the workplace. Whereas knowledge is the subjective aspect of function as I discussed above, consciousness is the subjective aspect of being.

Historically, function has been the hallmark of workplace design. Now, being is starting to merge as we realize the connection between subjective experience and, at least, well-being.

For the foundational principle of being, we are expressing the “place brand” and fluid actions. That leads to design objectives of building, maintaining, and signifying community, followed by competencies of identity and interaction.

So, being in the workplace is about branding, community, how we are identified, and, finally, how the workplace helps or hinders interaction among team members.

Suffice it to say at this point, being leads us to people being engaged with their work and their workplace.

How does this idea of designing for being get put into practice? I like to think about making these design ideals “real” by a process of questioning. This sets up a process of design dialog among clients, designers, and the work environment. Yes, it can talk to you and tell you what it wants to be. Sometimes we like to call this “wants to be” the dominant culture context of the workplace. Here are five key being questions to ask.

  1. What is the focus of attention in the workplace? Just what do people need to pay attention to here? Is it some sort of analysis, collaborative interpersonal interactions, or idea creation?
  2. What are we sure of? What does this place need to do through time in order to serve the larger whole of the enterprise?
  3. What is becoming necessary? Looking towards the future, what can we see emerging on the horizon as a new need or requirement for this work?
  4. What will help or hinder us? What kinds of things can help you get to where you want to go? Is it process, technology or perhaps even new knowledge? And also what gets in the way? What barriers to change exist?
  5. What is possible? Given all of this, how do we reconcile the forces for progress with existing restraints?

Each of these five questions is a process within a process. Focusing just on being is not just a simple desk research exercise. In practice we find a “futuring” workshop to be the best practice to answer these design questions, before pen is put to paper or the CAD/CAM software is fired up.

Will

Will, or more correctly willfulness, is the last of the three faces of design that support the human superstructure of wholeness. I am taking my understanding of will from the thinking of Bennett, as I’ve mentioned before. But there are analogues in other’s perspectives. It is Freud’s Id. Wilber’s soul/spirit. Zohar and Marshall’s spiritual capital. It is the hallmark of the “conceptual age” that Dan Pink sees us evolving towards. Will is our intentional consciousness of making our true purpose manifest itself into our physical world.

Willfulness is about your plan, definition of purpose, and consciousness of the social impact your design will have. The high level objective is building trust in the work environment. Accountability and integration for work are the core competencies. In terms of features, you see a uniform look and feel, ease of navigation, and reliable, uniform experiences of the workplace. No surprises.

Willfulness is about conscious design. Not just by happenstance nor solely motivated functional or cost factors. Function yes, being yes, but surrounded by and contained within willfulness as a prime motivator.

As with the others, there are five design questions for the designer:

  1. Just what are you trying to realize in this workplace? What do you want it to mean to occupants? How does this fit with their personal purpose?
  2. What is the nature of the transformation that takes place in this workplace?
  3. Where do the tasks performed here fit into the value-adding stream? Step back and look at it as part of a larger system. Are there markers in this workplace that show where it fits into something larger?
  4. How is time perceived here? Fast paced, slower and more orderly, or something different entirely?
  5. Lastly, what is the energy level of this workplace? High, low, mixed?

I’m often asked, “Where does the designer start?” All of the three faces (function, being, and will) are intertwined and recursive. You go around and around and one decision immediately impacts others. My best advice is to start the process here with willfulness. The rest will fall into place more easily.

This is the tough part of the designer/client relationship because our default behavior is to go to the functional aspects first. Let’s get to doing  something quickly so we look busy and therefore valuable in the client eyes. Being, or How does it feel?, is sort of the stepchild. Willfulness? Oh my God, we have to actually talk about what it is we are trying to do, why we are doing it, and how all that fits into a much larger context? Seriously? Yes, because if you don’t get the willfulness taken care of, everything else will quickly fall apart.

So, there you have it. The three faces of human-centered workplace design. The functional, the being, and how willfulness holds it all up.

This should be your overall approach for creating workplaces that promote wholeness. But remember: the map is not the territory. You still have to do a lot of exploring of the physical, the emotional, and the willful aspects of those involved in the process. Good luck!

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