My son asks me to make him protest signs. This one in “Babyish” language is for his animals and robots to carry. It reads, “Wash waah waah waah waah,” which translates in English to “Heck no we won’t go.” In our world, toys have rights too

How human-centered design is good for everyone.

I usually write about cities, design, and technology. But I have another interdisciplinary practice — raising my six-year-old son to be a kind and connected human being. A few weeks ago as my son was going to bed, he made a quiet request: “Mama, tomorrow can you make me a protest sign that says ‘Kids matter too’?” I’m not sure what was fully on his mind as he quickly dozed off, but this moment was a good snapshot of our relationship and his journey of discovering his place in the world. He had a very clear idea about what he wanted to express, along with a sense of agency and courage. But as someone beginning his literacy and activism journey, he needed help implementing his vision. (It was also nice to know he could count on me as a co-conspirator in his revolution.)

During waking hours, I practice and teach human-centered design. Human-centered design (HCD) is a way to design objects and experiences grounded in the realities of everyday life. Rather than designing using only one’s own ideas and assumptions, human-centered designers gather inspiration from the way people live. They interpret and apply what they observe to build things that will solve people’s real problems—not hypothetical ones.

I trust my son to make real decisions about what he wants to learn school and to apply real mascara.

Beyond grounding our ideas in lived realities, human-centered designers are trained to regard the users of products as experts, and to champion their needs and perspective throughout the design process. I’ve found that like respectful parenting, human-centered design means not imposing your own tastes and ideals onto your users and always respecting the agency and unique aspirations of the people you’re designing for. As a parent, I’ve sometimes slipped away from this framework, making decisions based solely on my own needs and ideals rather than on who my son is and what he enjoys. I’m thinking of when I signed up for a French cooking class that my son repeatedly asked to leave. At one point, I looked around the room to realize that many other caregivers were enthusiastically patting pâté sucrée while pacifying their annoyed or bored kiddos. Clearly, this “kids” class was more about how grownups envisioned spending a Thursday afternoon than it was about engaging children.

Beyond cooking classes, many seemingly kids-centered products and programs — from snacks to schools — are designed to address more the needs of parents and other grownups, not kids. But kids are humans too, amazingly capable and brilliant humans in fact, and can and should be respected as co-designers rather than objects in the systems we make for them. Just like us, kids are happier when they are not forced to do things or conform to an arbitrary way of being — by both people and companies. Nobody likes that! Yet, I’ve noticed that from infancy, notions of modern parenting can go a little like: “Parent, you need to continue to live your life. So just make your kid’s life conform to yours and that’s the only way everyone will be happy.” I think the opposite is true. If we elevate kids’ unique voices and experiences alongside our own, then everyone’s collective happiness rises. You may be thinking: “Nice idea, but how does this actually happen?” Well, below are three inspiring examples of big and small ways to co-design the world with kids as agents —not objects—of design.

Pono students on a city trip to explore the geometry of St. John the Divine Cathedral. At Pono, kids spend half their time outside learning directly from the world. There is no curriculum, instead kids decide and plan what they want to learn. (Source: Pono, 2020)

1. Pono, an outdoor, democratic school in NYC

Very serendipitously, I found Pono, a school that respects kids as agents and co-designers of their own learning and lives. At Pono, kids from ages two to 13 express their curiosities and work together with peers and teachers to pursue their own interests. Kids spend half their time outside all year round. They learn reading, writing, and math in small groups and one-on-one. And everything else that emerges in the curriculum is an outcome of individual and shared interests. During my son’s time at Pono, he’s learned how wigs are made; how the continents were formed; how to make kinetic, cardboard robots and unicorns; and how to feed a turtle kale. No grownup could have anticipated or planned this learning lineup. Pono’s founder and parent herself, Maysaa Bazna, reflected on the school’s evolution:

“Over the past decade, we have trusted the children to know what they want to learn and how far they want to go in their pursuits. With the belief that there is no limit to what they can do, we have supported their pursuits and they took us to a totally astounding place that I could never have expected.”

Overall, I’ve found that the educators at Pono are like highly skilled human-centered designers, trained never to impose their own assumptions of what is best or right, but instead always remaining open and observant of what they hear and see from the kids.

Detail of Follies, Follies is a life-size construction toy that supports creative play indoors and outdoors (Source: Follies, 2020)

2. Humans Who Play, an agency and creative lab using play to design a better world

Chloe Varelidi founded and leads Humans Who Play, and uses human-centered design methods in both her professional practice and as a parent. Humans Who Play focuses on communities who have been historically neglected and have been forced to use products or participate in programs which don’t meet their needs because no one is designing with them. Chloe reflected on this intersection of co-design and parenting:

“It’s complicated to raise humans, and whether we mean it or not we do impose a lot of our selves on them—so, the more conscious we are about that the better. And just like HCD we listen, we adjust and iterate, we prototype and test, and hopefully we come up with something that works. At least for a while. There is comfort in knowing there is space for that in parenting.”

Chloe just released Follies, a life-size construction toy that supports creative play and that was co-designed with kids, for kids. (Think: affordable and creative alternative to playgrounds that children can construct themselves.)

Detail of a collaborative and flexible play space co-designed with children refugees (Source: CatalyticAction, 2017).

3. Catalytic Action, an architecture studio co-designing spaces for play and learning for refugee communities internationally

Catalytic Action is a socially-responsive architecture studio with a particular focus on building play and learning spaces for refugee communities. I interviewed a co-founder of Catalytic Action, Riccardo Luca Conti, about how design can empower and heal children and families. Ricardo shared how the co-design process in refugee camps and temporary settlements starts with sharing personal memories and dreams:

“When we ask children to design with us, usually the memories of play (back in Syria or in the past years living in Lebanon) help us structure the discussion around the playground design, what games to include, and what kind of spaces to create. They also share aspirations of what kinds of new games they would you like to play, not just their memories.” (Read the full interview here.)

Designers prioritize creating space where children can release energy, feel imaginative, and play games that foster collaboration and mutual respect.The team also consults with child development experts to better understand the spatial needs of children who have experienced psychological trauma. In this way, both the process of co-design and the spaces themselves become a mechanism for healing.

Overall, respectful engagement models like these creative practices have inspired me to become a better human-centered designer and human-centered parent. My only advice to parents who want to empower their kids to actively shape their world: less bougie baking, more collaborative protest posters :)

🥐
Adriana

p.s. Here’s a great resource via Chloe called the Designing for Children’s Rights Guide.

Urbanist, mixed methods researcher, teacher, mother. Currently urban design lead at @openboxNYC and faculty at SVA and Parsons School of Design.

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