When great designs are bad (or not human-centred)

By Carey Burke, @careyburkepro

Design is an important part of our everyday lives, which many people don’t realise they are affected by.

Whether it is used to nudge people to make certain decisions subconsciously, or the detailed use of behavioural economics to influence buy decisions, design is used to gently coerce people’s behaviours and actions.

Have you ever wondered why in large supermarkets in the UK always place the alcohol at the back of the store? Well it’s simply because large supermarkets would like their customers to walk past all the other items first as they will be more likely to make another purchase.

The food labelling system used to promote healthier eating is another great example of this. Rather than a big nanny state telling its citizens they must eat more healthily; a traffic light system was introduced to food labelling and packaging in order to tackle rising obesity and the health-related problems.

Sample food labelling requirements

Sample food labelling requirements

Explanation of UK Food labelling system

Now, consumers are treated to a piece of visual communication, a red, gold and green system that easily communicates whether the product is high in fat, salt and sugars. While this doesn’t force users to change their behaviour, it gently encourages them to pursue healthier food choices – it provides a nudge in the desired direction.

While these are not examples of designs that aren’t human-centred, it reminds us of the important role that design has in shaping the actions or behaviours of users or customers.

Good human-centred design puts ‘people first’ and failure to do so can have adverse effect for society by not treating the causes or the roots of a problem.

Homelessness is a growing global issue. In the UK this figure is well in excess of 300,000, it has continued to rise for seven years in a row and now 1-in-200 are sleeping rough, with the average person only being three weeks away from homelessness.

City officials and local government officers have a responsibility to address this problem, unfortunately debates around homelessness either tend to revolve around the homeless as a blight on society or how do we get them off our streets.

What people may not realise is that designers have been producing great designs which do just that, they tackle the issue of rough sleeping. Not the cause or effect of homelessness, but how to stop rough sleepers taking over urban city centres and public spaces.

When you walk around or relax in your local public and shared spaces take a look around and see if you can spot how design influences and changes behaviour.

Have ever noticed that seats in public spaces aren’t actually that comfortable? Well, there not supposed to be. They are designed for people to rest briefly and move on. This ensures that they are in constant rotation and that rough sleepers won’t stay or attempt to sleep on them.

Eastside City Park in Birmingham. Image courtesy of .What's On Live

Eastside City Park in Birmingham. Image courtesy of .What's On Live

We will look at Eastside City Park in Birmingham. It is located in the education quarter and adjacent to HS2 the new high-speed rail line that will connect Birmingham and London. Eastside City Park represents one of the largest public green spaces in the city centre.

Eastside City Park is the first new park to be created in Birmingham for 130 years and received many numerous awards from the Landscape Institute, the British Association of Landscape Industries, and the Royal Institute of British Architects to name but a few.

Surrounding the park is a number of Birmingham City Universities campuses, a Royal Conservatory and Think Tank, Birmingham Science Museum, it truly is a beautiful public space and a vibrant part of the city. The park even incorporates the Science Garden, which is an outdoor discovery space and outdoor classroom for the Science Museum.


Now let’s take a closer look at the cool abstract design of the seats…

Eastside City Park in Birmingham - LabPlay Studio Design Blog
Eastside City Park in Birmingham - LabPlay Studio Design Blog

While they may appear like little armrests on the seats…

they’re actually designed to stop homeless people from sleeping on them.


Now let’s take a look at seats in other public places.

So, while the designs are good and it fulfils the desired objective, the lack of human-centric design fails the human needs of some of the most vulnerable people in society. In fact, it fulfils its brief by doing just the opposite, by making it more difficult for the homeless to sleep rough.

While we love great designs, as a socially-minded business LabPlay Studio believes in putting people first, enhancing human experiences is at the heart of what we do. Therefore, we promote great designs that are good and have a positive social impact.