Designing Education the Human-centered Way

By Raunak Chaudhari (Creative Heart – Empowerment Academy)

Though they may turn into background noise in day to day life, designs of things – both physical or otherwise embed themselves in our everyday actions. Influencing behaviors and (in the long term) habits, design dictates our very way of doing the things we do. It is the intent of the designer however, that sometimes determines whether a design is actually livable with. This also goes firmly with the design of widely followed models and systems – for example, education.
Take a step back and think about the whole idea of designing. In the world of architecture, the work of Frank Gehry has often had quite polarizing opinions. Some of works come off as creative masterpieces in creating forms out of materials (the Guggenhiem museum) while others become quite vocally criticized. Manaugh (2014) argues Gehry’s work becomes continually worse with each new project. There is no denying however, that Gehry’s works prioritize the materialization of ideas and creative forms before they consider people’s interactions with these forms. The intent of Gehry’s work is not to include people and their experiences into the design, but to put forward creativity and expression of ideas.
An alternate disposition to designs can be found with New York City’s flood barriers. After the devastation of hurricane Sandy in New York, the realization of the growing scale and impact of natural disasters became real. The flood line affected from hurricanes, for example, has been growing further inland over the years. This directly puts an increasing number of occupants in risk. One solution could have been to move residencies and commercial spaces away from the coast line. This however would contest the very human desire to grow. If people cannot be moved away from coastlines, what if the water could be kept away? The most logical answer would be to build a barrier between inhabited areas and the water that is doubtlessly going to penetrate these areas otherwise. People and their property will be kept safe and and the coastal area protected – an appealing idea until we consider the lives of people actually living alongside these barriers day to day. Imagine a New York surrounded by a wall – blocking everyone’s view into and out of the city. A fitting sight for a zombie movie.
Star architect firm Bjarke Ingels Group’s (BIG) idea was to create a more appealing design to barriers. Instead of having massive walls, what if the barrier could blend into everyday lives of people by also being (say) a garden? This opens the task of protecting the city to greater possibilities. However, BIG seems to have taken the new world of possibilities and gone to town with it. Since the coast line is made up of not just a single neighborhood but a lot of different types of inhabitations, each of these areas is bound to have their own unique sets of sub-expectations apart from the broader goal of keeping the water out of their homes and offices. BIG’s Dryline project empowered neighborhoods in the creation of their own versions of the solution – fitting their own needs and wants. Involving the communities in the design process that ultimately will become features they will live with creates solutions that are not only accepted by greater masses, but also allows innovations to occur beyond what would be possible in isolation. The people we design for are the best muses to be inspired from. This synergetic effect could also extend well beyond the designing stage of the solutions. These outcomes can be accentuated when people interact with solutions that are built with their lives in mind.

The people we design for are the best muses to be inspired from.

Now bringing the discussion back home to Nepal’s education system. Even when the intent of a design is inclined squarely at the welfare of beneficiaries, inconsideration of the needs of people can make the design void of any real benefits whatsoever. A mere 13% of SLC students from government schools actually made it through in 2015 (Aljazera, 2015). The reasons for this include failure and drop outs. Perhaps designing the whole education system with the needs of the stakeholders (particularly students but also teachers and future employers) at core, at least the sector could begin to deliver more effectively. What are the needs of the people? We will never know if we never ask. As it turns out we cannot simply assume to know what people need. Even the noble intent of designing education fails when the inputs of the people that education is intended for is not taken into consideration.
Nepal’s education can benefit from what BIG has done with architecture. The Dryline project owes success the architects – but not in the solutions they came up with. Instead, the success is largely vested in the architects’ will to give away the ownership of the design process. Bringing in the stakeholders of the final structures created widely accepted and (more importantly) relevant solutions. The process of designing education can also benefit from being diverted from isolation of the designers themselves and being inclusive of students, educators and future employers.
In design projects, the human element in design often lacks the attention it deserves. Even when people are brought into the design process, it is often that they will be taken as mere inputs in the ultimate end that is a finished product. The alternative? Investing in a more human involved approach to design – “human centered design” as it is most commonly called – keeping people at the core of decisions when considering the intent of the design and the design process itself. Designers, in a way, need to give up the authorship of the works they produce and stop thinking of design in terms of artists. Once this mindset is accepted and internalized, the question would perhaps be not whether stakeholders are brought into the design process, but how such a change can take place. Should educators initiate change from their classrooms or should change be top down – initiated from the designers of systems themselves. 


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