• A Design Approach to Human Flourishing

    Anna Pohlmeyer is assistant professor in the Department of Industrial Design at TU Delft where she also co-chairs the Delft Institute of Positive Design, a research institute devoted to the study of design for human flourishing. We met when I toured TU Delft on a visit to the Netherlands early this year, and since then I’ve been intrigued by the work Anna, her collaborators, and students are doing in this area. I talked with Anna and asked her to tell us about positive design and how designers might incorporate it into their work.

    Untitled Anna spoke about positive design at the Adaptive Path UX Week 2014 conference in San Francisco. Watch the complete talk here.


    Maria Cordell: As I understand it, positive design is a way to design longitudinally and with consideration for emotional effect, which is a very powerful combination. Could you define positive design for us and tell us what differentiates it from other types of design?

    Anna Pohlmeyer: The name positive design relates to positive psychology, which is the science of happiness. Positive design builds on and extends findings of positive psychology by studying how design can contribute to people’s subjective well-being. Here, it is important to note that design is not limited to its material value, but that it can also be a carrier of intangible values and a means to enable pleasurable and meaningful experiences. Think, for example, of a necklace that you inherited from your grandmother or of a communication tool that makes it possible for you to stay in touch with friends and family even when you are apart. The key differentiator of positive design to other types of design is its main objective: to stimulate subjective well-being and human flourishing. We use the term for all forms of design and design research in which explicit attention is paid to the effects of design on the subjective well-being of individuals and communities. It can therefore also include other design approaches such as social design or persuasive technology given that these share the same design goal of long-term happiness.

    In a positive design framework that I developed with my colleague Pieter Desmet, we identified three ingredients that reflect different components of design for subjective well-being: Design for pleasure, design for personal significance, and design for virtue. All of these can contribute to one’s well-being, but the sweet spot is where the three meet — and that is where we believe design can enable human flourishing.

    MC: Human flourishing is a very interesting outcome of this work. Could you say a bit more about how you define it and what it means to design with human flourishing as an outcome?

    AP: There are different elements of well-being such as positive emotions and relationships, meaning and interest; human flourishing can be understood as a combination of these. Flourishing people thrive – they live to their full potential and find balance in life.

    Subjective well-being is really a combination of pleasure and meaning. These two don’t have to be mutually exclusive; to the contrary, meaningful experiences can be exceptionally pleasurable. Sometimes, pleasure in the short-term can facilitate engagement in and maintenance of desirable behavior that ultimately creates a positive long-term effect. As you can see, Positive Design is a holistic approach that goes beyond short-term user satisfaction.

    There are multiple ways to design for happiness. One way is to (re)design the experience evoked by human-product interactions with the ingredients of pleasure, personal significance, and virtues in mind. This is also applicable to everyday products and services such as a coffee maker, a booking system, or driving a car. Designers can also aim – on a kind of meta-level – to coach people in living their life in a way that fosters well-being. Such solutions go into the direction of design for behavior change or coaching methods, like finding ways to express gratitude, reflecting on what went well on a given day, or doing good for others.

    MC: It strikes me that the person or user has to be a willing participant, that in a sense the person has to complete the design. Could you elaborate on this and other aspects of positive design that we should consider?

    AP: Active involvement is indeed a key characteristic of Positive Design. A product in itself, i.e. through passive consumption, will hardly bring happiness; it is the interaction of a product and a person’s thoughts and/or actions that can lead to meaningful experiences. A design might empower or encourage you to stay in touch with friends and family, but you have to take the crucial step of actually nurturing these relationships. Similarly, the well-being potential of the inherited necklace I mentioned earlier is its symbolic representation of a loved one, and this association comes from the grandchild. ‘Involvement’ stands for the human contribution, though this is not necessarily a matter of ‘willingness’.

    Another key characteristic is balance, which is about balancing different domains of life, short and long-term concerns, as well as personal and societal interests. A third is to take a possibility-driven approach, which is about exploring possibilities by focusing on and learning from the positive rather than solely reducing something negative. Another is long-term impact, as I mentioned earler.

    Finally, personal fit is important. Subjective well-being is by definition subjective. Hence, a human-centered design approach that also ensures a good contextual understanding is strongly recommended to find personal fit in this regard. A designer needs to understand what is actually pleasurable or personally significant to a person (and why!), what brings meaning to her, and where she has strengths.

    MC: Where can designers learn more about Positive design and some of its methods or tools?

    AP: A rich resource is our website of the Delft Institute of Positive Design, www.diopd.org, where we make many of our publications available. We also develop tools that support designing for the three pillars and post these there.

    MC: Terrific. Thanks, Anna! This is exciting work whose concepts and insights I’m looking forward to incorporating into the design practice at Adaptive Path. I can’t wait for more designers to start making use of these ideas and tools as well.


    Go deeper into positive design by watching Anna Pohlmeyer’s talk from UX Week 2014.

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