Progression of Human Centred Design

Gabrielle Howdle





Human centred design is an emerging theory observed through tactical urbanism projects that is rewriting the way designers explore, design and implement innovation in the public realm. Human centred design is an inherent part of tactical urbanism, and the way landscape architects design, “it is a philosophy, not a precise set of methods, but one that assumes that innovation should start by getting close to users and observing their activities” (1)

Tactical urbanism is a method that strives to improve local streets, neighbourhoods or the city for the local people by “capitalising on local ingenuity” (2). Complementing the principle views of human centred design raised in, Adaptive Muddling (3) and Change by Design (4), which focus on citizen participation and distributed leadership to obtain opportunity, inspiration and ideas.  

Tactical urbanism at its core is defined by small-scale, low-cost, short-term interventions meant to inspire long-term change in the public realm, often referred to as Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper (5). Tactical urbanism projects start as grassroot actions usually inspired by community collaborations; most projects are intended to be temporary in nature and if successful then implemented, in small steps, at a local scale. 

Human centred design is an innovative bottom-up approach to solution solving; “a process that starts with the people you’re designing for and ends with new solutions that are tailor made to suit their needs” (6).



Adaptive Muddling, a concept described by Raymond De Young and Stephen Kaplan emphasises small experiments, not small steps. Adaptive muddling considers three main changes from muddling, exploration, stability and distributed leadership. While muddling conceives the fumbling changes made by designers, scientists, researchers and individuals as experiments, in general none realize that what they are doing is human nature; muddling. Adaptive muddling builds upon people’s inherent tendency to muddle or “trial and error process” (7), allowing one to become conscious of experimenting, recognising the human quality of muddling through; to explore, test and improve. Adaptive Muddling describes the symbiotic relationship between exploration and stability, where “explorations are pursued at small-scale, whilst stability is provided at large scale” (8). The focus on multiple simultaneous small-scale experiments allows for analysis, design and implementation to occur and has an advantage over the top-down or large-step approach. Adaptive muddling allows experiments, which are relatively low risk and tolerant to failure, with other ideas already set in motion to fall back on. This approach is supported by the third facet, distributed leadership, which allows those who have the skills to lead the process of design, the vision and the explored themes, whether it be a landscape architect, an ecologist or an individual with an interest in their street; making leadership central to adaptive muddling. However the success of this approach is dependent on the diversity of the people involved; skills, abilities and interests, “the effectiveness… depends upon its broad base of contribution and the diversity of its contributors” (9). The development of human centred design corresponds to the development of the commons and emergent design, each folding their principles into one another to form a new collection of design theories. Therefore landscape architects and designers alike must come to recognise the emergence of muddling, and that adaptive muddling allows us to take risks and come up with innovative designs based upon human needs.



“We spend a lot of time designing the bridge, but not enough time thinking about the people who are crossing it” (10) Design thinking is about the process of design as much as the solution itself. “The design thinking process is best thought of as a system of overlapping spaces rather than a sequence of orderly steps” (11), one isn’t given a bench to design for a square; instead one explores opportunities, which may or may not lead to the design of a bench. Tactical urbanism projects tend to address deficiencies in built environments, but a project cannot be successful until one understands whom one is working for and the problem they have. Design thinking has three core stages, each imbedded with cyclical processes; inspiration, ideation and implementation. Inspiration in terms of human centred design is fundamental to its structure, to tactical urbanism and landscape architects it gives the opportunity to design and explore various possibilities with a clear comprehension and understanding of the site through user observation and empathy, whether it be building, block, street or suburb. Ideation is the process of generating, developing, trialling and getting feedback on ideas, allowing one to improve and repeat the process as required, until the design is ready to be implemented. Throughout the process, designers shift intermittently through divergent and convergent thinking to analysis and synthesis, allowing one to sort through ideas, and concepts that do not fit, that are not viable, feasible or desirable (12). Tactical urbanism employs design thinking and its system of overlapping spaces to propose quick, small-scale, low-cost projects, to inspire long-term change through incremental phases. Human centred design allows tactical urbanism projects to produce different solutions emerging through communication and empathy of personal experience, allowing a wheelchair to comfortably pass through a square, or an elderly man to cross a road. The emergence of human centred design as a theory is relatively new, however the act of human centred design has unconsciously bled itself into good landscape architectural design.



Human centred design is a process that starts with people’s vision and ends with a solution that suits their needs. This differs from, yet compliments, tactical urbanism that starts with a project for a people, community, or city and ends with a solution that tailors both the needs of the people, the resources available and the environment. Human centred design is a good stepping stone for many tactical urbanism projects and as a process of design within the landscape architecture field; however landscape architect’s deal within social, environmental, economical and even political realms, where human centred design falters. Human centred design has its limitations when it comes to landscape architecture, for example environmental challenges. Landscape architects often work with rich ecological sites, where views and concerns often do not appear in an individual’s agenda; these sites are often beyond self-interest. Therefore using human centred design principles and processes in producing new streetscapes, public spaces, and other local interventions is only half of the process. Other techniques are perhaps required in conjunction with human centred design, in order to tackle environmentally conscious design. 

The emergent move toward human centred design reflects an increasing understanding of the negative impact of designing all spaces from a city plan, or for a ‘typical’ site. Human centred design considers the people’s needs, wants and visions for a specific project; whilst including them in the various processes and iterations of the design, blurring the line between designer and user. Tactical urbanism is the emergent ‘hands on’ approach of landscape architecture in the public realm; where small-scale projects benefit from the processes of human centred design, design thinking, human nature, empathy and understanding.


(1) Norman, D., A., & Verganti, R. (2012). Incremental and Radical Innovation: Design Research versus Technology and Meaning Change. Design Issues, 30 (1), 78-96.

(2) Project for Public Spaces. (n.d). Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper: A Low-Cost, High-Impact Approach. Retrieved from

(3) De Young, R., & Kaplan, S. (2012). Adaptive Muddling. De Young, R. & Princen, T. (Ed.). The Localization Reader: Adapting to the Coming Downshift (pp. 286-298). Cambridge, US. The MIT Press.

(4) Brown, T. (2009). Change by Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organisations and Inspires Innovation. getAbstract. Harper Business (Harper Collins Publishers). 

(5) Project for Public Spaces. (n.d).

(6) IDEO. (2015). IDEO: About. Retrieved from

(7) Allan, J., & Marshall, G. (2013). Sustainability and the Public Realm. Griffiths, P., & X-Section Journal Team 2013. (Eds.). X-Section: Placemaking; How do we Create a Contemporary Sense of Place? (3), 14-17. Auckland, New Zealand. Unitec Institute of Technology. 

(8) De Young, & Kaplan. (2012).

(9) De Young, & Kaplan. (2012).

(10) Dr. Singh, P. [Prabhjot Singh] (n.d.). Twitter.

(11) IDEO. (2015).

(12) Brown. (2009).



Lydon, M. (Ed.). (2012). Tactical Urbanism: Short-Term Action; Long-Term Change, (2). New York. The Streets Plan Collective.