Skip Navigation

Exploring Life-Centred Design


May 31, 2023
4:00 PM - 4:30 PM



Life-centred Design (LCD) is best described as a design practice in transition. While still in early days, LCD practitioners are striving to go beyond the limitations of human-centred design by embracing the environmental and social dimensions of all life on Earth in their calculations. By definition, human-centred design has people at the heart of the creative process. LCD goes further, beyond the human element by thinking holistically about the impact of their work from every angle on our footprint of the planet. As humans, we’re a small – but dominant – part of the ecosystem and not the only player. LCD holds this fact to be true at its core. Its primary goal is to restore nature and the primacy of natural life in our world.

Jeroen Spoelstra is a designer focused on life-centred design. He’s the founder of the Life-Centred Design School and Unbeaten Studio located in a small village nestled in the Spanish Pyrenees. Currently, he has three creative projects underway, the Unbeaten Studio, the Life-Centred Design School and a mountain bike guiding company. His mission is to help creative professionals transition from the human-centred design approach to LCD, to give a voice to the biological ecosystems and non-user communities that have, to this point, stayed silent in the design process.

DesignMeets’ Ian Chalmers (IC) talks with Jeroen Spoelstra (JS) about the essence of life-centred design and its impact on the real world in the 21st century.

IC: Welcome, everyone, to DesignMeets, a community platform for exchanging ideas, getting inspired and collaborating with our peers, to find more meaningful ways to put design and its transformative power to work.

The LCD idea is a new one for me, as well as for a number of people joining us today. I came from user-centred design background, so was very curious about the evolution of our processes and methodologies that place the focus on the human user. The difficulty with this approach is we can't solve current complex systems of inequality and climate crisis using these singular methodologies. We need a new way of thinking. Today, we’re fortunate to have Jeroen Spoelstra with us, to take us on a crash course on LCD, to help us understand the concept and the practice. Afterwards, we'll take some questions.

JS: Let’s begin by moving from universal design to life: design starts by moving a little bit slower. “Having less of a design sprint and more of a design walk” in a design world where everything is always very rushed. Where we need to slow down and focus our attention a little more. I am from a small village in the Spanish Pyrenees, on border of France and Spain. We worked on a project about a year ago about the impact of tourism on or local town from the point of view of a little lake. This is a sampling of what she had to say:

“I am a glacial lake, which means I've been here since pre-historical times when the pinecones you see were actually flowers resembling their cone-bearing ancestors. The 430-kilometre-long Pyrenees Mountain chain around me was formed 65 million years ago. My surface reflects the sky, with the mountains and the trees around me. I play host to an entire ecosystem, from the microorganisms and frogs living in my water to the cattle and other animals that come to drink me. My rocks protect the lizards that live under me, and the moss that resides on top. The trees around me need to be firm and solid and resistant to hold the soil in place. We protect each other. It's a very delicate balance to maintain ...”

This was the emotional narrative of the non-human persona we created from this glacial lake, allowing us to understand the impact of tourism on this lake and in this region. With a team of designers and students, each of us tried to make a personal connection with the lake with the surrounding area. This audio file was the result. As designers, we learned that immersion in nature helps you better understand the impact we have as humans on the planet, just by standing still and observing.

So, if you look at climate change, for example, this small lake is just a tiny component in the Pyrenees tableau, but it's affected by global climate change. So, what can you do as a designer, to lessen the impact on this lake or talk with other people to lessen the overall human impact on nature? Instead of looking at what you can do from a human perspective, there are other life forms to consider. You need to look at the impact on the planet for your design, as well as the effect on society, local communities and the economy. These three elements are all relevant, and they need to work together.

For me, LCD is a design philosophy and approach that goes beyond human needs that puts nature at the centre of our projects. Our long-term goal is to restore natural ecosystems and create new relationships between nature and humanity that are mutually beneficial. We need to create a new perspective that encourages everyday actions, such as sustainability and regeneration. It may be difficult for designers, creators and other professionals to understand the importance of this transition. However, it is critically important to have a well thought out strategic view that can translate into everyday action. This is something we have tried to do, and we are taking those first steps in our LCD journey.

Selected Q&A

On your five-day retreats for your participants, what were your greatest “Aha” moments”?

I think our “Aha” moments were that it is all about relationships, and that we have to reconnect with nature. It’s about designing, and maybe living, with intention. Trying to change our mindset around the way we design, and to go outside.

What are the challenges?

As I see it, there are two challenges. I’ve talked to a lot of designers and other creative professionals who have discovered life and design, nothing exists yet about how you make it work. How do you use it? That's where we can help them. The other challenge is, how can I include this in my work? Where do I start? I think as a designer, you should define your work and what it is about and be prepared to defend it.

What books would you recommend as an introduction to the LCD mindset?

Decolonizing Design by Dori Tunstall

MC24 by Bruce Mau

Thriving in the Next Economy by John Thackara

Earth Democracy: Justice, Sustainability, and Peace by Vandana Shiva

In terms of professional development, would having a background in biology or ecology be a benefit for a designer following an LCD career?

For me, it seems strange that people talk about regeneration and sustainability but don't have a biology or ecology background. I think when you’re in university studying economics, you surround yourself with people with those skills. What I have tried to do is be very open to different kinds of thinking and speak to as many people with diverse backgrounds as I can, to learn from them. That really helps.

Jeroen Spoelstra

Founder of the Life-Centered Design School and Unbeaten Studio

Jeroen Spoelstra is a designer focused on life-centred design, living with his family in a small village in the Spanish Pyrenees. He has three creative projects underway, Unbeaten Studio, the Life-Centered Design School and a mountain bike guiding company. His mission is to help creative professionals transition away from human-centred design to life-centred design and give a new voice to biological ecosystems and non-user communities that, to this point have been silent in the design process.

"Fewer design sprints and more design walks.”

— Jeroen Spoelstra, Founder of the Life-Centered Design School