To Have or To Be ?

Many design efforts are aimed squarely at the psychological and sociological well being of the target audience, whether they be considered patients, users, customers or simply people. Designers make many explicit, and even more implicit, assumptions about what may or may not be helpful towards well being. In this respect you might be tempted to think that most designers were extremely well briefed regarding what might or might not constitute human well being. Well, unfortunately, such is not always the case.

Despite the passing of more than 40 years since its writing, Eric Fromm’s  To Have Or to Be? is still somewhat of an unknown entity to many designers.  It raises thorny questions of relevance to most products, systems and services, thus might be considered a helpful resource for human centred designers.

Fromm’s main thesis is that two modes of existence struggle for the spirit of humankind. The “having mode” concentrates on material possessions, power, and aggression. The “being mode” focusses instead on love, the pleasure of sharing, and productive activities. According to Fromm the accommodating of people’s “having mode” is a completely different matter from that of their “being mode”.

So when a human centred designer is provided a brief for a new product, system or service, does the designer start with targets for “having” or for “being” ? Which is the more relevant set of criteria for the new design ? And how can such needs be met head-on ?