The Center for International Legal Education of the University of Pittsburgh School of Law is sponsoring a conference on The Business of Humanity: Current Events and the ESG Obligations of Multinational Corporations, on September 22, 2022. As I prepare to speak on one of the panels at the conference, I have been pondering these questions: What is the business of humanity? How does business dehumanize, and how can it promote humanity? Are there business opportunities that arise from focusing on humane design in a business, a product or a service?

That train of thought led me to reflect on design approaches.

Privacy by design, for example, is foundational to the EU’s  General Data Protection Regulation. It calls on companies to consider data protection in the design of new business activities, products, and services. Privacy is considered at the outset, not bolted on when it is time to go to market.

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Similarly, security by design is an accepted process for developing software and hardware. According to, “security by design is an approach to software and hardware development that seeks to make systems as free of vulnerabilities and impervious to attack as possible through such measures as continuous testing, authentication safeguards and adherence to best programming practices.”

What, then, can we add to the “by design” canon by considering human-centric design?

Humane design is used in the digital user experience world. The website, Humane by Design, features seven digital product design principles:

  1. Empowering:  Empowering design ensures products center on the value they provide to people over the revenue it can generate.
  2. Finite:  Finite design maximizes the overall quality of time spent by bounding the experience and prioritizing meaningful and relevant content.
  3. Inclusive: Inclusive design is a methodology that enables and draws on the full range of human diversity.
  4. Resilient: Resilient design focuses on the well-being of the most vulnerable and anticipates the potential for abuse.
  5. Respectful: Respectful design prioritizes people’s time, attention and overall digital well-being.
  6. Thoughtful: Thoughtful design uses friction to prevent abuse, protect privacy, and steer people towards healthier digital habits.
  7. Transparent:  Transparent design is clear about intentions, honest in actions and free of dark patterns.

Can these principles be applied outside the digital realm? Consider the design of a car.

Empowering. An example of the empowering principle is the adoption of safety glass, which protects drivers and passengers from harm in the event of an accident, although it increases production costs. 

The Ford Pinto was an example of the empowering principle turned on its head. The Pinto came into production in just 25 months, 18 months less than 43-month average at the time. Ford became aware of the fuel tank risks during production. Engineers considered several solutions that would have added costs of $1.00 to $8.00 per vehicle. None were adopted. Some 500 to 900 deaths have been attributed to the Pinto gas tank design. 

Finite. An automobile’s computerized capabilities enable navigation, systems diagnostics, and onboard entertainment. Any use that diverts the driver’s attention from the road can be disabled automatically, until the car is stopped. 

Inclusive: Not all drivers are two-meter tall men. Recognizing this, car seats are adaptable, and comfortable for a wide range of sizes and morphologies. Many are still waiting, though, for a driver-friendly storage space for a handbag.

Resilient: Rather than redesign the front passenger seat of the car to provide a safe place for children, children are required or encouraged to ride safely in the back seat.

Respectful: A smart car will suggest stretch breaks. 

Thoughtful: Privacy by design can be layered onto this design principle by creating onboard digital systems that protect privacy, and adaptive speed controls that avert collisions.

Transparent: Cars should be designed to avoid recalls. If a recall is necessary, however, the car manufacturer should disclose it and recall promptly, at no cost and minimum inconvenience to the customer.

It appears that digital humane design principles can work for a car, but do they make sense when thinking about a commodity like steel? I have a hard time applying the principles to steel as a product, but not to the steel manufacturing processes that impact people.

Principle People-impacting Processes
  • Safe working conditions
  • Production processes that result in clean air and water emissions, benefitting worker and community health
Finite, Respectful
  • Humane working hours with breaks and paid time off
  • A diverse workforce that does not exclude skills and talent on the basis of categories 
  • Location of steel facilities where they will not negatively impact already-disadvantaged communities
  • Prevention of abuse through hiring and employment practices, including the rejection of slave, indentured, and child labor
  • Transparency with communities about past pollution and contamination
  • Transparency about positions and compensation

A question that emerges after reflecting on the application of these principles to steel manufacturing is, how much more would it cost, and how much of the additional cost could be borne by a product that is a global commodity? Would the additional cost force the steel producer out of business, causing steel workers to lose their jobs? Would it spell the collapse of communities that depend on steel production? How long would it take to transition from a steel-based economy? This is a well-rehearsed scenario in places like Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where I am writing from today.

Whether companies should benefit from negative externalities is beyond the scope of today’s blog. Nevertheless, it is a question that must be addressed in order to consider how humane product design can successfully be used not only by thoughtful designers of digital products, but by industries that benefit from shifting costs to society.

Jo Anne Schwendinger


Clear Strategy Co.

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