Flatness and the contradictions of human centred design

Alastair Somerville
4 min readMay 26, 2017
Shoes at Piccadilly Station, Manchester

I’ve been walking more lately and got shin splints a few weeks ago (they’re very painful). The time off from walking was useful to consider the weird competition and contradictions of human centred design for simply walking about.

It’s a battle for the comfort of your feet.

Surfaces Vs. Shoes

The battle space is between the physical surfaces of the places you tread and the shoes you wear to walk. Both are designed with convenience and comfort in mind, yet they are in competition to deliver satisfaction.

That satisfaction however, is permanently shifting as surfaces and footwear change. They are trapped in a loop of improvements that attempt to deliver satisfaction but actually lead to a step change in design for the other product.

Surfaces and shoes are caught in a upgrade war that is centred around human comfort but only from the perspective of opposing product delivery team ideas of what that comfort means.

The dream of Flatness

A Manchester pavement

Human architecture is rather drawn to flatness as a dream of a better state of being. An escape from the naturalness of rutted mud and the unevenness of sand. A properly engineered surface that shows how humans can conquer topography and nature with stone and tarmac.

This is the world of public realm design. An architectural world of standards for surfaces that are appropriately flat and frictionless.

This is human centred design trying to mould an open space into usable public forum. Smoothing and clarifying the earth with hard paving, baked bricks and tar.

The hope of Comfort

My shoes today

Meanwhile, there is the fear of painful feet. The horror stories of blisters and flat arches. In this design space, teams try to understand how to create shoes that maintain correct posture and shape for a selection of imagined surfaces that the user might encounter.

This is the bogglingly complex world of Nike and Asics with their multilayer shoes with different materials and shapes to cushion and compress the foot through the whole motion of stepping down and up.

The pointless contradictions of human centred design

The point is that both the public realm architects and the footwear design teams think they are soon the best thing possible for their customers.

Yet the more the public realm is flattened and hardened, the more the shoes need to cushion and comfort the feet.

The improvements in the design of one forces the design of another solution in the other. Each side is delivering what they think is best for users. Each side ends up increasing the cost to the users.

Humans are bad at engineering and design

I’m reminded of the issues arising from mathematically optimised engineering. In the world of 3D printing, the computer models created for production can be created quite flexibly so old engineering and manufacturing concepts can be ignored.

In this new world, wastage can be reduced through mathematically optimised modelling. Instructing a computer to find a solution that meets a set of stress and strength factors whilst using the minimum amount of material (this is very important in aircraft engineering).

What has happened is that new parts are being created that do not look like the objects drawn by humans.

They are fluid and curved. Twisted and organic. More like the engineering of aliens in sci-fi movies than the engineering of people.

Flatness is a dream of apes who fear nature.

Mathematics does not fear the natural.

People may fear AI and algorithms but there really are times we should ask for advice.

A different world

There is a rebellious design world of uncushioned shoes that allow the foot to flex as normal. However, it cannot work when all the surfaces are so smooth.

Perhaps, and this is my one request, some researchers could discover what is the mathematically optimised surface for human feet.

I suspect it is a rippled and softer surface but I don’t know.

All I do know is that flatness is creating the need for greater cushioning in shoes and it’s a ridiculous waste of resources to build public spaces that demand humans buy more products simply to correct out the discomfort created by the first set of designers.

Human centred design needs wider contexts and it needs assistance. It’s not about individualising and separating people but respecting personal needs and finding communal solutions.


Wheelchair on flat surface

Reading this post, you may be horrified that I haven’t mentioned the improvements to accessibility that flat surfaces have created for disabled people. The social model concept of eliminating the disability of the environment that fails the needs of people with physical impairments. The trip hazards and pavement edges that block access.

I’m aware of those points but just wanted to write about the contradictions of design in public realm architecture and shoe wear for many people.

The additional research demand is therefore what is a mathematically optimised paving scheme for human feet and wheelchair wheels?



Alastair Somerville

Sensory Design Consultant, usability researcher and workshop facilitator. www.linkedin.com/in/alastair-somerville-b48b368 Twitter @acuity_design & @visceralUX