Pick a layer: centring on which sense of our humanity?

Alastair Somerville
4 min readSep 24, 2023
Three focus layer diagrams — explained in detail in the article

After a few months of work for the Design Council on Systemic Design Thinking in the Climate Crisis, I am back on a museum wayfinding project. We are about to test a prototype scheme and I need to think about what questions to ask.

As with Systemic Design Thinking, there are issues of choosing the right focus layer to this. Being human centred requires consideration of which sense of human, of humanity, we seek to enquire about.

This post is simply about a set of three linked diagrams that I am using to consider what layer or what lens to use in this wayfinding project.

Let us start way, way too wide.

Too wide?

Very broad diagram has border of Self-Protection and Procreation in bottom corner of square and Fight or Flight in the top right corner. The boundaries of being

What are the core aspects of being alive? What do we all seek and seek to avoid.

Most creatures seek to protect their own existence in this life and to project their existence forwards into future lives.

This is the most simple and most broad lens for human centred design.

On the flipside is the Fight/Flight behaviour that attempts to enable the Self-Protection/Procreation intentions.

This framing is too deep, too wide. It may be true but it is not something that a wayfinding system needs to concern itself with. It is not the questions that need asking of people using the prototypes.

Vastness can overwhelm finding purpose.

Too tight?

Middle diagram is the central model of wayfinding and wayshowing — the axes of personal intent and attention drawing by institutions

At the centre of the diagrams is the Intention/Attention axes.

This is the very direct relationship of individual intention seeking and institutional attention seeking.

I was speaking about intention at Accessibility Scotland lately. How much we hustle people into having a specific intention thru attentional design. The casino examples in the diagram are part of that sense of tension. Balancing between guiding a loose sense of intention into a very direct interaction.

This loose/direct issue is at the heart of some questions I have in the museum wayfinding system. Some visitors do have a specific goal (to see a particular exhibition for example) but many do not. They go with a loose intention to be welcomed and invited to something specific. The attentional design enables that discovery.

The wayfinding system must support both loose and direct intention. People who know where they want to go and people who want to be invited to explore.

This layer feels a bit tight. Positive and negative ideas feel too solid, too certain for prototyping. There needs to be an openness to what we ask.

Just right?

The Intention/Attention model surrounded by a circle of Curiosity and Direction. The seeking of more, and the invitation of direction

The final diagram is the middle version between vast intents and direct intents. The ideas of Curiosity and Direction.

For now, this seems to be the right layer or lens to use.

A general sense of recognising human curiosity: whether people know what they are seeking or are seeking to explore. A general sense that the direction we offer is a welcome and an invitation.

For this prototyping session, this layer and questions framed around these themes seem best. It is not a tine for detailed hard questions. More a time to explore the senses of comfort in being curious and being directed in discovery.

Layer switching?

Realistically, I need to ask people about the wayfinding system helps balance their sense of positive anticipation (the curiosity) and negative anxiety (the fears that direction can help manage).

However, what this post is mostly about is layer switching and being comfortable both recognising and shifting between them.

This is a form of intersectionality in design work. One problem in Systemic Design Thinking was the lack of people who can comfortably shift between the Vast and the Small, the individual and the global and the short term and the long term.

Those skills in recognising layers and finding the right one for the work in the moment (and the systemic effect that has on other layers in that moment/place and other moments/places) is something I need to either practice better or seek out in other people.

The wayfinding project is simply one small framing of a skillset that is needed in so many projects.

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Alastair Somerville

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