The unachievable goals of Pyramids

Alastair Somerville
2 min readOct 24, 2018


I dislike pyramids. This may seem harsh but I will explain.

There’s a famous diagram of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs that uses the pyramid form.

Here is one from Wikipedia.

It’s an odd diagram because it makes life about achieving a peak. Offhand, Maslow did not draw this diagram. It’s an interpretation of his ideas (Cameron Tonkinwise pointed out this paper on that general misunderstanding of Maslow’s role) .

I dislike this form of diagram for a couple of reasons:

  • The pyramid creates a sense of constriction: self actualisation is elite and limited.
  • There is also a sense of individuality (more so in the way the diagram is framed). It is for a person alone to achieve self-actualisation.

The danger is Maslow’s ideas become mixed up with conservative ideas of individual worth and achievement. People can ‘fail’ to be good enough. The pyramid adds to the hierarchy with wider ideas of power and privilege.

It may not be intentional but it is there. The hierarchy of needs becomes a competition and a structure that people can judge themselves and others against.

A journey

Here’s an alternative diagram. The hierarchy is flattened into a journey into the mountains.

Instead of self-actualisation being a single peak, it is many peaks. There are many ways of being self-actualised.

Instead of being alone, there are people. The journey is not about being successful as an individual but about travelling and meeting people who help you and that you help.The journey is still hard but people have hope. Hope is shared and so is help.

Life isn’t a test

Maslow’s Hierarchy was never meant to be a test of individual capacity and success.

Reclaiming it from that bias means we can talk about a diversity of futures, divergent ways of being and the importance of social, shared connections.

Pharaoh’s liked pyramids. They were for them, alone.

We can move on from that, together.



Alastair Somerville

Sensory Design Consultant, usability researcher and workshop facilitator. Twitter @acuity_design & @visceralUX