Attentive and Appreciative: Designers Connecting with More-Than-Human Beings

Main Article Content

Caro McCaw
Louise St Pierre


This essay considers a design student project that practised methods and languages for connecting designers with the more-than-human. The term refers to ecologist David Abram’s phrase “the more-than-human world” as a way of considering our entanglement with earthly nature. Alongside ecological thinking, we drew upon New Zealand Māori and Canadian First Nation scholars and worked with local cultural advisors. This project was offered across two design classes, beginning with one in Vancouver, Canada, and the other in Dunedin, New Zealand, with a six-week synchronous window. These schools connected through DESIS, a network of labs that research social innovation and sustainability. Teachers and students were able to share their approaches and progress online, culminating in an online exhibition and conversation. Key ideas explored included Karl Wixon’s “whakapapa-centred design” and Robin Wall-Kimmerer’s “grammar of animacy,” indigenous values that centre the natural world as sentient and present with the world of humans. Students were tasked with becoming advocates for a more-than-human being. They drew upon multiple frames to learn about this being and conceive of possible different relationships. After conducting a series of immersive research activities including meditative, phenomenological and academic approaches, students drew upon their design skills to translate and share their learning. The outcomes are a variety of prototypes, designed to share this advocacy as experiences for others. Through a combination of online and embodied learning, many explorations brought to light understandings about the fundamental interconnectedness of humans with the earth, with all species and with each other.

Article Details

Author Biographies

Caro McCaw, Otago Polytechnic, Te Pūkenga

Caro McCaw is an associate professor and head of programme Communication Design at Otago Polytechnic. She employs creative social practice and approaches in art and design contexts. Embracing sustainable, decolonial and indigenous agendas, her workplaces emphasis on social relationships, interdependency and care, to suggest empathic and alternative ways of knowing and being, across diverse projects and contexts. She is the coordinator of the Otago DESIS (Design for Social Innovation and Sustainability) lab, a node in an international network, and an umbrella and a hub for a community of like-minded researchers.

Louise St Pierre, Emily Carr University of Art and Design, Vancouver

Louise St Pierre descends from a long line of settler farmers and artisans. Her passion for the Earth has propelled her to research ecological design throughout her career. She is co-author of the internationally recognised Industrial Design curriculum, Okala Ecological Design. She established Canada’s first DESIS Lab at the Emily Carr University of Art and Design, Vancouver. She brings animist views to DESIS, decentering the human and contending that all beings are social. In her PhD, she integrated her concern for environmental sustainability with her Buddhist practice to understand how modern culture’s tendency to diminish our relationships with nature has implicated designers. Her recent publications including Design and Nature (with Kate Fletcher and Mathilda Tham) and Design for Biodiversity (with Zach Camozzi) offer a range of examples of how designers can reprioritise the importance of the natural world and challenge human exceptionalism.