Abraham Maslow’s 1943 paper A Theory of Human Motivation explored the various human need-states as the author observed them. You’re probably familiar with his work. Even though this hierarchy of needs isn’t universal, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs continues to make its way into our conversations many years later. Maslow gave us a gift: access to the lens through which he saw and experienced the world and people around him.
I’ve seen Maslow’s hierarchy used time and time again in marketing, branding, and design conversations. Brands with high customer loyalty and advocacy work from the top the the pyramid: where humans recognize and live their best selves; where they run faster and push harder; where they move past the vision of themselves that’s holding them back from greatness.
Some brands don’t go past the first few levels of the pyramid—that’s simply their value proposition. Advertisements for products that fulfill needs lower down (like healthcare or hygiene products) fall completely flat when they try to offer the buyer love, belonging, or self-actualization. I cringe when I see them. I cringe through the politics that attempt to provide self-actualization by way of eliminating the health, safety, shelter, clean air and water, and freedoms for other people.
In Pathways of Bliss, Joseph Campbell—one of the most intriguing scholars and authors of mythology—tells about his experience of the great psychologist, Maslow:
“He gave a list of five values: survival, security, personal relationships, prestige, and self-development. I looked at that list and I wondered why it should seem so strange to me. I finally realized that it struck me as strange because these are exactly the values that mythology transcends. Survival, security, personal relationships, prestige, self-development — in my experience, those are exactly the values that a mythically inspired person doesn’t live for.”
That is to say: for the poets and the artists, the writers and the creators, in order to be true to themselves, they will put their own personal relationships, security, fame, and money aside as they hang on for dear life at the top of the pyramid. These are the people inspired by myth, as Campbell says. They’re entrenched in mysticism, in connection, in awe—things at the top of the pyramid—and not survival. The levels below take a back seat.
In Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl writes:
“The more one forgets himself—by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love—the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself. What is called self-actualization is not an attainable aim at all, for the simple reason that the more one would strive for it, the more he would miss it. In other words, self-actualization is possible only as a side-effect of self-transcendence.”
In Maslow’s theory, levels in the pyramid build from one to the next. Higher needs come into view after lower needs are satisfied. For example, an individual’s need for friendship and intimacy may only be as healthy as their sense of security in their career, their physical health, or their capacity to rise through social ranks. Primitive cultures are frequently seen through this lens: They could not achieve the highest levels with any sense of greatness because they don’t have access to the essentials like shelter and clean water. One doesn’t typically improve on the way up the hierarchy of needs, and this can produce a state of desire and wanting, war and violence, us and them.
Clearly there’s some jumping around from level to level that happens naturally—especially when it comes to our motivations. Plenty of success stories have come out of some of the worst conditions, where survival is the motivator and life-changing innovation occurs rather than the accumulation of immense wealth.
And so I’ve been wondering about Maslow’s hierarchy can apply to the work of the designer.
Personally, I’ve come to look at Maslow’s Hierarchy as a filter through which all things pass on their way to becoming conscious of the needs on lower levels. My home is more peaceful because my ability to self-transcend is one I am always practicing. My relationships are fun and supportive because I’ve learned to practice focusing on others. I’ve learned to practice seeing myself not identifying with something but rather with a sense of awareness.
But what if we looked at the hierarchy from the top down? What if it were seen as a filter, rather than a ladder? How would design change if we created products that served the individual’s pursuit of what they had to give rather than what they could receive from using a product?
I love this as a framework for emerging corporate stewardship models. During Super Bowl LI, we saw advertisers beginning to embrace this viewpoint with messages of unity and equality. More brands (even less common ones) are starting to filter their messaging down through the hierarchy by serving the common good, taking a stance, and cutting through the bullshit. Now, younger generations won’t be sold to, and they won’t settle for brands that don’t care or won’t commit to making the world better for everyone—not just those who agree with them.
If designers recognize that their work—especially when it’s focused on the lower levels of the hierarchy—is influenced by a transcended self, that will influence the needs further down the pyramid in magical ways. The tone of competition changes. Our views of others’ struggles and successes change. We can focus on users, learning through research, and removing our biases.
Great thinkers and complete strangers have given us unfettered access to gaze through their lenses just like Maslow has. Look through their lenses. Try to ask what the opposite view would look like, too. I encourage designers of all types and of all levels to spend time looking for those things that help them see the world in new ways. Instead of asking how you can design products that level-up in the hierarchy, ask how you can make products where the benefits always flow downstream. If you believe that speed is measured by a rate of motion, try examining movement from a fixed point of view like the destination or the starting point. If you believe that as a designer you’re job is to have an answer, try looking at it from the perspective of your job’s purpose is to learn all of the questions.
Maslow’s hierarchy is just one example of how we can use other people’s thinking and discoveries to shape our perspectives. It’s all out there for our exploration.