The Public-Object Nexus: activating public space through Human-Centered Design

Nelson, Aaron Basil
Withell, Andrew
Reay, Stephen D.
Item type
Degree name
Master of Philosophy
Journal Title
Journal ISSN
Volume Title
Auckland University of Technology

The role of product design in activating public spaces is a relatively under researched area within the discipline of public space design. As a result, the potential for better addressing public user-needs through innovation using human-centered design has been largely unexplored. The primary objective of the Public-Object Nexus project was to investigate how the design of public urban furniture can be enhanced, to more effectively support an active and dynamic public lifestyle. The project sought to reposition the emphasis of public urban design from a macro to a micro level focus, so that user needs and desires might be more effectively addressed. The project was underpinned by passive observations of urban public spaces, which were analyzed in the context of a number of design theories, resulting in the development of an open-affordances conceptual design framework. Evaluation and refinement of this conceptual framework was achieved through the design and development of three urban furniture proposals, personal reflection, and the subsequent use of potential users and experts for detailed evaluation. A review and analysis of literature indicate that the needs and desires of public space users are often overshadowed by the implementation of a macro-level design approach, complicated by the divergent agendas of various stakeholders. The large-scale logistical and political complications involved with developing public spaces often appear to overshadow human-centered considerations. This approach to the design of urban furniture commonly emphasizes community legacy and aesthetics over functionality and user-centeredness. This insight is reinforced by the passive observation and analysis of user-object interactions in selected urban public spaces, revealing that a user’s engagement often depends on the furniture’s capacity to support a specific activity, such as eating, socializing, reading, and people watching. When furniture pieces do not serve sufficiently in this capacity, users are observed reinterpreting and/or adapting the furniture’s originally intended function. In response to key insights, an open-affordances conceptual design framework developed for the project, centers around three key facets of new human-factors, aiding activity, and flexibility. The open-affordances framework underpins a new approach to urban furniture design in which the consideration of dynamic user-needs, represented through these facets, is placed at the center of the design development process. The three urban furniture design proposals developed in the research, The Sugarhouse Lounge, The Hub and The Buttress, have all explored the open-affordances framework from a variety of perspectives, and have identified a variety of issues and opportunities in public design. Although preliminary in nature, these design proposals demonstrate how public urban furniture can benefit from a framework of front-end human-centered research. This is evidenced by the favorable response to the design proposals by potential users and a variety of industry experts.

Product design , Public space , Human-Centered Design , Passive observations , Urban furniture , Open-affordances
Publisher's version
Rights statement