Towards the end of his life the American psychologist Abraham Maslow revisited the theory that had made him so very famous.

In the ‘Hierarchy of Needs’ (1943) Maslow taught us, that we – as individuals and as civilisation – would climb various stages until we finally reach what he called ‘self-actualization’. On this elevated and beautiful plateau we would be concerned with few things but with choosing the right path for our life, the right dress for the party and the holiday destination that best matches our star-sign.

In Maslow’s hierarchy of needs all lower stages fade in the light of the highest level reached. Once you are concerned with self-fulfilment for example, you find it rather hard to get yourself going on the promise of food and shelter alone. Light-heartedly we take one step after the other towards the top. – But going south there is hardly a path to be taken in happiness and contentment. – Maslow’s theory – in theory and possibly in reality – is very much a one-way street.

Come deflation, inflation, unemployment or global depression, a soul once touched by the sweet promise of self-realization will never be satisfied nor motivated by food and water only.

Consumed with the pursuit of reaching for our individual potential we humans – come rain or shine – are dancing our final and most noble dance alone.

But in 1969 Maslow felt that his structure – although granting him intellectual immortality – may not truly be built for eternity. So he sharpens his lens one last time. He zooms in on another factor of human motivation that he now considers to be the final and most elevated storey for his famous building. Not in ‘self-actualization’ we would find our finest home, but in something higher – in something that he now calls ‘self-transcendence’.

Self-transcendence, for Maslow that is what reaches beyond the self. It is what we find in altruism, in all kinds of holistic concepts, in spirituality, in love and in religion too.

Just like with ‘self-actualization’ Maslow again finds the motif of ‘self-transcendence’ everywhere in the world that he examines. Only that it is a lot harder to identify and precisely therefore he considers his new finding to be of a higher order. He again considers it to be of the kind that pushes all other motivation out of sight – the kind that makes all other motives seem rather dull and faded in comparison.

In consumer culture today, it is not too hard to trace a crowing concern with more holistic concepts and thoughts (with ‘the environment’, with ‘giving back’ and so on and so on…). But still we find a hard-wired love for those well designed MP3 players, for nice shoes and breathtaking bathtubs. – In fact our love for the beautiful things in life – so it seems – has never been stronger.

So what is it with the design obsession in our 21st century? – Is it a pure medium of self-expression and self-creation supplied by corporations through masterfully targeted marketing strategies, or does it hold aspects that go beyond the self, that – as Maslow says – ‘transcendent’ the self?

To bring some light to this question we can take any object, a chair for example. This chair now may be made of steel, wood, plastic or concrete; but to really make us fall for it, all of these details are secondary to us. It is also completely secondary to us what the producers had to go through in order to come up with this nice new seating device. All the management meetings back and forth, all the target group strategies, all the technical experiments, all the 10.000 errors and all the calculations of the engineers behind their computers do not interest us at all. – Even more so: We do not want a single trace of any of these mundane details to be found! – Not a single one. – What we want is nothing but a seamless sensation. We want a product – or a brand or service – that is purest ‘Creation’ and purest ‘Being’ in itself.

In the most natural of ways we today demand results, that have fully transcended the complex and often complicated ways that brought them into our world.

And – as if this would not yet be enough – we welcome these charming creations only to right away invite them into a very personal relationship. Not un-like when falling in love with a human being – not un-like when being drawn into some work of contemporary art – looking at (or interacting with) some well designed object we may encounter something that informs us both about our self and about something that reaches beyond that. – We interact with a creation that is both us and at the same time it is different and more universal than us. – And for some strange and magical reason we humans like that. Because this is where we loose and find ourselves at the same time.

Design – medium of ‘self-realization’ or ‘self-transcendence’? – Of course it is both. And as it is both, with Maslow we can also identify it as evidence for the presence of his last and highest set of needs.

With every superficial target group strategy that fails, with every time we hear another call for ‘seamless customer experience’, ‘authenticity’ or for ‘design as new management paradigm’ we have in fact moved another step in that direction.

Come deflation, inflation, unemployment or global depression…– from Maslow’s pyramid there is no way down in happiness and contentment. It is also therefore that design as competitive business factor – even in dire times – is not going to go anywhere soon.

On the contrary: If one wants to stick to Maslow’s extended ‘theory of human needs’, one can see that already today our ‘love for design’ significantly merges with other ‘altruistic’ motives. Together with sustainability, together with environmental and social issues, design is part of the motivation structure that defines consumer culture in the 21st century.

This is a post by the David Report contributor Jens Hilgenstock.


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