Design

A Study of Human-Centered Design Off Screen - Burning Man Festival

February 13, 2023
A Study of Human-Centered Design Off Screen - Burning Man Festival

A Fes¬≠ti¬≠val for the Human Cen¬≠tered Soul

Two men by the names of Lar¬≠ry Har¬≠vey and Jer¬≠ry James for¬≠aged onto Bak¬≠er beach in San Fran¬≠cis¬≠co to cel¬≠e¬≠brate the sum¬≠mer sol¬≠stice by burn¬≠ing a wood¬≠en sculp¬≠ture of a man into the night and camp¬≠ing out with a group of friends. After mak¬≠ing this an annu¬≠al rit¬≠u¬≠al, more and more friends and onlook¬≠ers start¬≠ed to show up and join the two every year. By 1991, Lar¬≠ry Har¬≠vey and Jer¬≠ry James had grown quite the fol¬≠low¬≠ing, with crowds of almost 300 every year. Thus, ‚Äč‚ÄúBurn¬≠ing Man‚ÄĚ was born. 

In 1997, Har¬≠vey and James moved the event far from San Fran¬≠sis¬≠co, to Black Rock Desert in Neva¬≠da. Here, they had more space, and could avoid com¬≠pli¬≠ca¬≠tions with law enforce¬≠ment over the grow¬≠ing crowd and haz¬≠ard threat. Fast for¬≠ward to the ear¬≠ly 2000s, and Burn¬≠ing Man had become a large-scale cul¬≠tur¬≠al fes¬≠ti¬≠val with a fifty foot sculp¬≠ture of a wood¬≠en man, over 25,000 atten¬≠dees, musi¬≠cal per¬≠for¬≠mances, themed events, and an estab¬≠lished art scene. It was around this time, that par¬≠tic¬≠i¬≠pants of Burn¬≠ing Man had quite lit¬≠er¬≠al¬≠ly begun build¬≠ing an entire com¬≠mu¬≠ni¬≠ty around the dura¬≠tion of fes¬≠ti¬≠val, com¬≠plete with street ven¬≠dors, ‚Äč‚Äėneigh¬≠bor¬≠hoods,‚ÄĚ ser¬≠vice camps for the sick or injured, and even street names. With so many atten¬≠dees, and the lev¬≠el of infra¬≠struc¬≠ture being built for the event year after year, Black Rock Desert became Black Rock City in Per¬≠sh¬≠ing coun¬≠ty Neva¬≠da in 1999.

A core set of prin¬≠ci¬≠ples to live by while at the event were also cre¬≠at¬≠ed, as a ‚Äč‚Äúreflec¬≠tion of the community‚Äôs ethos and cul¬≠ture as it had organ¬≠i¬≠cal¬≠ly devel¬≠oped since the event‚Äôs incep¬≠tion.‚ÄĚ And ‚Äú‚Ķ not as a dic¬≠tate of how peo¬≠ple should be and act.‚ÄĚ Those prin¬≠ci¬≠ples are as follows:

  1. Rad¬≠i¬≠cal Inclusion Any¬≠one may be a part of Burn¬≠ing Man. We wel¬≠come and respect the stranger. No pre¬≠req¬≠ui¬≠sites exist for par¬≠tic¬≠i¬≠pa¬≠tion in our community.

  2. Gift¬≠ing Burn¬≠ing Man is devot¬≠ed to acts of gift giv¬≠ing. The val¬≠ue of a gift is uncon¬≠di¬≠tion¬≠al. Gift¬≠ing does not con¬≠tem¬≠plate a return or an exchange for some¬≠thing of equal value.

  3. Decom­mod­i­fi­ca­tion In order to pre­serve the spir­it of gift­ing, our com­mu­ni­ty seeks to cre­ate social envi­ron­ments that are unmedi­at­ed by com­mer­cial spon­sor­ships, trans­ac­tions, or adver­tis­ing. We stand ready to pro­tect our cul­ture from such exploita­tion. We resist the sub­sti­tu­tion of con­sump­tion for par­tic­i­pa­to­ry experience.

  4. Rad­i­cal Self-reliance Burn­ing Man encour­ages the indi­vid­ual to dis­cov­er, exer­cise and rely on their inner resources.

  5. Rad¬≠i¬≠cal Self-expression Rad¬≠i¬≠cal self-expres¬≠sion aris¬≠es from the unique gifts of the indi¬≠vid¬≠ual. No one oth¬≠er than the indi¬≠vid¬≠ual or a col¬≠lab¬≠o¬≠rat¬≠ing group can deter¬≠mine its con¬≠tent. It is offered as a gift to oth¬≠ers. In this spir¬≠it, the giv¬≠er should respect the rights and lib¬≠er¬≠ties of the recipient.

  6. Com­mu­nal Effort Our com­mu­ni­ty val­ues cre­ative coop­er­a­tion and col­lab­o­ra­tion. We strive to pro­duce, pro­mote and pro­tect social net­works, pub­lic spaces, works of art, and meth­ods of com­mu­ni­ca­tion that sup­port such interaction.

  7. Civic Respon¬≠si¬≠bil¬≠i¬≠ty We val¬≠ue civ¬≠il soci¬≠ety. Com¬≠mu¬≠ni¬≠ty mem¬≠bers who orga¬≠nize events should assume respon¬≠si¬≠bil¬≠i¬≠ty for pub¬≠lic wel¬≠fare and endeav¬≠or to com¬≠mu¬≠ni¬≠cate civic respon¬≠si¬≠bil¬≠i¬≠ties to par¬≠tic¬≠i¬≠pants. They must also assume respon¬≠si¬≠bil¬≠i¬≠ty for con¬≠duct¬≠ing events in accor¬≠dance with local, state and fed¬≠er¬≠al laws.

  8. Leav¬≠ing No Trace Our com¬≠mu¬≠ni¬≠ty respects the envi¬≠ron¬≠ment. We are com¬≠mit¬≠ted to leav¬≠ing no phys¬≠i¬≠cal trace of our activ¬≠i¬≠ties wher¬≠ev¬≠er we gath¬≠er. We clean up after our¬≠selves and endeav¬≠or, when¬≠ev¬≠er pos¬≠si¬≠ble, to leave such places in a bet¬≠ter state than when we found them.

  9. Par¬≠tic¬≠i¬≠pa¬≠tion Our com¬≠mu¬≠ni¬≠ty is com¬≠mit¬≠ted to a rad¬≠i¬≠cal¬≠ly par¬≠tic¬≠i¬≠pa¬≠to¬≠ry eth¬≠ic. We believe that trans¬≠for¬≠ma¬≠tive change, whether in the indi¬≠vid¬≠ual or in soci¬≠ety, can occur only through the medi¬≠um of deeply per¬≠son¬≠al par¬≠tic¬≠i¬≠pa¬≠tion. We achieve being through doing. Every¬≠one is invit¬≠ed to work. Every¬≠one is invit¬≠ed to play. We make the world real through actions that open the heart.

  10. Imme¬≠di¬≠a¬≠cy Imme¬≠di¬≠ate expe¬≠ri¬≠ence is, in many ways, the most impor¬≠tant touch¬≠stone of val¬≠ue in our cul¬≠ture. We seek to over¬≠come bar¬≠ri¬≠ers that stand between us and a recog¬≠ni¬≠tion of our inner selves, the real¬≠i¬≠ty of those around us, par¬≠tic¬≠i¬≠pa¬≠tion in soci¬≠ety, and con¬≠tact with a nat¬≠ur¬≠al world exceed¬≠ing human pow¬≠ers. No idea can sub¬≠sti¬≠tute for this experience.

So essen¬≠tial¬≠ly, Burn¬≠ing Man had become a place where once a year, thou¬≠sands of peo¬≠ple would gath¬≠er in the mid¬≠dle of the desert for a week, bring¬≠ing what¬≠ev¬≠er sup¬≠plies they felt they need¬≠ed to sur¬≠vive, plen¬≠ty of sup¬≠plies to ‚Äč‚Äútrade‚ÄĚ while there, and the will¬≠ing¬≠ness to not only live in, but par¬≠tic¬≠i¬≠pate in a soci¬≠ety who‚Äôs goal is to place expe¬≠ri¬≠ence before the¬≠o¬≠ry, moral rela¬≠tion¬≠ships before pol¬≠i¬≠tics, sur¬≠vival before ser¬≠vices, roles before jobs, and embod¬≠ied sup¬≠port before spon¬≠sor¬≠ship‚Ķ And then watch a wood¬≠en sculp¬≠ture burn to the ground and tear every¬≠thing down around it with¬≠out leav¬≠ing a trace‚Ķ

But what exact­ly makes such an event an inter­est­ing case for human-cen­tered design?

A 10 Year Iteration

For starters, Black Rock Desert is home to one of the harsh¬≠est desert cli¬≠mates in the world. The con¬≠straints of the cli¬≠mate cou¬≠pled with the ever-chang¬≠ing needs of those in atten¬≠dance to not only sur¬≠vive in such con¬≠di¬≠tions, but also com¬≠fort¬≠ably par¬≠tic¬≠i¬≠pate in the com¬≠mu¬≠ni¬≠ty and have an enjoy¬≠able fes¬≠ti¬≠val expe¬≠ri¬≠ence as well, meant that Burn¬≠ing Man would have to under¬≠go sev¬≠er¬≠al iter¬≠a¬≠tions to suc¬≠cess¬≠ful¬≠ly accom¬≠mo¬≠date their audi¬≠ence. In the ear¬≠ly years, this was achieved large¬≠ly by tri¬≠al and error, but the rapid growth did ampli¬≠fy prob¬≠lems with safe¬≠ty, staffing, and inter-com¬≠mu¬≠ni¬≠ty squab¬≠ble. Har¬≠vey and James found that the major¬≠i¬≠ty of these issues could be attrib¬≠uted to the feel¬≠ing of alien¬≠ation at the fes¬≠ti¬≠val, lead¬≠ing to a loss of human connection.

In order increase the lev¬≠el of human con¬≠nec¬≠tion, future fes¬≠ti¬≠vals became vehi¬≠cle restrict¬≠ed (aside from approved art vehi¬≠cles), and suc¬≠cess¬≠ful efforts were made to make Black Rock city more walk¬≠a¬≠ble. The lay¬≠out of the fes¬≠ti¬≠val was changed from a cir¬≠cu¬≠lar sprawl, to a semi-cir¬≠cle shape with the wood¬≠en man sculp¬≠ture in the mid¬≠dle, fac¬≠ing the city so that all could see. Themed camps were dis¬≠trib¬≠uted through¬≠out the fes¬≠ti¬≠val (as opposed to being locat¬≠ed in a sin¬≠gu¬≠lar sec¬≠tion), and zon¬≠ing restric¬≠tions were imple¬≠ment¬≠ed to avoid clash¬≠ing among theme camps through¬≠out the city. All of these changes required a lot more gran¬≠u¬≠lar plan¬≠ning from every¬≠one involved, espe¬≠cial¬≠ly con¬≠sid¬≠er¬≠ing that one of the core prin¬≠ci¬≠ples of Burn¬≠ing Man is ‚Äč‚Äúrad¬≠i¬≠cal inclu¬≠sion.‚ÄĚ It is this prin¬≠ci¬≠ple that enforces some of the strictest city-wide infra¬≠struc¬≠ture acces¬≠si¬≠bil¬≠i¬≠ty reg¬≠u¬≠la¬≠tions, thus mak¬≠ing burn¬≠ing man very ‚Äč‚ÄúADA cen¬≠tric.‚ÄĚ I wouldn‚Äôt go as far as to say Burn¬≠ing Man is ADA com¬≠pli¬≠ant, con¬≠sid¬≠er¬≠ing the mas¬≠sive dust storms, flash floods, and extreme tem¬≠per¬≠a¬≠tures, but acces¬≠si¬≠bil¬≠i¬≠ty is def¬≠i¬≠nite¬≠ly at the cen¬≠ter of what Burn¬≠ing Man does. All of the rules, reg¬≠u¬≠la¬≠tions, and aids regard¬≠ing acces¬≠si¬≠bil¬≠i¬≠ty at Burn¬≠ing Man is the result of a need being met with the sup¬≠plies avail¬≠able, and then find¬≠ing ways to improve it the next year. 

The fes¬≠ti¬≠val has had a ‚Äč‚Äúmobil¬≠i¬≠ty camp‚ÄĚ for twen¬≠ty years, where more expe¬≠ri¬≠enced (many times dis¬≠abled) burn¬≠ers will lend extra wheel¬≠chairs, scoot¬≠ers, and/‚Äčor crutch¬≠es to any¬≠one that needs them. They also run a trail¬≠er sys¬≠tem through the city that will trans¬≠port any¬≠one strug¬≠gling with the long dis¬≠tances. Thou¬≠sands of dis¬≠abled burn¬≠ers attend every year, and some have even high¬≠light¬≠ed how the fes¬≠ti¬≠val frees them from only being seen for their dis¬≠abil¬≠i¬≠ty, or being seen as ‚Äč‚Äúhelp¬≠less‚ÄĚ or ‚Äč‚Äúless-than.‚ÄĚ Charis Hill, a chron¬≠ic dis¬≠ease advo¬≠cate who attend¬≠ed her fourth Burn¬≠ing Man in 2019 said ‚Äč‚ÄúI need Burn¬≠ing Man for that reminder that I am still a valid, whole human while I‚Äôm bro¬≠ken.‚ÄĚ All Burn¬≠ers leave with the same qual¬≠i¬≠ty expe¬≠ri¬≠ence of con¬≠nect¬≠ing to your cre¬≠ative pow¬≠ers, par¬≠tic¬≠i¬≠pa¬≠tion in com¬≠mu¬≠ni¬≠ty, con¬≠tribut¬≠ing to the larg¬≠er realm of civic life, and to the even greater world of nature that exists beyond soci¬≠ety that is Burn¬≠ing Man.

The Take­away

Burn¬≠ing Man has evolved to sup¬≠port its cur¬≠rent crowds of up to 80,000. Black Rock City now has its own air¬≠port, radio sta¬≠tion, grid sys¬≠tem, a six¬≠ty foot tall wood¬≠en man, and over 400 art instal¬≠la¬≠tions spread through¬≠out the city every year. Reflect¬≠ing on the his¬≠to¬≠ry of Burn¬≠ing Man does serve as a great reminder of our respon¬≠si¬≠bil¬≠i¬≠ty as design¬≠ers to rep¬≠re¬≠sent and adapt to the audi¬≠ences we design for. How¬≠ev¬≠er, an even big¬≠ger take away worth not¬≠ing‚ÄČ‚ÄĒ‚ÄČespe¬≠cial¬≠ly amidst the cur¬≠rent fourth indus¬≠tri¬≠al rev¬≠o¬≠lu¬≠tion‚ÄČ‚ÄĒ‚ÄČis that at the end of the day, humans need each oth¬≠er. No mat¬≠ter how much the algo¬≠rithms, arti¬≠fi¬≠cial intel¬≠li¬≠gence, and altered real¬≠i¬≠ties become ingrained in our dai¬≠ly lives, loss of human con¬≠nec¬≠tion has proven to yield chaos in our soci¬≠ety. So whether that means you begin to change how you design, what you design, or how you look at design, I think it‚Äôs impor¬≠tant to start to con¬≠sid¬≠er how human con¬≠nec¬≠tion plays a role in the future the design of technology.

Resources

Burn­ing Man website

How this EVENT became a CITY (BURN¬≠ING MAN)‚ÄČ‚ÄĒ‚ÄČYouTube

What is the Fourth Indus¬≠tri¬≠al Rev¬≠o¬≠lu¬≠tion‚ÄČ‚ÄĒ‚ÄČYouTube

Lar¬≠ry Har¬≠vey on how Burn¬≠ing Man Fes¬≠ti¬≠val cre¬≠at¬≠ed art with a social pur¬≠pose‚ÄČ‚ÄĒ‚ÄČYouTube

Burn¬≠ing Man can be doable for peo¬≠ple with dis¬≠abil¬≠i¬≠ties‚ÄČ‚ÄĒ‚ÄČLA Times

Looking for more like this?

Sign up for our monthly newsletter to receive helpful articles, case studies, and stories from our team.

To RFP or not to RFP?
Business Process

To RFP or not to RFP?

January 19, 2024

Selecting the right digital product partner is not just about ticking boxes in a request for proposal (RFP). It’s more important to engage in a meaningful discovery process to find a collaborator who can turn your vision into a successful digital reality. Here are three things to watch out for as you search for the perfect digital collaborator.

Read more
Application Architecture with SwiftUI
Development iOS

Application Architecture with SwiftUI

June 15, 2022

An overview of mobile application system architecture using SwiftUI

Read more
Why I use NextJS
Development Web

Why I use NextJS

December 21, 2022

Is NextJS right for your next project? In this post, David discusses three core functionalities that NextJS excels at, so that you can make a well-informed decision on your project’s major framework.

Read more
View more articles