A Study of Human-Centered Design Off Screen - Burning Man FestivalFebruary 13, 2023
A Festival for the Human Centered Soul
Two men by the names of Larry Harvey and Jerry James foraged onto Baker beach in San Francisco to celebrate the summer solstice by burning a wooden sculpture of a man into the night and camping out with a group of friends. After making this an annual ritual, more and more friends and onlookers started to show up and join the two every year. By 1991, Larry Harvey and Jerry James had grown quite the following, with crowds of almost 300 every year. Thus, “Burning Man” was born.
In 1997, Harvey and James moved the event far from San Fransisco, to Black Rock Desert in Nevada. Here, they had more space, and could avoid complications with law enforcement over the growing crowd and hazard threat. Fast forward to the early 2000s, and Burning Man had become a large-scale cultural festival with a fifty foot sculpture of a wooden man, over 25,000 attendees, musical performances, themed events, and an established art scene. It was around this time, that participants of Burning Man had quite literally begun building an entire community around the duration of festival, complete with street vendors, ‘neighborhoods,” service camps for the sick or injured, and even street names. With so many attendees, and the level of infrastructure being built for the event year after year, Black Rock Desert became Black Rock City in Pershing county Nevada in 1999.
A core set of principles to live by while at the event were also created, as a “reflection of the community’s ethos and culture as it had organically developed since the event’s inception.” And “… not as a dictate of how people should be and act.” Those principles are as follows:
Radical Inclusion Anyone may be a part of Burning Man. We welcome and respect the stranger. No prerequisites exist for participation in our community.
Gifting Burning Man is devoted to acts of gift giving. The value of a gift is unconditional. Gifting does not contemplate a return or an exchange for something of equal value.
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.
Radical Self-reliance Burning Man encourages the individual to discover, exercise and rely on their inner resources.
Radical Self-expression Radical self-expression arises from the unique gifts of the individual. No one other than the individual or a collaborating group can determine its content. It is offered as a gift to others. In this spirit, the giver should respect the rights and liberties of the recipient.
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.
Civic Responsibility We value civil society. Community members who organize events should assume responsibility for public welfare and endeavor to communicate civic responsibilities to participants. They must also assume responsibility for conducting events in accordance with local, state and federal laws.
Leaving No Trace Our community respects the environment. We are committed to leaving no physical trace of our activities wherever we gather. We clean up after ourselves and endeavor, whenever possible, to leave such places in a better state than when we found them.
Participation Our community is committed to a radically participatory ethic. We believe that transformative change, whether in the individual or in society, can occur only through the medium of deeply personal participation. We achieve being through doing. Everyone is invited to work. Everyone is invited to play. We make the world real through actions that open the heart.
Immediacy Immediate experience is, in many ways, the most important touchstone of value in our culture. We seek to overcome barriers that stand between us and a recognition of our inner selves, the reality of those around us, participation in society, and contact with a natural world exceeding human powers. No idea can substitute for this experience.
So essentially, Burning Man had become a place where once a year, thousands of people would gather in the middle of the desert for a week, bringing whatever supplies they felt they needed to survive, plenty of supplies to “trade” while there, and the willingness to not only live in, but participate in a society who’s goal is to place experience before theory, moral relationships before politics, survival before services, roles before jobs, and embodied support before sponsorship… And then watch a wooden sculpture burn to the ground and tear everything down around it without leaving a trace…
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 harshest desert climates in the world. The constraints of the climate coupled with the ever-changing needs of those in attendance to not only survive in such conditions, but also comfortably participate in the community and have an enjoyable festival experience as well, meant that Burning Man would have to undergo several iterations to successfully accommodate their audience. In the early years, this was achieved largely by trial and error, but the rapid growth did amplify problems with safety, staffing, and inter-community squabble. Harvey and James found that the majority of these issues could be attributed to the feeling of alienation at the festival, leading to a loss of human connection.
In order increase the level of human connection, future festivals became vehicle restricted (aside from approved art vehicles), and successful efforts were made to make Black Rock city more walkable. The layout of the festival was changed from a circular sprawl, to a semi-circle shape with the wooden man sculpture in the middle, facing the city so that all could see. Themed camps were distributed throughout the festival (as opposed to being located in a singular section), and zoning restrictions were implemented to avoid clashing among theme camps throughout the city. All of these changes required a lot more granular planning from everyone involved, especially considering that one of the core principles of Burning Man is “radical inclusion.” It is this principle that enforces some of the strictest city-wide infrastructure accessibility regulations, thus making burning man very “ADA centric.” I wouldn’t go as far as to say Burning Man is ADA compliant, considering the massive dust storms, flash floods, and extreme temperatures, but accessibility is definitely at the center of what Burning Man does. All of the rules, regulations, and aids regarding accessibility at Burning Man is the result of a need being met with the supplies available, and then finding ways to improve it the next year.
The festival has had a “mobility camp” for twenty years, where more experienced (many times disabled) burners will lend extra wheelchairs, scooters, and/or crutches to anyone that needs them. They also run a trailer system through the city that will transport anyone struggling with the long distances. Thousands of disabled burners attend every year, and some have even highlighted how the festival frees them from only being seen for their disability, or being seen as “helpless” or “less-than.” Charis Hill, a chronic disease advocate who attended her fourth Burning Man in 2019 said “I need Burning Man for that reminder that I am still a valid, whole human while I’m broken.” All Burners leave with the same quality experience of connecting to your creative powers, participation in community, contributing to the larger realm of civic life, and to the even greater world of nature that exists beyond society that is Burning Man.
Burning Man has evolved to support its current crowds of up to 80,000. Black Rock City now has its own airport, radio station, grid system, a sixty foot tall wooden man, and over 400 art installations spread throughout the city every year. Reflecting on the history of Burning Man does serve as a great reminder of our responsibility as designers to represent and adapt to the audiences we design for. However, an even bigger take away worth noting — especially amidst the current fourth industrial revolution — is that at the end of the day, humans need each other. No matter how much the algorithms, artificial intelligence, and altered realities become ingrained in our daily lives, loss of human connection has proven to yield chaos in our society. So whether that means you begin to change how you design, what you design, or how you look at design, I think it’s important to start to consider how human connection plays a role in the future the design of technology.
How this EVENT became a CITY (BURNING MAN) — YouTube
What is the Fourth Industrial Revolution — YouTube
Larry Harvey on how Burning Man Festival created art with a social purpose — YouTube
Burning Man can be doable for people with disabilities — LA Times
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