Do you know what you need to be happy and healthy?

8 min read

The designers’ main aim is to achieve a combination open aesthetic and functionality in designing for the needs of the clients and society at large. The inevitable first step in any project should be the understanding of the end users, our clients and the clients’ client needs.

Needs as classified by Maslow

These needs were by Maslow (1908-1970) into a hierarchy of needs theory in five categories developed in the 1940s together with Carl Rogers: the most basic being the physiological, followed by security, belonging, esteem, and personal accomplishment.

  • Physiological refers to the need of a roof over our heads, that we have clean air to breathe, food on the table.

  • The security aspect relates to protection against theft and damage to property and self;

  • The need to belong is perhaps self-explanatory and relates to love, affection and social relations;

  • Esteem and recognition are the third of these needs relating to status employment, power and money, and;

  • The need for personal accomplishment & disapproval depends on an individuals’ development and personality.

Although Maslow classified these needs as sequential, i.e., you should satisfy the needs of each level before moving up to the next level, one also needs to take into consideration the fact that individual development needs also to be taken to perspective. Whereas all individuals seek a good quality of life, not everyone’s needs are the same and additionally these may vary over time and culture.

Sometimes they also coexist, as the psychologist Clayton Alderfer presented in his theory on ‘Existence, Relatedness and Growth’ (ERG). The five levels would now shrink to three, as the name suggests, and rather than an individual meeting these needs sequentially, these needs could be occurring simultaneously. The dynamic of these needs is therefore more comprehensive because we can all appreciate that if you are worrying about personal accomplishment, you may not necessarily be eating or sleeping properly – if your growth needs are stifled, it will affect your social behaviour and basic functions. So, one need could be affecting another very closely.

Now that we have established what we need, how are we fulfilling these needs, and at what expense?

The UN Sustainable Development Goals

We cannot fail to notice the close link between these needs and the sustainability development goals and how these may be achieved through design.

sustainable development goals EU

If we are to look at the impact of design – be it architecture, engineering, visual communication, product design, urban planning – at least 11 of these 17 SDGs are directly related. And these are all needs! They affect different categories of our need profile, and they are all equally important, inter-related and essential to our physical, mental, and social wellbeing.

The role of design in sustainable development should cater for all levels of Maslow’s categories of needs:

  • Physiological needs – This refers to the most basic need of shelter; to have a place called ‘home’, a place to cook, eat, sleep, and create memories with our family and friends.

  • Protection – against the weather and crime; to have a place you feel comfortable and safe.

  • Socialisation – a sense of belonging in a community or neighbourhood; inclusivity for all ages and ethnicities.

  • Expressing values – the design of our city and our projects should reflect our morals and values as a population. It should promote truth, honesty, and kindness.

  • Personal creative development – design should be a reflection of the individual and who we would like to be, an expression of self-realisation and personal self-fulfilment; this would not only be related to the high-end products that we use (air conditioners, pools, computers/gadgets, villas, penthouses, designer homes) but a higher order of self-realisation that extends beyond the material and transcend within the design the expression of each person’s creativity, without jeopardising that of others, and without obtaining personal development at the expense of others.

The Local Scenario

Relating these 5 need categories to the Maltese scenario, there is a marked shift of what we actually need and the way that priorities are being assigned. Whereas all homes do provide shelter, in some form or other, and without going into the merits of the issue of homelessness – which itself needs to be addressed – do our homes really provide for all our physiological needs? Do we have the space that fits for our families? Or are apartments being split up into smaller, lower units by unscrupulous developers? The covid pandemic has made it evident that there is not enough space indoors – let alone outdoors – for a family to be able to go about its daily routine smoothly. Dining room or kitchen tables doubled up as makeshift desks in spaces filled with the smell of washing and cooking, bedrooms become playgrounds with the noise of the children running around, living rooms… well… are we actually living? Or experiencing stressful chao in these spaces?

Additionally, the mainstream idea of living comfortably is by installing air conditioners, and our idea of energy solutions are PV panels on the roofs – incidentally the more the earth warms up globally and the more trees we cut down, the more air conditioners we will need and the greater the reliance on the national grid. The emphasis is therefore being placed on energy solutions that are more efficient (which is not a bad thing in itself), but why not think of constructing our homes in a way that is passively energy efficient? For instance, using proper wall thicknesses, insulation, glazing, materials, just to name a few. Why not take into consideration the orientation and dimension of windows, shading devices and natural ventilation – which by the way are obligatory at law in the ‘not-so-famous’ Document F published by the Building Regulations Office. While in Malta we are still ‘fighting’ to have proper building regulations, the UK are introducing Part Z in their efforts to reduce the embodied carbon of a building. We are a far cry from this, yet we have similar targets that we need to satisfy at European Union level.

As for the third point of socialisation on the needs list, our society has changed to one that claims not to need community as much as we did in the past. I recall my grandmother sending us off to fetch fresh bread from the bakery – there was a passive surveillance provided by the community and we, as children then, felt safe and a little annoyed when our grandmother received report of our mischievousness even before we got home. We no longer sit out on the pavement for a chat with the neighbours, we are no longer part of a true community. We all live our lives in isolation and our entertainment is fuelled by marketing and money-spending rather than by genuinely enjoying ourselves with family and friends. And this may be because there is really no space for it. Playing fields are some sort of desert where the swings are too hot to the touch, the beaches are being taken over by private enterprises…

Our needs, and by extension sustainable development, are a primordial need. It needs to be understood by people not as simply reducing the quantity of single-use plastic (which is admirable), but a wider set of issues that need our immediate attention. It needs to be understood (and perhaps informed) that sustainability and aesthetics are intimately interlinked with everyone’s wellbeing. At times we walk through our streets wondering why our houses are not built in well-ordered aesthetically pleasing avenues we saw abroad. Why our two-story houses are interspersed with high-rise buildings shutting off the light and view they had when we bought them – reducing their value. We need empathy, the ability to feel and think as a community, to experience the compassion that drives forward the values that unfortunately have been almost forgotten over time.

Maslow’s concept of self-development includes the value of self-transcendence i.e., improving myself beyond what is strictly personally advantageous – moving beyond the ego-centric predicament. In this sense self-development becomes both creative and self-disciplined, so people begin to request the construction of buildings which are environmentally friendly, supporting mental and physical good health, while being aesthetically pleasing – inside and out.

And this can be used in all parts of our society. Kate Raworth visualises economy as a doughnut in her much-praised book ‘Doughnut Economics’ In the hole there are the necessary conditions for humans to live good lives (food, water, education, dignity, access to healthcare). The doughnut ring is the area where capitalism can operate and consumption can grow. In this sense, capitalism should be deployed to delivery against these conditions of society. but never beyond the point at which the scale of consumption hurts workers or damages the planet. We need to value not only economic growth, but rather, prioritise what the world really needs to grow.

A final thought is Mary Portas’ proposal of the ‘Kindness Economy’ as a rather poetic solution to a system that fails to do the right thing by all:

What we’ve come to realise as a society is that the tenets of capitalism, that ‘more equals better’, is not going to be better for us as people or for our planet… This new era, the Kindness Economy, is going to be about sentience. It’s going to be about care, respect and understanding the implication of that we are doing.

Only in this way we will be able to fulfil our needs of happiness and health.


Alderfer, C. P. (1972). Existence, relatedness, and growth; human needs in organizational settings. New York, Free Press.
Maslow, A. H. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50(4), 370–396.
Portas, M., Future of Retail 2019.
Raworth K.(2017). Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist. London, Random House.

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