Questioning Maslow’s hierarchy of needs

The streets of Cairo are full of “mobile entertainment”. You have jokes written on the back of taxis, advice and wisdom written on the back of microbuses, breakthrough innovations to any car problem you might see. It’s the only upside to the unbearable traffic-this is me trying to be positive… and sarcastic. But really jokes aside, constantly observing this makes me question the famed hierarchy of needs by Maslow.

This post has been sitting in my drafts pile for almost a month now, but lately I have been hearing the words ”hierarchy of needs” over and over again, so I thought it might be time to hit the publish button and share some of my thoughts and educated assumptions.

I hate to disagree with Maslow, but I think we really should. For those who are unfamiliar with this theory, Maslow basically said that we have different types of needs and that they come levelled, once you fulfill the first need only then can you fulfill the next type of need. So you have the most important needs at the bottom, the physiological needs which are food, shelter, water and so on, then safety, social, esteem and self actualisation. And by moving up the pyramid, this is how you reach ultimate motivation and happiness.

I look at the back of micro buses and can’t help but think how Maslow’s theory is completely irrelevant in our current world. Where does personalisation and customisation fall in Maslow’s pyramid? I can’t really reach a conclusion on this one so I have 3 hypothesises for this observation of mine. So lets assume:

1. Maslow is always right. Happiness is relative.

If we consider customisation to be a form of showing prestige or maybe a way to express love to your finance or kids for example by covering the  rear window of your car with their names and pictures, though ironically you’re creating a safety hazard, but according to Maslow, this would mean that your basic needs and sense of safety are met. Which means that this whole layer of Egypt; bus, taxi, tuktuk and microbus drivers, are happy, relatively. We’ve all got needs but they are relative; what makes me laugh would not necessarily make you even smile. So theoretically Egyptians are all happy, relatively.

2- Maslow doesn’t know shit after all.

No offence Maslow. But if we assume that this theory has simply developed as humans developed. If we assume that there is no such thing as a hierarchy but people fulfill whatever needs they have in whatever order they can, so there isn’t a happiness ladder, but more of a happiness potluck. If soup comes first it’s good, if not, then we can have it for dessert. If that makes any sense.

3. Customisation is a biological need.

This is definitely my designer side talking. But what if there was in fact a hierarchy, it’s just that customisation was among the first needs, a very crucial one. Many picture 3-D printing in our future taking over regular mass production industries, that we’ll be able to produce whatever we want at home; print food, clothes, gadgets you name it. But I see it quite differently, I don’t think we’ll be able to totally give up on production, for the simple fact that humans are generally lazy whenever an opportunity presents itself, it’s only the custom part that we’re gonna produce, the identity part that we’re going to add. This gives a whole other level to design, designers would then have to accommodate this need, and allow the customisation of their designs. Whether it’s technology based, or apparel or even book design. It’s a major need, might be even bigger than the need that your product is providing in the first place. Even a Suzuki/apple van (refer to photo) would need a wooden ramp! The designer thinks it doesn’t, well the user does and he will make it happen.


I keep hearing that until people are fed and feel secure, only then will they start thinking about issues like the environment, sports or hobbies. That you have to fulfill their basic needs first. And I really can’t wrap my head around this because it really doesn’t reflect the things I see around me.

So if you are a designer, developer, or maybe a finance guy tackling social change (it happens) do you really know your potential users? Are you absolutely sure of what your users really need?