Preparing to write a book on designing for experience, I decided to explore four ways of understanding experience: as spirituality, philosophically, scientifically, and what we might call “by design.” In an earlier entry, I listed several categories of spiritual experience and their significance in the lives of those who have these experiences, which can be profound. Spirituality in the lives of individuals may be beyond the reach of designers working with experience, however.
At least this is what my research suggests. Despite looking very hard, I was unable to discover evidence of designers acknowledging, let alone employing, spiritual experience in the process of creating experiences. The intense materialism that characterizes contemporary design mitigates against working in a spiritual dimension. Perhaps this is because design has become so closely associated with science and engineering (or maybe it always has been).
Take DUX 2007, the Conference on Designing for User Experience, is the closest thing to a conference on designing for experience generally (and a very good conference on its own terms). The “user” qualification immediately hearkens back to systems engineering, with which the process of design has become intertwined. This co-dependence is reflected in DUX' s topics: for example, tangible interfaces, embedded interfaces, ubiquitous computing, design process, process design (interesting recursion, responsive environments, and so on -- a lot of engineering, very little of spirit. Similarly, interaction design, on the cutting edge of contemporary design, is based on systems engineering concepts taken from empiricism and scientific logic: how things work. Of course, there is a human dimension to interaction design, a large one. But it's more often expressed in psychological, sociological, and (the latest trend) ethnographic terms than anything we might call spiritual. Ethnography as it's commercially practiced is in fact quite a bit like systems engineering with its focus on identifying and describing tangible, observable human behavior that can then be harnessed for designing products that can be made and sold.
Ever hopeful, I explored the “Blogosphere” using Technorati, Google Blogs, and Nielsen BuzzMetrics' Blogpulse (the best of the lot, in my opinion). “Design” and “spirituality” seem to exist only in entirely different universes. Their appearance together, except on blogs with a sect to sell, is infrequent or non-existent.
This isn't to say that designers of experience, and designers in other modalities, don't have spiritual experiences or don't know of their significance. To the contrary, designers' websites and blogs abound with descriptions of objects seen or encountered, environments inhabited and traversed, and processes enjoyed or endured that they describe as “wondrous,” “awesome,” “disheartening,” or “encompassing” that indicate they've been touched deeply. In The Experience Economy, their influential work on intentionally designed experience, Joe Pine and Jim Gilmore devote an entire chapter of this short book to the spiritual dimension of experience design. (I admit that I dismissed this chapter too quickly when I first read it. Now I have a deeper appreciation of Pine and Gilmore's meaning, although I haven't seen them develop it further, at least not online.)
More often, however, designers speak of designs as “effective,” “working” or “broken,” or use other mechanistic terms that have designs serving instrumental purposes: getting this or that done or accomplished. Interestingly, the main critique of The Experience Economy on Wikipedia is that design of experience is about better managed co-creation and co-production with consumers, completely disregarding the spiritual dimension alluded to by Pine and Gilmore. So much for far-ranging inquiry.
We know from the work of child psychiatrist Robert Cole and others that infants lead a rich spiritual life (which some experts on childhood believe can be diminished or killed outright by a society's and parents' materialistic perspectives and religious dogma). Spirituality may continue as a profound element in most people's lives. I read today of a survey conducted by AP and MTV among American kids aged 13-24. In this most materialistic and religiously dogmatic of cultures, more than half of the young people surveyed credit spirituality, defined as a connection with something Other, as an essential element of personal happiness. (The leading factor is happy family relationships, definitely a worthy aspiration but one that depends on more than good intentions. Shared spiritual understanding among parents and siblings, a rare condition, might have something to do with it.) The famous longitudinal study of a group of men conducted by the late Daniel Levinson, in which they describe their lives over many decades, suggests that the degree to which the subjects maintain viable spiritual outlooks correlates with their subjective happiness regardless of their objective accomplishments. Similar studies of women -- for example, the now well-known Nun Study confirm this connection as universal: they reveal how dependent the quality of women's lives in their advanced years may be on the strength of their spiritual convictions acquired in youth (as well as on more objective factors).
So let me circle back now and talk about design with a spiritual dimension: not design for spirituality so much as design with spiritual experience in mind.
The website for the Partners for Sacred Places reminds us that people have been creating places evocative of spiritual experiences probably since the dawn of history. Whether or not the architects often hired to accomplish this purpose is a matter for debate, on a case by case basis -- but there's no doubt, significant time and wealth have been invested in producing a heightened spiritual experience, one of their “deliverables.” Some sports, particularly in the martial arts (I'm thinking of my own aikido training) are also “designed” to enhance spiritual awareness. Experiencing awe in a cathedral, holy garden, in exercise, or on a retreat, however, is a momentary experience, ephemeral. We all know how quickly an elevated state can “entropize” and disappear, usually with a half-life expressed in days or even hours. Unfortunately, few designed experiences include a sufficient “spirituality quotient” to sustain this awareness. Most design projects are paid for by merchants (commercial and otherwise) with something to sell or a position to persuade: a product, a candidate, a point of view, a desired behavior, and so forth. Given this mercantile framework, how much leeway do even the most determined designers of experience have to apply the canons of experience design I identified earlier as edification and commutation? Not much. Meditation isn't a fungible commodity, unless you are a guru.
Nevertheless, some designs, whether intended to or not, make a spiritual connection that results in a deeply memorable, sometimes actionable experience. My partner, Debra, has a spiritual experience (she claims, and I believe her) whenever she sees or experiences a particularly beautiful person, fashion, machine, or landscape. “Beauty” for her is a combination of elements that perfectly achieves its purpose. Given her pragmatic definition, many designs might be considered highly spiritual. More often, however, we admire the affordance provided by a designed object, environment, or process -- the ability it gives an individual awareness of, and ability to interact with, an environment. Most people globally have become overeducated in the appreciation of material achievements. Their spiritual edge is dulled. How can this dynamic be altered so that instead of us taking more and more of the world for granted, we experience wonder continuously or at least, more frequently? This isn't an option: the alternative to spirituality, in my opinion, is cynicism; of this, the world already has plenty.
Speedbird's Adam Greenfield, in a reply to my comment on his well presented essay on experience design, turned me on to the notion of “qualia.” Qualia are supposed units of experience that each of us maintain, which -- if they could be apprehended and worked with -- would enable designers to compose truly remarkable experiences that, I'm sure, would have a powerful spiritual component. Unfortunately, qualia as defined cannot be shared and thus are not readily available for stoking spiritual or any other fires. But for me they remain a powerful concept. What if designers gave more attention to the spiritual dimension of experience and helped to better understand and appreciate its constitution and consequences in other than purely numinal ways? What if discussion on design blogs was about more than technology and techniques, or social media and psychology, and supported a meaningful conversation on the spiritual dimension of experience (as do so many non-design-oriented blogs)? Like most others in our field, I haven't the time to answer these questions, not so long as my livelihood is determined by clients who could care less about spirituality because they know so little about it. But perhaps others are better situated to explore. To them, I offer every encouragement. (I especially like this meditation developed by Steve Stein for the First Unitarian Church of San Jose, CA: it suggests what to look for and the right questions to ask as we look for spiritual expression in our daily environments. Funny how a sermon can produce a design program!)
If you are a designer of experience who incorporates an appreciation of spirituality in your work, please share your cases with me so that I can share them more widely. Who knows, you might be The Next New Thing -- or should I say, The Next New Old Thing?
Next: Philosophical perspectives on experience.
(Image: Sri Chinmoy Bio)