Cultivating Mindfulness in Design Thinking
“It is easy to call meditation “doing” but it is more a state of being.” — John Kabat-Zinn
Adopting the philosophy behind mindfulness and its tenets can help designers become better design thinkers and improve the design thinking process. Mindfulness is defined as a state of open, non-judgmental, and non-discursive attention to the contents of consciousness, whether pleasant or unpleasant. Training your mind to be in the present moment can temper the stresses during the design thinking process, which is collaborative and complex, as it involves numerous minds and perspectives. I outline the five main steps of the design thinking process and analyze mindfulness techniques that can be embedded into its process. I argue that a more mindful approach to design can shift the way designers frame their thinking around design challenges and that operating under this mindset and environment has positive outcomes not only for the designer, but also for the team and, ultimately, the design solution.
A More Mindful Design Philosophy
Social and cultural values are bound up in design choices and decisions and are often invisible. Designers play a central role in shaping culture, people’s behaviors, and the environment, through the design of products and services that are developed for mass consumption. The cultural values of the designer, client, and stakeholders are embedded in the products they produce. Yoko Akama argues that, while invisible, these values are etched into the design process and pervasive in the ultimate design outcomes. Critics like David Stairs believe that the social role of design has become overly simplistic, fetishizing social relevance over addressing the fundamental, wicked problems in our society. The abstraction of progressive social values has become a selling point for design. So, how can design root itself in a grounded ideology that is ethically-minded and makes for better designers, and ultimately, also makes for better design culture?
One design methodology that has gained prominence in recent years is design thinking. Design thinking is a complex process, often involving a cross-functional team from various backgrounds and opinions, and it also requires designers to understand and reach out to individuals from various backgrounds in order to gain understanding and empathy around a design challenge. The looping feedback from prototyping and the critiques offered, all while maintaining stakeholder deadlines, can compound stress.
I argue that mindfulness practices and its philosophy can help alleviate these tensions I wrestle with above, and that mindfulness practices can be adopted across a wide-spectrum of design systems and approaches in order to cultivate more well-rounded design practitioners. In this paper, I will address mindfulness in relation to design thinking methodology and provide correlations between these two practices.
The practice of mindfulness is broad and its definitions are plenty. Sam Harris, a neuroscientist and philosopher, defines mindfulness as, “a state of open, non-judgmental, and non-discursive attention to the contents of consciousness, whether pleasant or unpleasant,” and Rafe Steinhauer, describes mindfulness as the practice of seeing one’s self in context with greater clarity.These definitions are how I will frame mindfulness in relation to design thinking. I believe that if designers become more present and self-aware, especially of their biases, they are better able to frame design challenges with more empathy in the cause of the user. This mindful system of thinking becomes itself a set of values rooted in ultimate focus and being present. By bridging mindfulness and design thinking, design becomes more empathetic, more aware, more connected, and more inclusive.
According to Harris, there is nothing passive about mindfulness. It is the, “act of experiencing more clearly…it is to recognize what is already arising in consciousness in each moment without modifying it, without grasping at what’s pleasant or pushing what is unpleasant away.” You cannot control what emerges in your consciousness, and mindfulness is about recognizing the thoughts that surface without attaching meaning, bias, or judgment to them, and regarding these rising thoughts as a natural condition of your mind.
Meditation is one way to cultivate mindfulness and this method is outlined below:
- Sit comfortably, with your spine erect.
- Close your eyes, take a few deep breaths. Notice the sensations associated with sitting.
- Gradually become aware of the process of breathing. Pay attention to wherever you feel the breath most clearly — either at the nostrils, or in the rising and falling your abdomen.
- Allow your attention to rest in the mere sensation of breathing.
- When your mind wanders, return it to the sensation of breathing.
- As you focus on the breath, other perceptions and sensations continue to appear. Notice these phenomena as they emerge but return to the sensation of breathing.
- The moment you observe that you have been lost in thought, notice the present thought itself as an object of consciousness. Then return your attention to the breath.
The exercise of mindfulness meditation seems simplistic, but practitioners argue that it takes a lifetime to master. Ultimately, this state of mindfulness becomes your way of being, with or without the act of meditation.
What is Design Thinking?
Design thinking and its human centered philosophy has gained popularity and relevance in recent years, packaged as a toolkit for designers to methodically address and design solutions to meet the needs of the end user. Design thinking is, “a non-linear, iterative process that teams use to understand users, challenge assumptions, redefine problems and create innovative solutions to prototype and test…it is most useful to tackle problems that are ill-defined or unknown. It is framed as a five-step process: Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype, and Test.
I believe the approach and philosophy of mindfulness practices can help designers become better design thinkers and mindful approaches can be practically applied to design thinking methodology. I outline the five main steps of the design thinking process and provide instances when designers can apply mindful practices into their design thinking process.
DESIGN THINKING METHODOLOGY + MINDFULNESS TENETS
Overall, practicing mindfulness takes time, persistence and diligence, “your breath teaches you that not only does awareness go with the territory, it is the territory…it’s not easy to stay with the breath even if you want to”. Meditation requires concentration and a driven pursuit to undo how our minds have been trained to think of the self. There are parallels in mindfulness and design practice. It is crucial for designers to continually learn and hone their craft, embedding learnings in each day to their practice is an important factor in staying requires persistence and concentration to stay informed of emergent design trends. Additionally, training your mind everyday to abstain from being reactive in situations can help alleviate stress that may arrive from your design project.
Empathize + Define
The first step in design thinking is gaining an empathetic understanding of the design challenge through user research. Following your user research, designers define the scope of the problem by analyzing research and identifying insights, creating problem statements that help define and frame potential design solutions.
Being present and listening deeply. An overarching theme of mindfulness is staying present in the moment and paying attention to what is in front of you. This skill is important in the first phase of design thinking, when designers are conducting first-person research and interacting with individuals to gain a better understanding of a design challenge. During conversations, being present and paying close attention is more important than figuring out the point you are going to make next. By listening, you are giving the power of your presence, and in doing so, you are cultivating trust and respect with the individual, elevating the voices of those you are designing for. This mindset is not only useful during the empathy portion but can be applied across the entire system, whereby designers are attentive and attuned to their colleagues at all phases of the design process.
The third part of the design thinking process is when you begin to brainstorm, ideate and identify potential innovative solutions for your design challenge.
Dropping your ego + vulnerability. Your ego is one’s conscious mind and part of a self-made identity that an individual has given themselves. Mindfulness teaches us that your ego is not your true self and that it is wise to drop one’s ego, pride and self-importance, and let themselves just be. Design thinking is a collaborative and iterative process. It is crucial for designers to be vulnerable and generate ideas — these ideas, during brainstorming and ideation sessions, are judged for their potential merit and critique and feedback is invited. It is natural for designers to only want to share their best ideas and for them to be liked, but mindfulness teaches us that the ego hinders the mind, festering insecurities. Leaning into mindfulness during this process can help alleviate the tension of needing to fulfill your ego, which inhibits designers from the process of innovation out of fear of rejection — Nadia Sturtees, a designer practitioner, calls this the “disease to please.” Dropping your ego and being vulnerable, perhaps sharing as many ideas as you can, even if not the best, can spark more ideas and conversation.
Non-Judging + Receptivity. During meditation, one discovers that, “part of our mind is constantly evaluating our experience, comparing them with other experiences or holding them against expectations and standards that we create”. This mentality colors our perception and hinders us from seeing reality for what it is — and this reality is that we do not know and cannot control how others perceive us — so ridding the self of these entrenched patterns of thinking leads to acceptance and non-judgmental receptivity. As a designer, you should not allow your fear of being perceived in a negative light hinder you from expressing your opinions or thoughts.
Prototyping in design thinking is when one begins to design and make for the design solutions based on the ideas generated from the ideation phase.
Generosity. “Generosity is an inward giving…most important is to trust and honor your instincts but…to walk the edge and take some risks as part of your experiment”. Prototyping is an iterative process and likely to include rounds of revisions where some concepts make it to the next round of prototyping and others are discarded. It is important here to accept feedback and setbacks your project may take, detaching yourself from the design decisions that may not ultimately be yours to decide.
This is when you begin to test your solutions, and ideally, modify the prototypes based on user feedback.
Trust. Testing your design solutions can be a tedious process, as it can force you to revert back to the earlier stages of design thinking, depending on user feedback, where you may have to redefine your design solution. It takes mindful patience and persistence to find the right solution and it is important to trust the process and find the right solution. This state of trust is important in mindfulness practice, because if we, “place our trust in a process…we can find a powerful stabilizing element in embracing security, balance and openness, which…intuitively guides us”. Having the confidence that the process will work out and that your team will find the right solution provides a steady and confident working environment.
Mindfulness is a practice of self-inquiry and self-reflection. The more aware and conscious individuals are of themselves helps ground them in reality, ultimately affecting their choices they make for their design practice and design decisions. The philosophy behind mindfulness applied across design thinking is a practical solution to help foster innovation and create an environment of the willingness to really hear other individuals’ opinions and ideas.
I believe that practicing mindfulness can help cultivate better designers. If designers become mindfulness practitioners, then these values will permeate a project and eventually the design ecosystem. These practical applications should not be limited to design thinking and I believe can be applied across various design practices to help nurture a more empathetic and self-aware industry that impacts on people globally.
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Harris, Sam. “How to Meditate.” Sam Harris, May 10, 2011. https://samharris.org/how-to-meditate/.
Harris, Sam. “Waking Up with Sam Harris — Discover Your Mind.” wakingup.com. Accessed March 16, 2021. https://app.wakingup.com/.
Kabat-Zinn, Jon. Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life. 10th edition. New York: Hachette Books, 2005.
Rojas, Fernando, Stuart English, Robert Young, and Nick Spencer. “Bridging Mindfulness and Design,” 2016. https://researchportal.northumbria.ac.uk/en/publications/bridging-mindfulness-and-design(604ded86-7261-459d-9986-a4968103811c).html.
Steinhauer, Rafe. “Centering Mindfulness in Design Thinking Education.” Medium, July 13, 2020. https://medium.com/future-of-design-in-higher-education/centering-mindfulness-in-design-thinking-education-2b2514a34c7e.
Surtees, Nadia. “5 Ways Mindfulness Can Make You a Better Designer.” Accessed March 16, 2021. https://www.ideo.com/blog/5-ways-mindfulness-can-make-you-a-better-designer.
The Interaction Design Foundation. “What Is Design Thinking?” Accessed March 16, 2021. https://www.interaction-design.org/literature/topics/design-thinking.