BG 271: Contemplative Design: Less is More

Episode Description:

Michaël Harboun wants to design products that find a balance between inner contemplation and external technology. In this conversation we explore things like transpersonal social networks and speak about the way that gaming can be contemplative (Michael would like to simply call video games “experiences”). We also discuss the idea of “Contemplative Design”, how it works, and how it can lead to innovation in consumer products.

This is part two of a two part series.

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Vincent:    So I’m curious. You know you mentioned before this notion of anti-time, which it sort of sounds related to this Buddhist concept of just being, or just being mindful, like a kind of mindful awareness where there’s not a particular goal in mind. But rather there’s just an attempt to notice what’s happening in the mind right now.

Michael:    Yeah.

Vincent:    I’m curious on a personal level, how do you work with anti-time. Are there things that you do in terms of techniques or in terms of just being that you bring into your own personal kind of routine or practice?

Michaël:    I try as much as possible. Again, it’s really like it is like a practice. It’s something that you have to do on purpose. Like it’s not something you can do while doing something else. You have to be totally dedicated to it to really do it at 100%. But what I try to adopt in my everyday work is the idea of being contemplative in general and try to adopt that big picture of things.

I think that as a designer whatever you do, whether it’s a chair, a phone or banking service, you always consciously or unconsciously communicate a value or a principle in the design you do by deciding on the rules of how a system works, like the designer shapes the users experience with the product, and so generates a specific mindset in which the user gets. And that mindset is what the user will remember of the object.

So the thing is now in the last decade or two with the development of the technology we know today, the possibility as to what to allow and what to enable for the user has become [complex]. Like becomes very easy to lose sight as to what really matters for user and how to create something that make sense and isn’t just an accumulation of dozens of features.

So as a designer you might actually want to add tons of features and extras to your product in the same way that as a person you might want a 60-inch TV and a nice car. And I think that we all know by now that this is not what makes us happy in life. What has more chances to make us feel fulfilled is when we are able to align our inner values with what we do.

And it’s exactly the same for product. If you define what the real values of a product are and only focus in how to make them align with the user’s needs, that’s when you create something meaningful. And that’s where I think that adopting a contemplative approach can become a great tool as it allows us to step back and see the whole forest rather than just a single tree.

And it can help in spotting and capturing these core values and principles of things. It almost acts as a filter which cancels all the unnecessary noise and reveals the purity of things. When you look at how technology is shaping new forms of interaction and how they influence us in everyday behaviors, I think that philosophy becomes the anchor; contemplation becomes the anchor to which it is really crucial to remain connected.

With all can be done today, it’s very easy to design products and services which just replace what we do best as humans by almost over assisting us. As a designer, I keep asking myself if a design is ethical in that it encourages the user’s skills and abilities instead of ignoring them and assuming that the user doesn’t know. So technology should really encourage our human nature and not be a barrier for what we are great at.

One of the other great things a contemplative approach can bring is the idea of always putting things into question and not take anything for granted. By breaking apart the rules of how current things work and looking at them with a fresh pair of eyes, great things can happen. What a philosopher basically tries to do is making sense of things.

So all sorts of fundamental questions are also of great value in the design process as they help us frame and create an underlying set of rules and behaviors, which hopefully resonates and makes sense for the user. But at the end, I mean with all that being said, I think that nothing replaces a pen and sheet of paper and just start sketching. Nothing ever replaces the power of making stuff.

So I think that having a theoretical approach and having a contemplative approach is great. But if you don’t start making stuff, it never takes shape at all.  So I think it’s really like a hand in hand approach where one has to feed the other and back and forth has to be constant in a way like contemplating, doing contemplating. Otherwise if you just do one, basically you end up being, you end up nowhere.

Vincent:    Yeah. That’s really well put.

And there’s many wisdom traditions, not just the Buddhist tradition, that talk about, like for instance the Christian tradition that talks about contemplation in action. That’s one of the kind of key phrases that came out of the contemplative Christians. In the Buddhist world, it’s sort of like the bodhisattva ideal. It’s like not just waking up but then also actually bringing that awakening into the world and supporting other people in their own processes of maturing and awakening.

So it sounds like you’re describing your own process mostly in terms of this practice of like we can call it maybe contemplative design. That a lot of your contemplative and anti-time is spent in the actual design process it sounds like.

Michaël:    Yeah. I said that what I personally try to adopt is really an approach where we got rid of what is not essential. Cause it’s very easy to actually just see what actually, will actually more parasite a user’s experience rather than making it feel pure and unique. So it’s really like a quest for a reaching a sort of purity in the design we do by getting rid of all the superficial parameters.

And I think that adopting a contemplative approach definitely helps in achieving that whether it’s a personal effort or a team effort. I think it’s a general mindset in which it is crucial to enter from time to time.

Vincent:    And do you feel like that approach also not just transforms the end product but does it also transform the designer?

Michaël:    Yeah, totally. I think it has, I mean especially if you end up designing a lot in your everyday life it’s kind of a mindset you get into over time by being always in an approach where you try to see what’s underlying rather than what’s overlaid, trying to grasp things which aren’t necessarily easy to spot.

Basically you gain a mindset where it starts to emerge in your everyday life by just looking at everything around you so totally. It’s more of a life philosophy than actually just a work philosophy I would say.

Vincent:    That’s beautiful. And do you in your own mind have any way of kind of understanding or explaining [to] the many of your colleagues who may not take this kind of approach to design. Like you’re talking about the million different features product and how that seems to be connected to this idea of you know wanting all this stuff. How do you make sense of that?

Michaël:    It’s interesting. I think that at IDEO it’s great that we do all in a way agree on that. And it’s more actually about trying to convince the client that they don’t need all these features. We always say that people who want add all the features are almost all on the client side. And IDEO is to show that less is more in a way.

So making the pure things arise rather than say yes to dozens of features. I mean the problem with feature is [it’s] very driven by marketing, right. Like how can we sell a product? Well we’ll just like add million of features. Fortunately, IDEO is not driven by marketing, it’s driven by design.

And so I think that there is inherent part of contemplation into the design like we don’t want to design unnecessary stuff. We want to design things which are meaningful. So in a way I think that everybody at IDEO kind of has this approach of trying to reach that minimum, that is strictly necessary which makes really sense for the user.

Vincent:    Beautiful. And I’m curious just off the top of your head are there a few companies or products like if you look around that you really feel like wow these products or this company is really driven by this kind of deep contemplative design philosophy.

Michaël:    It’s interesting.

Vincent:    Like a product recommendation is almost what I’m asking for.

Michaël:    I mean the last thing where I was like wow that’s amazing that’s something I was looking for a long time was actually more a video game than a product. But I consider video games as being product not as being rudimentary video game. I don’t like the video game anymore. I would just like to call them “experiences.”

It’s a game called Journey maybe you’ve heard about it, which adopts this very meditative approach in a way where you don’t try actually to achieve something. But where you basically just like enter a state of flow in a way and you just let yourself go into the environment, into the general architecture of the surroundings in the game.

And there’s not a point where you have to beat somebody or access a hidden part of something. It’s really only about getting into that [music]. It’s really amazing. When I play that I game I was oh wow. Like this is exactly the direction in which I want to go. Like not trying to create a mental state where we give users the idea that they have to achieve something, but more letting them actually go with the flow. So I recommend to you to play that game.

Vincent:    Beautiful. Beautiful. That’s great. I’ve never heard of it. I’m stoked to check it out. And I love that phrase. I like to not call them video games anymore but just call them experiences. That’s really interesting.

Michaël:    Yeah. I think that it’s time that we change the name. They have too much impact to still be called like that.

Vincent:    Yeah. That makes a lot of sense. We interviewed one of our friends, Jane McGonigal, who you probably have heard of. She’s also a spiritual practitioner, so she very much sees video game experiences as having potential to transform people’s consciousness in using them. So it sounds similar to what you’re describing.

Michaël:    I think that video games have the potential to alter our state of consciousness the same way that music or cinema or literature does. They are all part of a larger design discipline which I like to call time design. Like they’re all designs which happen in a sequence of time and so the user gets into that flow. It’s very tricky and dangerous because they have the potential of making us, you know, feel different.

So it can be something very delicate to deal with. That’s why we have to be careful when we’re designing with that. Almost like what drugs do, drugs have the same effect. They alter your state of consciousness. In a much more extreme way of course but the fundamental idea is the same.

I feel like if video games can adapt, can basically like alter, help us alter our mindsets in a way which makes the positive side of things emerge. I think it can be really valued. I’m really interested in that and I think that next project I will be working on will be focused on that aspect of how dynamic is consciousness. How much can it become something interchangeable and, when it is in different states, how can be it be influencing in a positive way.

Vincent:    Cool. My last question, and I think this goes to the heart of what you’ve already really been talking to, but it feels like a really relevant question to be asking now. And that is how do you see these future technologies, which really aren’t in the future, they’re kind of emerging now and their design which is something you’re very involved in, how do you see these technologies and their design playing a role in our personal and also collective process of let’s just call it awakening?

You use this really beautiful phrase you know “we can only see what we become conscious of”, so this process of becoming more and more conscious and more and more awake. How do you see technology and design playing a role in that in the personal and collective.

Michaël:    The term of awakening is really fascinating and super interesting because it’s so ambiguous, like what do we mean by awakening or enlightenment? The way I personally think about it is that there is no single objective and unique way of experiencing it. Because it is an experience everybody will have a different sensation of it.

However, I can see how similar impressions happen in people’s mind when it occurs, the general idea of grasping underlying reality which wasn’t visible before I guess could be one of them. But the nature of this reality can be multiple. It could for instance be an intellectual awakening which is the realization that everything we observe and experience is just a construction of our brains. That nothing actually exists the way we see it with our eyes.

Or, it could be the idea of perceiving an overarching order and pattern in everything and being struck by its beauty and simplicity. But it could also be a more spiritual awakening, maybe the one more connected to the Buddhist approach where you realize and understand how connected we are with everything else, the people, nature, the universe, and that nothing will remain unchanged. So I believe that these moments can be triggered in numerous ways.

They can be triggered through focused contemplation and meditation efforts, but also through all sorts of physical events. When I listen to people coming back from near death experiences for instance, the way they describe and the way they felt how their perception on things have changed since then I consider this being also sort of enlightenment as it makes people grasp something big they never perceived before.

And it seems that whatever the nature of the enlightenment, there is always this idea of uncovering an invisible reality. And this reality doesn’t lie outside, but very well inside our minds. And so to allow any sort of awakening it is necessary to lose ourselves in our own minds and not be afraid of it. I feel that we are increasingly afraid, because we are always connected, of being alone with ourselves and just focusing on our thoughts.

And so we have to evolve on our side as how we use technology to keep us entertained or connected. Like technology can’t continuously absorb our attention. It also can replace the work happening in our own minds. We have to learn to let it go from time to time and be confident in staying alone with our own mind again. The other point is that the principles and behavios communicated throughout modern products will have to evolve I believe to allow first any kind of awakening.

The general mindset of a society is strongly influenced by the tools and technology used to communicate. I think it’s important that these values which are encompassing these tools are noble and bring the positive side of human to the front. Social networks again are a great example nowadays. They are a great tool to help us communicate. However, I feel that they also have a tendency to contribute in creating an exaggeration of people’s self fascination.

It’s like a magic mirror reflecting an image you have control on. It is a technology of the self in which if it was a video game for instance you are the main character in which the world is going on.

Vincent:    Yes.

Michaël:    I think that’s one common value which contributes to any process of awakening is the idea of trans-personality. The transpersonal experience is a state in which the sense of the self and identity vanishes and transcends the individual to encompass wider aspects of human kind like space, time or the cosmos. However, it seems that the digital tools nowadays are actually doing the exact opposite and strengthen the idea of the self.

I mean we even have tons of numbers and metrics to weight the impact of ourselves. Like quantification is a real issue in current user experiences. We are constantly confronted with how many people have appreciated something. How many people are following other people. Like visible popularity online, like points in a game, create an approach where people compare themselves to each other which is a great way of losing sight of what truly matters.

And so what would it mean to have a trans-personal social network?  Is it a place where profile pictures don’t exist? Where names and identities are invisible? In which numbers and metrics have disappeared? I don’t know. But it will have to be a place where the focus is not centric on the person but on something larger. If you imagine a game, what would it mean instead of being the hero of the adventure trying to get the most points, to just be a dust particle among million of others just randomly wandering in space.

Like instead of making points and comparing yourself, what would it mean to have no clear goal at all? Maybe your only goal would be to figure out how to communicate with the other particles or to understand where you are in space and what their action if any? What would it mean to adapt like this game concept to a social network? I have no idea, but maybe it will help connecting us back to a more fundamental way of thinking about things rather than only sticking to what is easy to see.

But it’s, unfortunately, not the mainstream approach right now. I feel it’s something which starts to emerge. People start to get conscious that they have to, the people start to get tired I feel a little bit of this exhaustion of information and the nature of this information to what it relates. But it might just be an impression. I’m not sure. I’m really curious to see how that will evolve in the future.

Vincent:    Yeah. It’s beautiful. I share that impression that people are getting tired of the constant self referencing.

As you mentioned the way that some technologies can actually increase self absorption as opposed to pointing us to something that transcends the self.

Michaël:    Exactly.

Vincent:    So I love these questions like what would a transpersonal social network look like or what would it be like to quantify selflessness. These are beautiful questions. Thanks for bringing them up and thanks for sharing your own thoughts on what to us are really, really important topics.

Michaël:    It was really a pleasure to be part of this.

Vincent:    Cool. Thank you.

Michaël:    Thank you very much.


Michaël Harboun

Michael Harboun is originally from Luxembourg, and graduated from Strate College in Paris in 2011. He’s currently designing at IDEO in Chicago.