Experience Designers need to think more like artists
Why thinking like an artist will help you create more impactful experiences
Written by the artist Rasmus Stride and experience designer Andy Sontag
Twelve years ago when I first started working with design thinking, I asked my wife, a fashion designer, if she had ever heard of ‘design thinking’. “Nope,” she responded. Then when I followed her through the process she used to design a new clothing collection, it turned out she was by and large following a ‘design thinking’ process. Design thinking is a stripped down, efficiency driven process taken from the studios of designers from Tokyo to San Francisco. This stripping down to fit into corporations, means design thinking has been narrowed to fit into the existing logic of capitalism. This underlying economic growth argument, which trumps all others, creates negative outcomes for future generations. Design thinking has lost craftsmanship and replaced it with post-its. The abundant use of post-its, and other workshopping ‘creative’ business tools is why it has been called ‘Theater of Innovation’ by the magazine Fast Company.
Artistic thinking is by no means a silver bullet. However I believe that the next generation of designers should consider augmenting and intertwining their design practice with artistic thinking. It is time to challenge the dominant narratives and create results that enable people to genuinely transform the way they feel, think and behave to create a more just, sustainable and flourishing world.
The difference between Artistic Thinking and Design Thinking
Art has as its starting point an exploration and probing of the human experience. Design thinking has as a starting point solving real problems for people, from their existing frame of experience. Artistic thinking helps us break through the culturally weighted ways of being and doing with the goal of opening up new planes of experience. Design thinking helps us deeply understand people, but lacks a process to meaningfully challenge people to grow. Art is all about challenging us to see more, rethink, and take a new perspective.
Design is a solution to a problem. Art is a question to a problem. — John Maeda
Bringing out the depth of the human experience
“I am seeing the world through a snap chat filter.” — One millennial chatting to another on the train in Toronto
More and more of our way of experiencing the world is dominated by the 2 dimensional experience mediated through screens. Exploring the depth and breadth of the human experience has never been more important. In the seminal book Homo Deus, by Yuval Noah Harari has a chapter called ‘The Ocean of Consciousness’. He explains that different socio-economic realities and the nature of the daily experiences we have nurture different states of consciousness.
“We fail to appreciate that we are living on a tiny island of consciousness, within a giant ocean of alien mental states.” — Yuval Noah Harari
He goes on to explain that most of the scientific research about the human experience has been conducted on Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic (WEIRD) societies. Joseph Henrich, Steven J. Heine and Ara Norezayan conducted ground breaking research surveying all research published between 2003–2007 in leading scientific journals in 6 subfields of psychology*. They found that though most of these papers made sweeping claims about human psychology, they based their findings on exclusively WEIRD samples. In the papers published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology — one of the most important journals in its subfield of psychology — 96 percent of the sampled individuals were WEIRD! It is much easier for a university professor to conduct research on their own psychology students, and this has huge implications for how we look at the human experience. As a result psychology largely shows how WEIRD societies design and shape mental states in these societies. It does not show the ocean of possible mental states, and thus dramatically reduces the human experiences possible. As one Aboriginal puts it: ‘The problem with European Australians is that they can only perceive the surface reality of the world and can’t enter its interior life.”
Are their mental states that have gone extinct? In many pre-modern cultures shamans, monks and ascetics systematically explored the expanses of the mind, and brought back incredible stories of tranquility and grace. Is there something Meta, Google and the other shapers of Web3 can learn from these ancient wisdom traditions?
As we go about shaping ever more powerful technological tools (that in turn design us and our states of consciousness) it is crucial to acknowledge our little island. We need a movement of experience designers, entrepreneurs and explorers to use artistic thinking to set sail on the ocean of consciousness. What depths of the human experience might we find?
How do you open the gates of the mind?
Artistic thinking aims to expand what people can experience through bringing to light new emotions, perspectives and insights. As we set sail into the ocean of consciousness with a group, we must first create safety. Scientific America calls the psychological indicator, Openness to Experience, the ‘gates to the mind*’. As experience designers, we want the gates of people’s minds to be open. Openness to experience can be increased temporarily when people experience positive emotions*. This is why we always aim to create a positive emotional state in the beginning of an experience, which creates the opening for people to have a deep and even challenging experience later in the experience.
Daring to Expose Blindspots
We as designers have a tendency to please. A tendency to design experiences that are neatly packaged and engaging (good UX), but that often lack a true deep dive into the type of meaningful experiences that humans are capable of having. Art does not play that role. It thrives from asking tough questions, challenging perceptions and opinions. This requires bravery.
A good example of brave art is Duchamp’s work from 1917; Fountain — a urinal put on display, signed with a synonym by the artist. You have to imagine the world in 1917. Though at first his work was rejected and banned, in the end his bravery paid off .The work cemented a new artistic direction within the avant-garde movement of the 20th century; the readymade.
By transforming a mundane object into a work of art, the artist displayed the bravery needed to challenge the status quo of the art world. What Duchamp did was something that hadn’t been done before* and the reaction reshaped the perception of art for good. Art exposes tough topics we’re scared of talking about and can even challenge our perceptions and what we know to be true — a toilet is not art! Thus once this assumption has been questioned, it opens up to whole new world of conversation, questions and forms of expression.
As Dr Anna Lembke writes in Dopamine Nation, we have developed a way of living and experiencing the world that is drenched in dopamine, in feeling good. Yet her research links much of the underlying anxiety, stresses and addictions to our addiction with feeling good and lack of painful, and challenging experiences*. The motto of Silicon Valley and the tech giants has been to create ‘frictionless’ user experiences. But what might a life without friction miss? We need a new generation of experience designers that are ready to design experiences that can challenge people and expose their blind spots.
Questions to help you expose blindspots:
- What are the unhealthy or constricted narratives that could be challenged in the context of your work?
- What experience might serve as a spark for conversation about these topics?
- What artist is working with these topics? Could you bring in art to help you tackles these tough topics?
“Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution.”
- Albert Einstein
We hope this article has inspired you to bravely and creatively aim for meaning and depth in the experiences you design. As an experience designer or if you consider yourself a character in “the theater of innovation”, we invite you to bring out depth, expose blindspots and inspire people to transform themselves in the work you do. We invite you to growing people and relationships. To create moments that open up new ways of feeling ❤️, thinking 🗣 and doing ✋. To be critical and challenge the systems that are creating destructive outcomes. To truly try to solve challenges from new ways of thinking. We need you. The artist in you. Your most brave self.
👉Part 2 of this article to be released soon, with an Artistic Thinking tool!
Rasmus Stride and Andy Sontag. They have been working together, and exploring experience design in one beautiful long conversation.
We would love to hear your thoughts!
- Ideo breaks its silence on design thinking’s critics By: Michael Hendrix
2. Homo Deus, A Brief History of Tomorrow, by Yuval Noah Harari
3. Most people are not WEIRD Joseph Henrich, Steven J. Heine & Ara Norenzayan
4. Openness to Experience: The Gates of the Mind By Luke Smillie
6. Dopamine Nation: Finding Balance in the Age of Indulgence, Dr. Anna Lembke “Dopamine Nation”: Why pain is crucial in an era of easy pleasures