Emerging Australian Ideal #4: Mindful in the Madness

October 30, 2014

From Eastern meditations to Western boardrooms

Once the domain of spiritual meditation and the hippy revolution of the 1960’s, this year has seen mindfulness rise to the fore as a comprehensive approach to maintaining peace, focus and balance in our lives. With an increased pace of life, a need to stay connected socially and technologically 24/7, and a blur between home life and work life, mindfulness is a conscious choice to focus full attention on a single, meaningful task rather than a mindless reaction to the endless stimuli we encounter every day.

An awareness of the benefits of meditation, or indeed the idea of mindfulness itself, has existed in various forms from its Buddhist roots to the mainstreaming of yoga and its current popularity in guiding leadership in the workplace.  However, in the past year especially, we have come to understand its potential as both a psychological/scientific and a spiritual concept, allowing it to become firmly embedded within our culture.

Mindful living

Mindful living is being integrated into our every day through multiple expressions.  Most obviously in health and wellbeing, we are seeing mindfulness as a method of fighting the rapid rise of anxiety and depression, indicated most recently through continual references to mindfulness meditation during Mental Health Week from October 5th to 12th.

Mindful eating and drinking has exploded, encouraging paying closer attention to the textures and flavours of food, appreciating each flavour as novel rather than as a backdrop to social interaction.

Image Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/93726493@N00/2232550960

In mindful travel, a regular escape from our domestic setting is now seen as crucial to disrupting the noise of the day-to-day, refocusing ourselves within the moment, finding calm and attending closely to our sensory surrounds.

In the workplace, there’s been a rise in standing desks – stimulating active attention and an awareness of the body – and considered changes in office design such as hot-desking to transform the daily grind into a proactive experience.

With such a comprehensive impact on Australian culture already, it’s difficult to see what’s new with mindfulness.  But this makes us question what’s happening in the margins - in what other areas is mindfulness becoming useful?  With possibly the greatest potential for brands and products, there is a burgeoning recognition of mindful design for mindful action.

Mindful design for mindful action

Mindful design creates mindful action in a twofold process: firstly a mindful design object creates awareness through a physical or symbolic disruption of its function (or an aspect of it), and secondly, a mediation of this disruption through the user directs their awareness to the issue to be mindful of (Niedderer). A shift towards a mindful behaviour change is key.  This works through relocating responsibility in the user, inspiring conscious attitude change, exposing the balance of individual and social aims and inducing reflection of the individual on their inner state/emotions and their actions and interactions.  The defining aspect is disruption through omission.

But don’t be fooled, this is not disruption in the style of guerrilla marketing. It is not forceful, it does not have a ‘look at me’ approach, it’s not disruptive for the sake of disruption, and most importantly it’s not adding to the clutter.

Rather, in order to facilitate behavioural change, mindful design intends to reframe the social experience, putting the onus on the individual to reflect on and navigate the various social and inter-personal elements at play in their environment. This can only be done through careful and conscious consideration.

Mindful design on the ground

For instance, at junctions in the northern Dutch town of Drachten, more and more road signs had been installed in an attempt to reduce car crashes, but with no avail.

Image Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/45409431@N00/10083393913/

The town planners reacted by giving traffic agency back to the drivers as they removed all signs and traffic lights, leaving the streets naked.  This disrupted expectations of being guided through dangerous crossings by street signs and directed peoples’ awareness towards the traffic, requiring them to take active responsibility both for themselves and for others.  The design encouraged reflection for self-empowerment and the frequency of crashes has drastically reduced since its implementation.

Although this example is based more in urban planning than product design, items such as Niedderer's 'Social Cups' (cups which can only stay upright when in the user’s hand or resting upon other cups, drawing attention to drinking in its social environment) and ‘Fruit Bowl’ (designed to draw attention to the weight and physical presence of the fruit, inviting the user to interact with it) provide examples firmly grounded in design.

Fighting Mindless Mindfulness

In a stark contrast to the current zeitgeist of corporate mindfulness retreats, paired with apps and technologies that (without acknowledging the irony) promote ‘disconnecting’ and having ‘offline’ moments, mindful design promotes a consistent focus on social or environmental interactions as they occur. This is not a zero-sum game of sporadic mindful moments, but rather constant prompts towards enacting mindful behaviour.

The tenets behind mindful design remind us that mindfulness is not simply about unplugging, but about regaining consciousness of the world around us and heightening awareness in everyday life. Perhaps there is a new space for technology and apps to help with this gentle disruption – guiding consistent mindful action instead of merely promoting bursts of mindfulness.

Amelia & Jen