Could mindfulness help make you a better designer?

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Let me just preface this editorial by saying that no designer can be successful without a firm grasp of design science, technical skill and understanding the economics of the current market. But the thing is, even with all the critical design knowledge in the world, you still need that inspiration.

As much as you can study sound principles of design thinking and master all manner of hacks and techniques to build better products, at the end of the day, great innovations still rely on at least one spark of seemingly magical inspiration. Is there anything you can do to improve your success rate at that tiny but essential part of the design process?

A recent keynote at IxDA 2014 in Amsterdam by Irene Au argues there is. It’s a solution that’s also been recommended for everything from boosting profits to boosting brainpower, but according to Au it’s also a great way to open the door to more creative thinking when it comes to design .


What is it? A mindfulness practice like meditation or yoga.

Her journey into mindfulness started not as a professional quest but as a personal one, she relates. Her position as a designer at top internet companies like Google (she’s now a VC) and the responsibilities of raising a young family wore her down and brought her to the edge of burnout. But as she developed her mindfulness practice, she discovered that along with helping her manager stress and exhaustion, it also brought serious professional benefits.


More Focus

One such benefit: greater focus. “In product development, lack of focus often stems from a deeper issue around ego,” she explains. “Maybe we don’t want to cut features because we don’t want to disappoint early adopters who often want power and flexibility. Or maybe we don’t want to let go of a potential revenue opportunity even though it doesn’t make sense for the product or its users. Or maybe the team wants to add functionality because it’s technically possible. In any of these cases, it’s all about ego.”

A possible solution? Meditation or yoga. “Mindfulness practices help people let go of their ego and deal with whatever is getting in the way of achieving that focus. Simplifying then becomes less an act of ruthless elimination and more an act of love and compassion for people who benefit from a clear, direct user experience,” Au concludes.

More empathy

But meditation for designers isn’t all about more focus. It’s also a great way to increase empathy. Data, Au explains, can only take you so far.

“As designers we try to build empathy by studying users, either in the field or in the lab. Those endeavors are important and worthwhile, but they are still analytic endeavors. We take notes, we code up the behaviors, and then we synthesize and analyze what we observed. True empathy goes beyond observation. It’s about getting out of your head and feeling their experience in your bones,” she says.

Just like you can train yourself to be better at the analytical side of design, you can also train yourself to be better at this less linear, more empathetic side. “Much research has proven that yoga and meditation boosts one’s empathy and compassion for others. Researchers from the University of Rochester Medical Centre found that training doctors in mindfulness meditation helped them to listen better and not be as judgemental – both at home an work. “Another study found that people’s ability to recognise subtle facial emotions after they did yoga dramatically improved compared to before the yoga session,” she notes.

How to apply this insight

The keynote goes on to explain that not only does any form of mindfulness help designers in these ways, but yoga specifically can release tension and help us be more creative. It also outlines much more research on how to get the most of your mindfulness practice as a designer.

The bottom line? “Nothing beats having a regular yoga and meditation practice,” she says, and even a mere five minutes a day can make a difference. But if even that sounds like too much of a time commitment, there are other ways to weave mindfulness into your design life.

“When seeking inspiration, chest, shoulder, and side body stretches help the body open up to new ideas, people, and situations,” Au says. “Stretching also helps prepare the body for design brainstorms as well,” while “engaging in an open-monitoring meditation before design spirits help facilitate divergent thinking.” When it comes time to execute on your ideas, “focused-attention meditation helps improve your ability to focus, simplify, and de-clutter. Forward folds turn you inward so you can find the introspection needed to synthesize,” she concludes.


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