Ritual as Emotional Tool

A recap of my talk at the Ritual Design Summit at Stanford D. School

Ritual Design Summit is an unconference style gathering of designers, researchers, technologists, and organizational change experts whose work demonstrates new thinkings and/or possibilities of ritual design.

Experts from a diverse range of disciplines presented at the Ritual Design Summit

While there’s no common definition of ‘ritual’ that’s been agreed upon by scholars in the field, in my practice I loosely define ‘ritual’ as a series of actions carried out with intentionality that often embody meanings.

“The power of ritual is its special metaphorical resonance that produces meaning in transformations of contemporary life.” — Driver, Tom F.

As part of our Emotion-Centered Design tools, ‘Ritual Design’ methodology is typically used to create emotionally engaging experiences and organizational cultures. It starts with identifying a specific emotion you’d like to foster, followed by coming up with metaphors that represent that emotion and creating tangible forms to materialize that emotion, and ends with clarifying the actions and interactions suggested and indicated by the form.

Below are a few examples of ritual objects:

Design Poetics for the Workplace

Looking at Ritual Design through the lens of emotion, I situate our related work in the following matrix. The X axis is the purpose of the designed rituals— whether it is about taking care of people’s existing emotions or enabling emotions they want to cultivate — and the Y axis is the scale of those rituals — whether it is designed on a personal level or organizational level.

Throughout our exploration in Ritual Design, one challenge that comes up a lot is that designed rituals are hard to maintain. As designers and strategists, we notice that after installing new ritual objects in the space, it takes continuous work to sustain the rituals’ power in the community. As I research on more sustainable rituals, this ‘Wind Phone’ caught my eye:

Each morning, Itaru Sasaki sweeps leaves and cobwebs from the booth. Visitors can jot their thoughts or messages down in a notebook next to the phone. (Alexander McBride Wilson)

It is a disconnected rotary phone inside a while phone booth facing the pacific ocean. It has lost its original function of calling, but has become a mediation on relationships, life, and death.

A few years after an earthquake and tsunami struck Japan in 2011, Itaru Sasaki nestled the phone booth in his garden as a way to ruminate over his cousin’s death.

The booth invites people to drop in to work out painful feelings in a comfortable space: sadness that can feel all-encompassing is, for a moment, confined to a specific shape and landscape. It’s a private way of wrestling with a tragedy that reshaped the whole community.

Within 3 years after the disaster, more than 10,000 visitors have come to the booth to talk to their loved ones who passed away.

This example strikes me that when it comes to ritual design, it takes a person within a community that feels the pain or desire of its people to be a champion in designing and maintaining that ritual. In this case, the user is the designer. And the design process is and should be subjective.

Based on this insight, I shift my focus from designing rituals to designing tools and mechanisms for people to design their own rituals. And an on-going series of workshops are conducted to enable participants to reflect on their values and design their own rituals.

Designing Emotional Tools Workshop at NEW INC in May, 2018

After the workshop, participants walked away with learnings about Emotion-Centered Design approach as well as warm and centered feelings. One participant kindly reached out with his feedback:

The Emotion-Centered Design framework you shared with us is one I believe provides individuals the opportunity to listen not just to verbal, but also non-verbal, communication whilst acknowledging the important role emotions play in creating thoughtful and meaningful solutions for individuals. — Jose

Interested in designing a personal ritual or rituals for your organization? Drop me a line at lillian@mattermindstudio.com. Thank you for your attention!