Ritual Design: From Worship to the Workplace

Adam B Cochrane
Sep 15, 2020 · 7 min read

Ritual design is best summarised by design leader and lecturer Kursat Oznec: “It’s about crafting an arc of experiences, with at least one magical spark, that makes the experience stick as a ritual — something with meaning, that is not ‘ordinary’, that links into the user’s narrative about herself and her values.” It is not a habit or routine, it is more than that. It’s about the reasons why you do it and the higher values and meaning behind each task.

Ritual design is a topic that I mostly fell into, and because of my religious upbringing it’s impacted a lot of my life. Now as a service designer I am starting to dive more deeply into the topic because of its potential to improve communities, create better services, and generally give more meaning to what I do. My role in this position used to be to educate people on looking at their customers as users. Now through the lens of ritual design I take it a step further and teach them to look at people as human beings with deeper needs and desires beyond those that fit on a JTBD persona map.

My introduction to ritual

Growing up in a religious environment (think Pentecostal church, live music, and lots of enthusiastic parishioners) really whet my appetite for creating rituals in my work. I look back on this time fondly; I was surrounded by a very supportive community full of amazing people who really helped me develop as a young kid. I even ended up becoming a youth leader and getting involved in social work.

What made religion work for me was the way that it incorporated rituals. Many of the rituals — Sunday service, youth group on Fridays, praying, and so on — were simple, easy to follow, and happened on a regular basis, while others marked a rite of passage. If we take the ritual of baptism, for example, the process is simply to be submerged in water, however at the time of my baptism I wanted to demonstrate my commitment to my faith so the process therefore became imbued with symbolism and meaning.

It was an amazing time in my life and the way I feel about it reminds me a lot of Alain de Botton’s Ted Talk, Atheism 2.0, in which he talks about how we can bring the ritualistic, moralistic, and communal aspects of religion into the modern world without having to subscribe to the doctrine.

Rituals in the workplace

Turning my attention to the rituals and routines I take part in as a professional, I’ve found that although there are a lot of repeated tasks and processes like stand-ups, onboarding, alignment meetings, and even design workshops, they lack a certain humanness about them when compared to the rituals that I experienced in church. So how do we bring back the humanness that is missing and create more meaningful moments that are impactful and enjoyable? The good news is that I’ve encountered some great examples of ritual design throughout my career which I’ll share with you here.

Rituals can highlight company values

If you’ve watched The Office you know celebrating birthdays at work can often be a little strange. You stand around to get a piece of cake, you grab a coffee, sing happy birthday, mingle politely then when you get a chance you silently sneak off back to your desk to work.

When I worked at IXDS there was a really nice, simple ‘birthday book’ ritual that I liked. About a month before your birthday you were asked to choose yourself a book which you’d receive as a gift once everyone had signed it and written you a nice message. Once you were given the book you’d then present it at the next all-hands meeting (still a little awkward) but in addition to this, IXDS would also buy a copy for the office library.

What I feel makes it such a nice ritual is that it is easy to follow, repeatable and unique. It also reflects the company’s values: staying innovative by continuously learning, appreciating employees, and allowing them to share knowledge.

Rituals can foster a sense of community

Rituals don’t just improve our work life, they also foster a sense of community. When I started working at Factory Berlin it was a co-working space with only 100 members; today it’s a community of over 3,000 entrepreneurs. We achieved this result by looking at the rituals of Berlin — in particular those that exist in its nightclubs — for inspiration.

The bouncers who control the clubs’ doors, allowing only the ‘right people’ in are the reason nightclubs form communities. This is a ritual our target audience understood and it helped us build a community of like-minded people. We created a new membership model: potential members had to fill in an application telling us why they wanted to join, what they would do once they were in, and how they would connect with the community. We also focused on welcoming each new member and making sure the onboarding process was fun, interesting, and that it communicated our values. Once the community grew we also looked at creating small sub-communities based on shared interests, industries, and projects called ‘Circles’ — just like those that helped me build deeper relationships in church.

Warning: Rituals can exclude

Ritual design is a very new and exciting way of creating services and routines that have meaning. I would, however, like to issue a small warning. Drawing on my own experience growing up in a religious community, I learned that rituals have an amazing way of bringing people together but they also have the ability to exclude and push people away. Like so many issues the only way to deal with this is through awareness. It’s possible you work in one of the many companies that hosts Friday night beers each week where employees can let off a bit of steam and celebrate a great working week. It’s a good ritual, however, how might we include those people who don’t want to drink, or the parents who have to leave on time to pick up their kids? Ask yourself, does this ritual reflect the values of the company you work for?

With this in mind, within Zalando’s Product Design community, we now vary the time of our all-hands meetings and don’t make alcohol a part of every event. In addition to this, Ekaterina Klykova from our Design Operations team together with senior product designer Annette Lay took the opportunity to consider how our rituals connect us as a tribe and help us create better products. They led a workshop to review the rituals that we already had in place and come up with new rituals, then assembled them into a toolkit which contains a catalogue of examples of ‘productivity rituals’ and ‘happiness rituals’ along with the community principles on which they’re based.

Product Design community rituals

One of my favourite Product Design community rituals is the Inspiration Gallery — a permanent space in the middle of our office for temporary exhibitions — because it shines a spotlight on what inspires us as individuals. Anyone from our design community can showcase material in the format of an art gallery exhibition each month, and we celebrate with a small ‘gallery opening’. Curators have presented everything from typography examples to user guidelines to paintings to photographs. I wanted to create a conversation around designer responsibility and I loved the Copenhagen catalogue so I used this as a starting point and curated a selection of their design principles.

Since we all started working from home we’ve started creating Miro boards to welcome each new employee.

Even our onboarding experience has become more ritualised. Since we all started working from home due to Covid-19, we’ve started creating Miro boards to personally greet each new employee. This part of the welcome package allows our new colleagues to work through the information in their own time. When we combine this with our virtual ‘dance party’ coffee dates it allows new team members to get a sense of belonging whilst remaining remote. Another thing that we’ve started doing since we’ve been working remotely is adding a ‘what are you thankful for’ item to our retrospectives and stand-ups. We saw that it had an uplifting effect and allowed a welcome change of focus — it’s a small change which had a big impact.

In every industry and community there are already rituals in place that can inspire. The ancient ritual of pilgrimage and all the rituals that go along with hospitality exist within the travel industry. Now that I work within the fashion industry, I’m even more aware that dressing up is an important, ceremonious part of many of our rituals — weddings, graduations or even sporting events — and that it can bring people together. For me this is all very new and exciting but I, of course, stand on the shoulders of giants. If you are interested in hearing more I would recommend researching people like Kursat Oznec and Margaret Hagan who wrote Rituals for Work and organise a Ritual Design Lab as well as Ted Matthews who has written many amazing papers and articles.

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Adam B Cochrane

Written by

Service Designer @Zalandodesign Cofounder - Sddberlin.com Adambcochrane.com

Zalando Design

We are a diverse, fast-growing community of more than 130 designers, researchers and writers from over 30 countries. Read about how we combine empathy, science and creativity to make engaging and joyful user experiences to ultimately reimagine fashion for the good of all.