On the experience design of spirituality

Brandon McNeely

Art Director, Philadelphia

Design has an integral and multi-faceted role in the diverse spiritual lives people experience and cultivate. For billions of people, spirituality and spiritual practice shapes their worldview, values, beliefs and way of living. It may be the very spark where they find their inspiration in life, and houses they find sacred and meaningful.

Spirituality may be experienced momentarily — a hike wrapped in the towering redwoods of California perhaps  — or as a lifelong journey, continuously layered upon. It is personal and intimate, entailing a deep understanding of one’s self and existence, especially the most tenuous, fragile and thought-provoking parts: vulnerabilities and shortcomings, brevity of life, joy and gratitude — yet is regularly expressed in public ways as in the Muslim Friday prayer. Design’s role in spirituality can be viewed through these lenses — internal spiritual lives and self-discipline mixed with momentary experiences and external expressions.

So how does the structured, methodical, and iterative discipline of design fit with a concept as immaterial and internal as spirituality?

Spiritual discipline — an individual’s life design — is accomplished through the actions and choices a person makes in line with their spiritual beliefs; a design discipline of personal choice. This design can be viewed as a set of blueprints or template. By referencing these plans when shaping their rough edges of self, a person is positioning to confront the next day’s challenges a little better. Through acting towards growth, meaning and purpose — via an extension of their self — a person is creating works of love; evidence of a well-designed life, with or without spiritual beliefs.

A more temporary spiritual experience could be triggered by internal reflection — on pain or gratitude for instance, but also through immersion of the senses, gaining perspective that is distanced from one’s self, including a benevolent feeling of being connected to something larger. These personal, internal experiences are the basis for spiritual expressions —  formalized into creative expressions, habits, rituals and other actions.

Bridging the internal and external world’s can be done in many ways, but the focused attention on the breath — the rhythmic inhalation and exhalation — is a widespread exercise for spiritual practice that extends to materialists. This meditation is an example of the simplest of constructive disciplines, although meditative mindsets can extend to other tasks or activities that anchor the mind. During the practice, observation of the present moment, including thoughts and sensory input, is paradoxically used to draw the attention into a seemingly timeless space. Some benefits are measurable and include increased awareness and neuroplasticity.

Spirituality uses the senses to aid in the comprehension of that which is beyond them, beyond the physical and temporal here and now. Meditation on the individual level, cues like incense and music on a communal level. In addition, religious and spiritual traditions layer on the use of narrative to aid in relaying the unseen. Joseph Campbell put it as such: “…it is normally impossible not only to see, but even to conceive, beyond the colorful, fluid, infinitely various and bewildering phenomenal spectacle. The function of ritual and myth is to make possible, and then to facilitate, the jump—by analogy.”

The design of the external expressions of spirituality is deeply ingrained in the major religions, and in many ways reflects the internal experience of practitioners. The experience design of those congregations make use of a rich and varied assortment of symbols, while integrating practitioners with rituals. The buddhist tea ceremony, highly designed in it’s simplicity and minimalism, is one example. Much attention is paid to the sense of space, the ritual of making the tea, and forming intimacy with others in the ceremony, along with sensory details such as temperature and taste. In Christianity, churches have numerous symbols supporting the experience; gold representing divinity, marble for stability and permanence, and an open architecture meant to lift and inspire. The narrative-filled stained glass acts to diffuse the external world, as if being immersed in an aquatic environment; Water itself carries many meanings such as life and renewal in spiritual traditions. Also of great import to various traditions is the inclusion of the human element, from finely crafted paper covered with intricate lettering and illustrations to the expansive catalog of religious art and music that continues to inspire.

These experiences aren’t limited to organized religion, however. How many people have had a spiritual experience at a music festival like Glastonbury, surrounded by a mass of people, collectively undulating to the same live music, feeling connected to something bigger than themselves? Another communal experience, witnessing the total eclipse of the sun, has long held the rapt attention of the human race, even now causing people to pause and perhaps experience something spiritual. Activities like distance running, immersion in natural environments, reading, or witnessing art can also inspire individuals spiritually. It may be sparked through internal contemplation, even through serendipitous occurrences; any number of humanistic activities.

For many, spirituality is the lens through which they assign meaning in their lives.

On a universal scale, individuals may endure great hardships when observed with the perspective that it is meaningful. Viktor Frankl, who thrived after surviving a concentration camp, wrote that the search for meaning is in fact man’s prime motivation in life.

With spirituality wielding such influence, and enriching so many lives, how can designers facilitate those experiences and practices?

Many technologies of both efficiency and excess have instead had the effect of isolating and insulating people from these. Experience designers can create spaces and facilitate experiences that meaningfully connect people, that move them, that spark a sense of wonder and awe, utilizing the senses. This could include facilitating easier access to natural environments, enhancing communal or personal areas of spiritual practice, or nudging individual self-discipline. They can extend themselves into their work in a way that is personal, yet universal so that others may find meaning, perhaps utilizing a spiritual spark of their own.

Photo of Glastonbury Festival by

neal whitehouse piper