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September 12th, 2017

The Zen of Mindful Design—Presence, Flow, and Pause

Like most people, I’m a multitasker. It’s difficult not to be these days. As a designer and business principal, I tend to keep many plates spinning at once. But psychologist, Daniel Goleman, author of “The Meditative Mind”, notes that while we are all multitasking like crazy, the more we do it, the worse we get at it. Stress levels increase, human interaction is stymied, and creativity suffers.

Mindful Design is the art of “monotasking”. It means concentration, observation, and paying attention purposefully wherever you are. It’s the opposite of the “continuous partial attention” of our always-on-call, digital culture.

As a designer, I’ve experienced three areas where mindfulness can lead to more creativity, bigger innovations, and more meaningful design. They are Presence, Flow, and Pause.

3 Areas Where Mindfulness Matters

Presence

Being present means being fully engaged in the moment, particularly the people and environment surrounding you at that moment…and nothing else. Part of learning to be present is learning to see—to carefully observe and contemplate your experience. Designers and artists develop these keen observational skills; we learn how to truly see. Product innovators also rely on observational skills because observation leads to empathy with the people who use the product. And empathy allows us to recognize insights that lead to meaningful innovations.

Empathizing with users is a skill that’s diminishing as we focus more and more on mobile devices and less on real human connections. But with training and practice, almost anyone can develop observational skills. One way to develop these skills is to learn to meditate. Researchers from the University of Rochester Medical Center found that training doctors in mindfulness meditation helped them learn to be more empathetic with patients—to observe and listen better and not be as judgmental.

Recently BOLTGROUP was hired to do discovery research and product design in a home appliance category. We started with consumer shop-alongs to understand the purchase journey. But the most telling observations came not while watching in the aisle where our category was sold, but in the neighboring aisles where people wandered to see products they felt were related to our category. Understanding how they equated the aesthetics and features of other categories to our own led to a deeper understanding of their future needs and desires.

Practice observation, both in your product category and in others. Keep your antennas up, put the cell phone down, pay attention, take time to observe, and wait for the insight—the “aha.”

Flow

If you’ve ever been snow skiing, made a model airplane, or played a guitar solo, then you’ve probably experienced flow. It’s the mental state of being fully immersed in an activity that requires concentration and skill that pushes your limits (but not too far). It’s the balance of a challenging task and the expertise to master it. When you experience Flow, you are so absorbed in the activity that you lose the sense of most everything else.

Designers, artists, and athletes call it “being in the zone”. It’s that feeling that everything is clicking, every line on the page is working, every stride of your step is flawless. It usually happens when there’s a deadline approaching. The result is often stellar work, done with great efficiency.

To stimulate flow for your team, create an environment conducive to private concentration and creative thought. While collaboration and brainstorming are important, flow only happens during moments of individual concentration. Consider noise levels, temperature, natural light, and physical space. And set aside time for focused concentration.

Also, learn meditation. While flow requires the skill of the task, it also requires the ability to be totally present and concentrate. That’s where meditation comes in. Meditation has been shown to teach focus and concentration. People who meditate regularly have different brain electricity, and the potential for more efficient learning that leads to more creativity.

Pause

To enhance creativity, take a break. Studies show that great ideas often come when you let your mind rest and wander. In one study a researcher gave people a task, but asked some to play a video game for five minutes before they started working. Those who played the game generated far more creative ideas than those who started the task immediately. Their minds were incubating ideas in the background while they played.

To foster incubation at BOLTGROUP we inform our designers of new projects well before the projects actually start. This gives the team time to formulate questions and ideas without actually working on the project. When it comes time to officially launch the project we’re already flush with great ideas!

So, take a pause from the task at hand, and encourage your team to do so. Turn your attention to something other than the problem you’re trying to solve. Stand up, change your environment, and get outside if you can.

As multitaskers in the digital age we are stuck in continuous partial attention—bouncing between emails, texts, and the many tasks at hand. So, take a break, walk, daydream, and let your creative mind incubate ideas. Reflect—take time to access your purpose, your intention, and what you’ve learned today. Move away from the computer and write something in longhand, sketch on a sketchpad (this develops hand / eye coordination and leads to different types of thinking). And enhance your ability to be present, and to flow, through the practice of meditation.

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