On Design Research and Buddhism / by David Sherwin

I often think about analogues between design research and Buddhism. Not in a practical way—if there is such a thing—but more in a sense of how the process of design attempts to bring a brief moment of permanence to an idea in an ever-fluctuating world. The more meaningful an idea, the more likely it will gain root in the rich soil of our minds.

Ideas are the leavings of an insight—a deeply rooted and observed human truth. Without an insight, good ideas are mere flower petals scattered across the road and apt to float off in a stiff breeze. Beautiful to admire, but no more meaningful than wallpaper.

A strong insight binds together large and small ideas into something palpable, even beautiful—though the latter characteristic isn't required for a designed artifact to function properly. I like to think that great design, from an Eastern perspective, requires the latitude to grow and change good ideas into even greater ideas. The form of thought is never static, except when communicated through story. Design is just one form of conveying story. And stories never end.

Besides, thoughts are like molecules: They decay, recombine, and otherwise recycle themselves into new ideas born from our ever-iterative thinking. Alongside those ideas, the currents and trends of our culture flow along, memes circulating even faster in the Information Age's equivalent of the Gulf Stream. Within that fast current, we believe we are firmly rooted islands, the sandy edges of our unchanging selves being continually shaped and reshaped. But that's an illusion, per the thoughts of Buddha. We are the very thought of the current.

And as we join the information flow as information ourselves, it grows even harder to observe what other people truly want—not just what they say that they want, or what they truly need. We lack a firm awareness of physical experience. Having a dialogue online is like having a real conversation with a person, but only being able to see their lips. The full breadth of emotion that they are conveying through their eyes, cheeks, hands, and overall body language are completely lost to us. Italics and asterisks just don't cut it.

This, to me, is one of the critical roots of Buddhism and design in perfect alignment: A culling of thought into being, simply to make manifest the full force of human expression. Sitting still, being present, observing behavior with as little of a filter as possible: these skills bring forth the observations that give the best design its root in what we know, not just what we will to become.

Or, to quote the Buddha: "Do not accept anything merely because it agrees with your pre-conceived notions ... But when you know for yourselves — these things are moral, these things are blameless, these things are praised by the wise, these things, when performed and undertaken, conduce to well-being and happiness — then do you live acting accordingly."

Design research does more than root your thinking: It re-informs your world view, broadening it beyond considerations of the self and into a realm of shared human experience. For smaller-scale problems, most designers intuitively enter into conducting research without consciously engaging in the activity. The larger the problem, the more evident it becomes that we must expand our thinking beyond ourselves and become receptive to the much larger problem. Being in the flow of activity, observing what arises within yourself (and may not align with your audience's frame of reference): this is the space where insight lives. You just need to be humble enough to fumble around, grasping at what lies in the dark corridor between two lit rooms.

This is one of the reasons I spend more time watching and observing the world than thinking about making. The designed object should reflect the observation, not an idea borne of the self.