C. Thomas Mitchell




by C. Thomas Mitchell



Within design fields there has long been an emphasis on looking at the outcome of design as an isolated phenomena ­ an object frozen in space. Much discussion of design focused on aesthetic quality with little meaningful attention paid to how people interact with design interventions over time. The language and methods of designers are more closely related to those of the sculptor than the performance artist, but experience over time is the most crucial dimension of any design. The basic paradox is that the methods of the mainstream design professions have little or no relationship to design experience. In recent years, especially in the field of interface and software design, more effort has been applied to make user interaction a focus, but in most traditional disciplines geometry, not use, still predominates. Eastern thought provides useful insights how designers might better approach their work.


Design Success and Failure

Often when design professionals and clients discuss the success or failure of a design they have very different things in mind. This frequently leads to miscommunication and, subsequently, unhappiness all around. The greatest risk in design is not that a building will fall down - which is mercifully rare - but that it will not fully support the activities that are to take place in it which, unfortunately, is much more common. If a design "fails the test of use" then the clients for design services, and those who interact with the building, will be unsatisfied. The consequences of this dissatisfaction can vary from grumbling and bad publicity, up to refusal to lease space in a building and lawsuits.

"Design success" is a relative term ­ it means different things to different people. Often, for designers, success is defined as a pleasing three-dimensional formal solution ­ a sculpture. This is the "Good Design" that is so often discussed and pursued. For the many different types of users, however, the experience of interacting with a built environment over time is of much more importance. A result of these differing views of design success is that, as has frequently happened in architecture, award-winning, aesthetically-pleasing designs often fail the test of use.

Richard Meier and Associates' design for the Bronx Developmental Center in New York is just such an example. The clients asked for a "warm, home-like feeling" for the residents who were mentally handicapped. Meier's firm provided a four story high aluminum and glass late-modernist box. The result? Four architectural awards from the design profession and a lawsuit from the clients. The clients said that the building didn't suit the needs of the building users, the architects replied that it was a good design and that they had the awards to prove it.

How can this happen? Most design awards evaluate buildings solely based on their appearance. Very rarely is any meaningful assessment made of how the building works in practice. Similarly in the architectural journals and books there is rarely a sign of life. Much "great architecture" has proven to be flawed in use - think of Frank Lloyd Wright's notorious leaking ceilings. Yet Wright's work is still revered. So, again, how can this happen? Design methods, such as planning by drawings (on paper or monitor), fail to fully consider the use of building over time. Such methods effectively limit decision making to aesthetic issues, and essentially depend upon the intuition of the individual designer.


Going Beyond Object-Oriented Thinking

Some designers and researchers have begun to explicitly consider use over time, making user-interactions, not formal properties, the focus of their design effort. Interface designers have developed "situated research," an approach which involves simply observing what happens in existing contexts in order to develop a systematic understanding of what people do and of what their expectations are. Designing is then done based on this direct observation in order to enhance people's experience in a given context. This is certainly more humble than the aims of designers, such as the modernists, but it leads to much more effective interventions.

Though it may seem that such intangible tasks have little to teach environmental designers, in fact the insights they have developed are directly beneficial. One of the main reasons why buildings fail the test of use is that, as noted earlier, they are viewed as three-dimensional artifacts, frozen in space. The use of a building takes place over time, so it is most appropriate to regard them is as patterns of evolving activity - spatial arrangements are there to cue people's perceptions and to support their actions.


Changing the Focus of Designing

Even those innovative designers who are addressing the importance of design process, and of interactions over time, tend to focus their efforts on external cues in order to give rise to certain experiences. In contrast Eastern philosophies, such as Buddhism, start from a different basis. Rather than intervening in the external world in order to give rise to an effect, these philosophies recognize explicitly that all experience originates in the mind of the observer. So rather than trying to arrange form, or other cues, to elicit certain responses, these approaches work directly with the mind of the observer.

Though this may sound rather abstract at first, it is in fact of immense practical value. One of the problems with much "high-style" design is that ordinary members of the public tend not to share the exalted view of these objects that those producing and promoting these projects do. Why is this? This phenomena can, perhaps, best be illustrated by taking an example. In the case mentioned earlier -- Richard Meier's Bronx Development Center ­ different people have different views. To the architect, architecture critics, and the architectural press it is a success. In their minds the project is good ­ it fulfills their expectations and they find it pleasing. This is their experience, and their experience is true for them. For the clients of the building the experience is different ­ they perceive an ill-functioning, expensive, unsafe building. They reach this conclusion based on their experiences and concerns and they are right too. It is difficult to elicit the views of the actual users of the building ­ the mentally handicapped children ­ but it is safe to assume that with a different set of experiences and with different cognitive capacity ­ their perception of the building is different too. They form their own view based on their interaction with the building and for them this is true too.

Of course it is not just these three groups of people who have different views of the building ­ every single person who encounters this, or any building, will have their own view! Since everyone's mind is different, everyone's experience is different. It is true that shared patterns of understanding can be identified, but the idea that there is a certain shared predetermined reaction to an environmental intervention would not be shared in all other cultures, or in all other belief systems.

This is the basic paradox of Western design, and one of the reasons why it never fully succeeds ­ designers are attempting to influence people's experience through environmental interventions, but this can only partially succeed at best. Western design is like a promise that can never be fulfilled. We are, for example, always just a step or two away from "getting things right" ­ the right combination of technology, the right level of understanding of the causes of disease, the right research to create highly efficient cars, and so forth. We are always right on the cusp of success in all of these areas, but we never quite arrive at these promising destinations. Why? Because ultimately Western design is misdirected. It seeks to give rise to experience through manipulating external phenomena in hope of achieving a certain result. As we can all see from our own experience very rarely do things really work out, or fulfill their promise.


Everything Depends Upon the Mind

One of the key ideas that Buddha Shakyamuni, the founder of Buddhism in this world, taught to his disciples 2,500 years ago was that "everything depends upon the mind." It is not necessary to be a Buddhist to see the truth of this. If we are in a good mood then everything seems fine to us; if we are angry or upset things that normally bring pleasure have no positive effect on us. In other words, external objects alone do not have the power to give rise to experience. Our experience of the world is always mediated by our mind. Since our experience of the world is totally dependent upon our mind we can say that, for example, the world of a person who is severely mentally disturbed is literally different from that of someone whose mind is at peace. External objects can have a secondary effect on these people's experience, but the primary influence on people's experience is their mind.

So here the difference between design ­ which seeks to influence people's experience through interventions in the external world ­ and the spiritual path as taught by Buddha can be clearly seen. If we want to positively impact people's experience of the world then Buddha's advice would be to work directly with people's mind to help them cultivate positive, peaceful minds. This is the essence of Buddha's teachings ­ this is why Buddhists meditate. By studying Buddha's teachings on how to cultivate positive attitudes of mind, and pacify negative ones; contemplating these insights in terms of their own experience to gain a heartfelt (and not just intellectual) understanding; and then mixing their minds with these positive determinations through meditation, Buddhist practitioners directly cultivate positive states of mind. In this way they seek to purify their minds -- then whatever they see looks better, because their mind that is viewing and experiencing the world is more positive.

In Buddha's more advanced teachings he goes further in challenging his followers' understanding of the world, and their relationship to it, in order to help them achieve Nirvana, or liberation from worldly problems. Nirvana isn't a place, but rather a state of mind. Through cultivating their wisdom ­ not simple intellect, but rather inner mental power ­ though correct meditation ­ Buddha's followers totally change their relationship to the everyday world. This transformation isn't something limited to past times, to Asians, or to monks and nuns. Anyone who chooses to apply these instructions can train their mind in this way in order to cultivate positive experiences.



Buddha insisted that his followers not proselytize ­ and this paper is not an attempt to encourage anyone to become a Buddhist. Instead, in response to a request, I've sought to briefly sketch out some in-built limitations of designing as currently conceived and to show how a completely different conceptual approach provides a way out of the paradox. The answer to most problems in the design world today is remarkably simple ­ instead of focusing on external phenomena (hard or soft) ­directly address the mind, the experience, of those who are being designed for. By changing the focus of design in this way the gap between design activity and user experience can be closed. Such an approach, which will free designers from many of their limiting preconceptions, will open the way to a new, and radically successful, type design interaction.



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C. Thomas Mitchell

Contact Information:

C. Thomas Mitchell, Ph.D.

Associate Professor, Interior Design Program

Director, Center for Design Process

Indiana University

Memorial Hall East 233

Bloomington, IN 47405


Tel: + 011 (812) 855-6425



Resident Teacher,

Dromtonpa Buddhist Center at The Hermitage

3650 East 46th Street

Indianapolis, IN 46205


Tel: + 011 (317) 374-5281