Workplace Design as a Minding Process

When you treat workplace design like a minding process, it changes the game. Dr. Charlie Grantham, a Reiki master and workplace expert, is back to explain his non-traditional approach.

Photo via Death to the Stock Photo.
Photo via Death to the Stock Photo.

Design as a minding process is a method by which designers can better understand how people use the workplace to do what they need to do: work. It requires “being present” in the space. Coincidentally, minding helps us to realize that a physical artifact is merely space, but the social experience of it conveys a sense of place. You can’t have “place” without people.

As you can tell, this isn’t anything totally new. It’s an extension of what has been called the “socio-technical” perspective on design, wherein it is not only a people-oriented view, nor just a technical (which includes the physical environment) view, but a recognition and awareness of the interaction of both systems.

What I intend to do in this article is place that in a Zen context — which I’ve written about in the past for this publication — and expand on the ideas I’ve already put forth, because, if design as a practice is a “minding process”, then the Zen unification of mind and body has a role to play. Let’s take a deeper look.

Context of design

Let’s start by getting get grounded in the assumptions we are making about human behavior in these workspaces. The design of technology systems and working organizational structures proceeds from a set of philosophical assumptions. Sometimes these assumptions are explicit, sometimes they’re not. Our philosophical design guidelines follow:

Point 1. People strive to develop in a positive fashion toward greater self-actualization.

Point 2. The meaning of work is derived from the interaction of others and the environment.

Point 3. Symbiotic evolution of people and social groups is facilitated by open communication.

Point 4. Purposeful communication provides a material benefit to human action.

Point 5. A person or group has meaning only within the identity of a larger social context.

Point 6. Development of technology tends to increase the scope and rate of human interaction.

Point 7. Clear conversations, based on mutual non-judgmental respect, provide a pathway for people to transcend narrow, self-serving behavior.

Point 8. The creative aspect of people arises from the act of serving beyond self.

I suppose some of you, if not all, are saying, Just what does this philosophy stuff have to do with designing a workplace, or even Zen?  Great question. Please hold that in your mind as I go through design as a minding process. I’ll come back to this after delineating the process.

Design as a minding process

Design as minding can, I believe, develop into an exciting new approach to solving workplace design problems that have existed since whenever people came together in time and space to engage around a common task. For example, we can borrow some wisdom from a design sub-discipline called “product semantics”. A quote from Klaus Krippendorff defines the perspective:

” …I contend that, design is more than the subjective component of engineering, the artistic aspect of marketing, and the unspeakable part of management. Design can develop a coherent discourse of its own.”

Design becomes a creative, conscious process of “creating meaningful interfaces in the social practice of living (and working)”. This design metaphor assumes the following:

  • Different people have different cognitive models of the same thing, including the workplace that has emerged during their lives.
  • This perspective provides people with the capability to construct their own realities of the workplace.
  • It is based upon user-centered research, which seeks to understand the shared meaning people take from function, experience and purpose.
  • Design is a recursive process. It feeds upon itself. The Tao of Zen, if you will.
  • It embodies an idea of social organizations. That is things (like the work environment) take on meaning from “embeddedness” in social context.

Now we have a set of grounding principles, and some broad design goals. Here comes the hard part. How, exactly, can design as a minding process help us to achieve these goals?

Process of design

Designing the workplace is an activity that requires the integration of several design perspectives: ergonomics, graphics, interior arts, technology, and organizational form. This section focuses on the latter two factors. The overall thrust of this article is to integrate designing “places” and “spaces”.

On the other hand, because of technology, these “spaces” and “places” need not necessarily be coterminous in space and time. Designing the workplace means, in essence, putting data about humans into context so that it can be used as a basic ingredient of the productive process we call work.

As I have written elsewhere, the workplace has become a mere extension of the rest of our lives. Our “wholeness” gets acted out in the workplace today. The most remarkable trend today isn’t trying to achieve the much-bandied about “work/life balance” so much as it is a trend towards reversing the separation of home and workplace that began with the Industrial Revolution. Designing information environments for work today is really about engaging in community reconstruction.

The most remarkable trend today isn’t trying to achieve the much-bandied about “work/life balance” so much as it is a trend towards reversing the separation of home and workplace that began with the Industrial Revolution.

The workplace is no longer a distinct element from other human habitations. The workplace, school, home, and community center are moving closer together. Now, when we embark on a workplace design process, it becomes a much larger enterprise. We must consider the social factor in the design process. These new values — the new paradigm — become a driving force. In order to include these subtle social factors in the design as a minding process, we recommend using the participatory design process.

Tell me: What’s the participatory design process?

One example of deploying design as a minding process is to engage in participatory design. Participatory design is the ordered steps of executing a design, in this case for the workplace. Interest in the grammar and semantics of this process has been growing for a couple of decades and was actually first codified at a conference held in the spring of 1990.

You also need to be mindful of the organizational resistance you will encounter in using minding as a design process. The subtle point is that participatory design is essentially a political process, which proceeds from a set of assumptions about human nature. As Pelle Ehn, the best-known of Scandinavian practitioner of participatory design, states: “Participatory design concerns questions of democracy, power, and control at the workplace. In this sense, it is a deeply controversial issue from a management point of view.”

This perspective on design is more than an academic exercise. It is firmly rooted in an action-research tradition and is aimed at the practical application of design theory. Design as minding has two basic transformational steps brought to life in three stages:

Image courtesy of the author.
Image courtesy of the author.

Designing tomorrow’s workplace consists of the three basic stages shown in the diagram. The first stage is a translation of employee needs into functional specifications that can be taken by architectures and engineers and translated into blueprints and construction plans. The second stage is a reverse translation of these plans, and the third stage concerns putting those plans into a place for practical use.

This three stage process introduces numerous opportunities for misunderstanding and error. It is because of this translation complexity that participatory design holds so much power: power to reduce errors, increase quality of product, and reduce barriers to use of the software. The boundary between each stage of the process is one of communication and interpretation.

Breaking participatory design down, step by step

The participatory process can take several forms. The most often cited is the use of focus groups, which I consider a rather naive approach. I’ll leave the methodology discussion for another time. Many more techniques exist to involve users in the design process itself, not as observers or bystanders but as full participants, equal with designers and developers.

Ideally, users begin working with designers at the conceptual stage of development. Usually, they form into teams of seven to 15 people and the team itself goes through a team building process to clarify goals and vision. Many of you might know this as a design charette frequently used in architecture.

The heart of the participatory process is that each step is an interactive process jointly involving the designers and end-users.

If done properly, as much attention is paid to team development as physical specifications and layouts. A by-product of this process is the formation of a design team that will be involved in throughout the construction and testing phases. The employees on the design team become advocates for the use of the environmental artifacts (i.e., purposeful spaces and furniture) and assist in the reverse translation of workspace capabilities into the workplace. Looked at another way, this is how a house becomes a home.

The figure below is a diagram of the staged participatory process. Each point in the loop actually contains another series of loops so that, the process can iterate around any issue. The value of the process is that it is complete. No critical factors are left out of the design process if the pattern is followed. For example, you cannot jump from design to action, or full-scale implementation, without prototyping and planning.

Image courtesy of the author.
Image courtesy of the author.

The process needs to be followed in order (1-2-3-4-5-6-1). As it is iterating, it is repeated as many times as necessary to achieve the desired results with increasingly more finely-tuned design, and increased granularity. The key to success in using this design team model lies in not leaving any steps out. As we have said, people often want to jump from point two (Design) to point five (Construction) without going through the necessary intermediate steps. This leads to disaster and failure of design. On the other hand, some people, groups, and companies never get past step one.

The heart of the participatory process is that each step is an interactive process jointly involving the designers and end-users. It is far more intrusive than bringing in end-user groups and showing them a mock up and asking for input.  Participatory design means just that: users of the spaces have roles as equal partners in the design process. Myriad techniques to facilitate group interaction can be used in the process, depending upon group characteristics, history of interaction, and time constraints.

The participatory process should extend beyond more traditional concerns for physical space and into development of an etiquette guide for its usage. Workers can inform this process by recounting how they actually could and would use the space. Live testing helps considerably. Part of the process is to bring a genuine space need to the design group. This ensures that the design is grounded in practicality. You can’t design skyscrapers in the absence of consideration for gravity, nor can you design effective workplaces in the absence of practical utility. Because workers are the experts in this domain, the participatory process is gaining credence among advanced workplace designers.

Wrapping it all up

Let me go back and pull all this together. I started out by grounding in the people-based assumptions we make about workplace behavior and then laid out some design goals, which fall from the “design as minding” process. Then we went through a series of steps in the design process, which got even more specific as we drove down into the actual “how” of getting it done. Finally, I laid out a six step model of the overall “design as minding” process.

Now I want to go back and link this approach to where we started. Zen and design.

As a Reiki practitioner, I liked this process to attunement (in Reiki, attunement is the passing of knowledge from master to student through use of ritual, symbols, and matching of intention). Design as minding, and more specifically, the participatory design process, matches intention. It is this matching of intention that helps the designer become “present” in the workspace. New questions begin the process in terms of assessment:

  1. How will the space be used?
  2. What purpose does the space serve?
  3. What needs to happen here so that the people who use it will be effective in their work?

My intention is to create a new vocabulary and grammar for workplace design. It has to come from a different belief structure so that designers can attune themselves to space and the purpose for which it will be used. I am putting forth the contention that the Eastern philosophy known as “Zen” and the practice of “being present” is one such solution.

Let’s now revisit my initial propositions about human behavior that I put forth at the beginning of this discussion. I believe that all good design is aimed at helping people realize their purpose in life, if not at least at work. And if you truly want to help people along this pathway to wholeness you have to be grounded in their motivations and aspirations. The list I offered you up front is exactly that.

Take a moment now and go back to revisit that list. How can you as the designer bring those principles alive in the workplace you are creating for them? How can you, in the midst of the participatory process, make sure that those requirements are met and expressed?

The last step in the participatory design process is called an “audit” step. Well, what do you audit against? What are your standards you are using as checkpoints? That list of eight assumptions is your audit list.

I leave you with a poem:

Be mindful 

Of others 

Of your surroundings 

Of your intentions 

Of each footprint 

That each step creates.



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