A pretty illusion: the gap between photograph and photographer, object and subject.


Find the Gap: Active Mindfulness as Design Inquiry

What is the gap? Yes, it is a jeans retailer started in San Francisco in 1969, the short name a reference to the large social chasm between boomers and that greatest generation. How can we ever forget that! But for designers and for those seeking to critically engage with the world, the gap is also something else, an epiphenomenon and a socially contracted moment that needs both examination and contemplation.

The gap is everywhere all at once. It is the crack in the armour, the glitch in the matrix, the dim flicker in the stars noticeable during a hike beyond our lit cities. The gap is what we see when everything is right but something is off, when we feel not quite ourselves, when the day is not turning out well, when we blame the full moon for our actions and for the actions of others.

The gap is that strange feeling of difference between bodily wellness and discomfort, between kindness and a gentle ribbing, between looking down at a computer and looking up at your child. The gap is that moment, when you’re at a party, between the feeling of confidence while talking with a friend and the feeling of self-consciousness when turning to a stranger. The gap is that split second when a piece of paper transforms into a drawing. The gap is revealed when we lie. The gap is felt when we cry. We see the gap everywhere and all of the time, but we may not notice it often. The gap has no positive or negative valence; it is part of that socialized condition in which we find ourselves.

The gap is not just an intangibility or a purely psychic phenomenon. It is an object in consciousness to be examined. A gap is a graspable moment in time, or perhaps a physical crease in space, where we can also exert our agency and examine those armoured contingencies of everyday life. The gap is something not just worth noting and then going about our own business. The gap is worth knowing and questioning. It is an acknowledgement of our closed-mindedness to possibility. The artist and poet William Blake once wrote this (oft quoted and misquoted):

If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.”

― William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1793)

Blake acknowledges the gap in our persistent reception of reality and, in a single act of jujitsu, makes the hard claim that the gap is actually of our own social doing. The gap is always already around us; we are simply not paying attention to what we know that we have created. In this way, the gap is unstable, undetermined — a kind of quantum with two simultaneous properties: open and closed. Depending upon our position, the gap appears or disappears, but it always is.

For designers, when it comes to systems change and inquiry, we can use our experience of the gap to open us up to possibility.

How do we examine the gap through the lens of design inquiry? I think we need to take on the mantle of active mindfulness. We need to be present to our indifferences, our insecurities, our mild shrugs and wild moves. We need to acknowledge our own misdeeds and our misapprehensions. We need to slough off the sloughing off of responsibilities (like accusing our clients of bad faith or blaming our tools for bringing the harm to the world that we have done).

Active mindfulness is about creating new spaces for dialogue, for engaging with those with whom we disagree, and for calling on the carpet those who are damaging our planet and our relationships.

As an example, we can ask our clients hard questions that come from an empathy for their work and a care for their stakeholders. The questions do not have to be long but they do need to be exact. “What is your privacy policy?” “How do you engage with your community?” “What ingredients are harmful to the environment and our health?” “What are your criteria for hiring?”

And, of course, we also need to ask these questions of ourselves. “What have we done to erode privacy?” “What is our own engagement with the most vulnerable in our community?” “What tools are we using that are harmful to environment and health?” “What are our criteria for client selection?” Questions like these reveal the gap in our experience of the world and while the answers are probably deeply uncomfortable, they offer up new doors to enter.

Active mindfulness is not just about sitting on the cushion — though that is an important part in waking up to our underlying connection to the world. Active mindfulness is about becoming aware of the narrow chinks of the cavern and then acting on that awareness. It is a dialectical process that can open us to own our work and to our relationship with that work.