Heart of Design Conversations

Dr Abdallah Rothman

In this conversation series, Peter Gould explores design as a spiritual practice with creative leaders, spiritual teachers, and startup founders from around the world. Here he interviews Dr Abdallah Rothman; Principal at Cambridge Muslim College.

“For some people, making a cup of coffee is just an act to get through, to get that injection of caffeine and keep you going in the day. And there's no real attention to where the coffee comes from, what the coffee tastes like, or what is in the chain of the development of that coffee. And so, it just becomes a relatively mindless interaction with this substance.”

I asked Abdallah to help me understand the spiritual concept of Ihsan, written in Arabic, إِحْسَان‎.  Before sharing his answer, let me explain why I asked him, specifically.

Abdallah was born in LA, but spent his younger years seeking spiritual truth around the world. His journey involved living with Bhuddist monks in the jungles of Thailand and studying yoga with a Hindu community from a guru that hadn’t spoken for forty years (he used a chalkboard). Abdallah had been immersed among spiritual Rastafarians in Jamaica, and even experienced life working as a shepherd among Yemeni Jews. He eventually embraced Islam and found peace in the spiritual practices of Sufism. During this journey he was an artist, but became more deeply interested in the human soul and eventually completed his PhD in psychology in London. This is a fascinating story, but the main reason I asked him about Ihsan relates to how this spiritual journey informed his relationship with coffee.

“For some people, making a cup of coffee is just an act to get through, to get that injection of caffeine and keep you going in the day,” he told me.

“There's no real attention to where the coffee comes from, what the coffee tastes like, or what is in the chain of the development of that coffee. And so, it just becomes a relatively mindless interaction with this substance.”  

Abdallah’s experience with coffee, however, is very different. In contrast to the norm, he invests many hours into perfecting the craft of coffee preparation using sophisticated processes, including some home-made experimental equipment. This isn’t always practical, he admits. Once, a relative was staying over, but Abdallah had to leave early in the morning. He left a 17-step instruction list for making coffee. The guest opted to leave for Starbucks instead.  

“It can go all the way back to where the bean was grown,” he continued. How the bean was grown? Whose hands was it in? What country did it come from? What was the soil like? And all those details really come into the essence of what that particular bean is. And so, it's appreciating all of these multitude of factors that go into the reality of this thing, in its essence.
"That’s what spirituality is. Spirituality is connecting into the essence of something"

That's what spirituality is. Spirituality is connecting into the essence of something. Literally, the word spirit means something that is unseen, or the essence of something. And in order to witness or experience that spirit of something, you have to be attuned to a different dimension of awareness, these unseen aspects. See them as something beyond this world, but also within this world.

The word Ihsan then, could be understood as commitment to excellence and craftsmanship. But I wonder, what makes that coffee example more ‘spiritual’ than simply obsession or self-expression? Abdallah explained: “This idea of Ihsan, you can define it in different ways. It could be excellence, but it's a state of being so consciously attuned to your own alignment with your decisions, intentions and behaviors or actions for the sake of God.“

“What I want to do in anything really, whether it's making coffee or creating art or doing my work as best as I can, is to perfect the craft, whatever that craft is, for the sake of elevating the behavior to be a state of worship."

As our conversation continued, we discussed classic examples of Ihsan in Islamic architecture, such as the Alhambra Palace in Spain, which attracts millions of tourists annually, and is one of my favourite places in the world. My first visit felt like a dreamy daze, wandering through a maze of vibrant gardens, through to arched spaces with mesmerising tile patterns, all to the sound of calm, flowing waters. The second time, a few years later, I paid attention to the harmonious proportionality, calligraphy styles and surrounding areas of Andalusia that all contribute to the magnificent experience of visiting. I could hardly imagine it’s full splendour, eight centuries earlier, at the height of the Islamic golden era in Spain. Everything about the place instilled in me a feeling of wonder, serenity, astonishment.

“By witnessing them, paying attention to them, reflecting on them, it becomes an opportunity for you to know God. This intricate web of diversity and creation has all come together to create this thing in its essence.”

Abdallah articulated my experience at the Alhambra well. “It wasn't just for physical beauty; the design was supposed to affect the state of people's hearts. That was specifically integrated into this design and the process.”

"It wasn’t just for physical beauty; the design was supposed to affect the state of people’s hearts"

We might ask, can we build a ‘digital Alhambra’? The very idea might seem absurd, or even offensive to some. But there is no harm in asking the question. It might just inspire something incredible.  (This was a real question asked in fact, by NYU’s Imam Khalid Latif to my friend Omar, the Chief Design Officer of popular tech startup, LaunchGood).

Dr Abdallah then explained some subtler aspects of the design philosophy in traditional Islamic buildings. For example, as visitors, we see mashrabiya, which are patterned mosaic screens that partly obscure the vision onto next rooms in a decorative & beautiful way. “There’s a spiritual reality to that, in that, in order to move into different states, there is a natural progression of stages for human development. We're not always ready to go from one thing to the next so immediately. We have to gradually go.  

“You can see through these mashrabiya. They're beautiful in their design, but they're there to show you there's something on the other side, but you're not ready to see it fully yet. It's veiled. And so, then, you go through this other door, that's usually offset from where you came in. In order to change your state, you have to reorient yourself now, towards the other door and enter again.

“It's very much like the archetypal quests for the holy grail or something. You have to go through these different levels and it's not just obstacles that are there randomly, they're spiritual realities of tests and phases that you have to go through, in order to prepare your soul for the development. We're on a journey in this life and that journey is a sequential development towards a realization of this witnessing of truth and it has to come in stages.”

It was a beautiful and moving conversation, but I was curious to understand how these could apply to contemporary design practice in the digital age.  “Let's say, an app. There's a purpose, it serves a need in somebody's life. You can just create the thing to get them to whatever it is from a consumer aspect of where they need to go, or you can integrate an understanding of human development into your design; realize that there's a psychological reality of how human beings need to open towards the next thing.

“So you wouldn't just design in a way that gives the person immediately what they want in this fast food era, because that's not natural. It's not healthy. It's not aligned with spiritual, psychological principles. But if you can build that philosophy into the design, so that it respects and honors this developmental process, then I think there can be a lot of added value and real meaning in what people are doing in terms of creating these digital platforms or apps.  It can really help people from falling into the traps that they often fall into."

Reflecting on our hyper-addicted, dopamine-saturated digital age, this idea resonates with me. The average attention span has dropped from twelve to eight seconds since the introduction of the iPhone and iPad (Ruined by Design, Monteiro, p126). The basic idea of encouraging people to slow down in life, breathe and reflect, sounds refreshing and welcome. Yet, that is entirely counter-intuitive to how digital platforms are designed to work now. We designers are taught to optimise for speed, convenience and on-demand instant results with a flick, swipe or tap.

It’s too late to redesign existing experiences and platforms to feel slower or staged; that would only cause frustration. How then, can we redesign our approach, to be more aligned with the spiritual & psychological development process that Dr Abdallah is talking about?  

This may require a more fundamental look at how we design, and the metrics by which we define product success.  The answer likely involves a respect and understanding of the human soul, and a deeper exploration into personal wellbeing and mental health. The tech companies that have influenced and designed much of the way we communicate, learn, shop and socially interact in recent decades primarily measure success in terms of things like market valuation, user acquisition, platform growth, low cost-per-click digital marketing, seconds of user attention, and shareholder return.
I recall similar feelings when exploring the forested shrines in Kyoto, and gazing up from within the glorious Duomo of Florence. The creative power and majestic spirituality felt in these spaces must be experienced, not described. The designers of those eras produced work that is almost beyond comprehension, timelessly inspiring. As designers today, in a digital age, we should be curious about how they reached such incredible depths of ‘user experience’.

I agree that it’s important to measure those things to be competitive, sustainable and innovative. But in the process, we’ve created a modern lifestyle dominated by digital experiences that many people find exhausting and overwhelming. How are we designing our future? If the future is increasingly digital, what aspects of technology can enable the best in humanity? I don’t advocate for the abandonment of smartphones and helpful apps, indeed I’m excited by how they can best work alongside us. Can our devices help us encourage us to rediscover our spiritual practice?
"Is it possible for brands, products and digital experiences to help us become more selfless, present, calm and God-conscious?"

Is it possible for brands, products and digital experiences to help us become more selfless, present, calm and God-conscious? Will our quest to design artificial intelligence help us rediscover miracles in the natural world and appreciate our humanity? How might we design to illuminate hearts?

Today’s designers, entrepreneurs and creative professionals have been gifted with an immense set of design challenges. I see my kids mesmerised by digital devices during the limited ‘screen-time’ they are allowed. Are we designing to nurture happy hearts, or maximize returns for shareholders? We have no time to waste.

This is truly where Heart-Centred Design can make a difference. If we strive to bring Ihsan into our work, our thought processes, our ambitions and our daily routines, we will surely notice a difference within ourselves and in our output; hopefully leading to a positive difference for and within others.

These changes and this Ihsan don’t necessarily come easy. They often require patience, dedication, exploration and refinement. Craftsmanship of the 17-step coffee variety. It’s a process that may be more complex and more involved, but it’s one that results in a deeper, richer experience that can elevate ourselves and our work.

Peter Gould is the founder of Gould Studio, and advocates for Heart-Centered Design to inspire meaningful products & brands that align with spiritual aspirations. He teaches The Heart of Design program and is currently writing a book on the subject. For more interviews, news and insights, please sign-up to the Gould Studio newsletter

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