Seeking the Essence of Design with Dr Abdallah Rothman
In this conversation series, we explore design as a spiritual practice with creative leaders, spiritual teachers, and start-up founders from around the world. Here, Peter Gould interviews Dr Abdallah Rothman; Principal at Cambridge Muslim College.
Born in LA, Dr Abdallah spent his younger years searching for spiritual truth. His journey took him around the world living with Buddhist monks in the jungles of Thailand, working as a shepherd among Yemeni Jews, and immersed in the devotion of spiritual Rastafarians in Jamaica. He studied yoga among Hindus, learning from a guru with an oath of silence being practiced for forty years (he used a chalkboard for practicality). The young Dr Abdallah was an artist and an explorer who found the answers he sought in embracing Islam; finding peace in the spiritual practices of Sufism.
His journey sowed a deeper interest in the human soul, and Dr Abdallah eventually completed his MA and then PhD in psychology. With a fascinating story to tell, I was thrilled any time I got to spend time with Dr Abdallah in Abu Dhabi, whether through our conversations or attending his talks.
Just watching him, Dr Abdallah radiates mindfulness and grace even in the subtlest of movements. The depth he considers is calming, even for the most mundane of things. “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”.
In truth, Dr Abdallah’s relationship with coffee in particular is a special one. He invests many hours into perfecting the sophisticated processes, even using some home-made experimental equipment to prepare coffee. This approach isn’t always practical, he admits. Once, having to leave early in the morning while a relative stayed over, Abdallah left a 17-step instruction list for making the coffee in his absence. Unsurprisingly, the guest opted to leave for Starbucks instead.
Thinking about a simple drink that many consume daily, Dr Abdallah proceeded to tell me that “It can go all the way back to where the bean was grown, how was the bean grown? Whose hands was it in? What country did it come from? What was the soil like? 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,” he continued.
"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. By definition, the word spirit means something that is unseen, or the essence of something. To witness or experience this essence, you have to be attuned to a different dimension of awareness, to the unseen spiritual aspect. See the elements as something beyond this world, but also within this world. Dr Abdallah said that “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.”
I wondered what makes this coffee example more ‘spiritual’ than simply obsession or self-expression. What made his commitment to excellence and craftsmanship – of coffee in this instance – more than just a hobby? Dr Abdallah explained it with the spiritual concept 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.” He explained that “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, and astonishment.
“It wasn't just for physical beauty”, he said, “the design was supposed to affect the state of people's hearts.
When Dr Abdallah articulated his thoughts, they aligned with my experience at the Alhambra well. “It wasn't just for physical beauty”, he said, “the design was supposed to affect the state of people's hearts. That was specifically integrated into this design and the process.” What is it, then, to design from the heart? In our digital age, can we still design from the heart? One might ask, can a ‘digital Alhambra’ be built? The very idea may seem absurd (or even offensive to some). I have been exploring such questions on my own journey, and it is my experience that they just might inspire something incredible.
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 and elegant 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 moving and enriching conversation, and 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.” He expressed the importance of designing with mindfulness, with Ihsan. “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, his words rang true to me. The average attention span has dropped from twelve to eight seconds since the introduction of the iPhone and iPad (Monteiro, 2019, p.126). 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, as they center around efficiency and output. We designers are taught to optimise for speed, convenience and on-demand instant results with a flick, swipe or tap. It’s too late perhaps 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 and 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 holistic 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 measure success primarily in terms of things like market valuation, user acquisition, platform growth, low cost-per-click digital marketing, seconds of user attention, and shareholder return. In essence, the essence of things seems away from their concern.
I recall similar spiritual feelings to those inspired by Alhambra 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, and in a digital age, I believe 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 in integrating these questions into our design processes.
This connection in design, this spirituality, is a life-long journey, a state of being. What emerges is what I describe as Heart-Centered Design, a profound mindfulness of both our internal processes and external world to feel God in everything we do. If we strive to bring Ihsan into our work, our mindset, our aspirations and even our habits, we manifest a defining principle of Heart-Centered Design. Embracing this approach within ourselves and in our creative process can align us with spirituality in our daily lives and work; God-willing, leading to a transformative experience within ourselves and for those we are designing for.
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.
Monteiro, M. (2019). Ruined by Design. pp. 126
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.