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Mindful : April 2018
Victoria Dawson: Let’s start with design. Why does digital design matter, and how does it relate to mindfulness? Irene Au: Most people think of design as how something looks—color and fonts. I think of design in terms of usability, usefulness, and desirability. It’s in the background, not flashy or showy. It’s humble and modest and hardworking. But bad design sucks the life out of you; it slows people down and makes them sad. So, good design puts people first? Really, the basis of my work has been people. We use anthropologi- cal research methods to understand behavioral patterns, motivations, and goals so we can design technology that works the way people work. How do you move people through an expe- rience in a way that corresponds with how they think or how they perceive the world? We have a finite amount of energy. Poor design steals good energy from other things that might deserve our attention more. That’s ironic, because the internet has seized just that—our collective and individual attention. The only currency we have is our attention. Last year, I turned off the notifications on my iPhone—and in one month I read four books. That’s an all-time high. Just as we choose to drink sugary drinks or not, or to watch TV all day or not, we can choose to resist the streams of information that are coming at us digitally. We can choose how we spend our attention. What was your first encounter with technology? When I was six or seven, my parents bought me a Commodore VIC-20 and then a Commodore 64. I was a com- puter nerd pretty early on, signing in to bulletin boards and programming in Basic. In 1987, my father brought home one of the earliest Macintosh comput- ers, a Mac SE, and it blew my mind. It was so intuitive and playful, designed to work the way people wanted to work. It unlocked my imagination about what computers could do. I liked gadgets, so I studied elec- trical and computer engineering in college and spent those years build- ing robots and designing circuits. When I went to graduate school, I became disillusioned by the idea of technology for technology’s sake. I wanted to figure out how to direct the development of technolog y toward solving people’s problems. Then I stumbled into this field of engineering psycholog y and human– computer interaction. What prompted you to return to yoga? In 2006, I joined Google. The task there was how to bring empathetic research processes to product development and elevate design quality into a coherent experience for users. At the time, Google was famously engineering-centric— very data-driven and masculine. Empa- thy and qualitative research and design were countercultural. In addition to an executive role at Google, I had two young daughters and a marriage that wasn’t working. The breaking point came when I realized that I couldn’t sit cross-legged on the floor and play with my children—my hips were too tight. There was so much suffering, and I needed to dig myself out of it. I sought solace in yoga. I was motivated by physical need, but I came out of it transformed. What changed? My body and my mind changed, and I started to move through the world dif- ferently—with compassion for myself and an ability to be present and calm. I became able to respond, instead of react, to the people around me. During my first teacher training, we were constantly practicing and meditating. I remember adjusting one of my classmates when a wave of love washed over me—a connection to the spirit or the soul—I don’t know what it was. I grew up in a profoundly atheistic household. My father was a professor of physics, and I was a dedi- cated student of science and math. But I believe there is a deeper connection. Just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it isn’t there. How has yoga informed your work as a designer? With mindfulness, when I come to work, I show up with my best self. I see things more clearly and can better figure out what is most important to focus on. Practices like meditation and yoga can make designers better designers, or creators better creators. To come up with the most creative solution, you have to know what the point of experi- ence is, you have to generate ideas, you have to have the emotional intelligence to work patiently with stakeholders who might have different viewpoints from yours. Mindfulness practices have helped me become not only more empathetic but also more connected to my heart, and that clarifies design. Mindfulness is about slowing down and noticing, and design is the art of noticing details. As a designer, you’re constantly noticing the things that sap energy. You’re noticing opportunities for improvement. You’re noticing how people behave and what motivates them. You’re noticing what looks good ABOUT THE AUTHOR Victoria Dawson is a freelance writer based in Washington, DC. She regularly contributes to Mindful. 66 mindful April 2018 the mindful interview