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How do we design for transformation?

What are the ingredients of a transformative group experience?

Are there common design principles that seem to endure across different types of programs and content?

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I got interested in these questions as a teenager. As a 16 year old, I had the good fortune to stumble into an off-campus study experience in Vermont--a semester program called The Mountain School--that brought 45 high school juniors together for four months on a working farm. And I walked into a whole other little self-contained world--where the culture, rules, language, rituals, systems, ways of relating to each other--were totally different. I had a powerful experience--a new experience of myself, and who I could be; of what school could be like; of a new way of living; and of real belonging, true community. It blew me (and every other student I know who has attended) away. When I left those 4 months, I knew I wanted to do “that.” Not necessarily work at a boarding school, but build contexts and containers for groups that shift what participants think is possible.

 

Over the years I’ve gotten to do this in different contexts. I got to do it as an educator at Breakthrough Collaborative, which builds pop-up summer schools around the country; as a youth organizer for The Food Project, building immersive youth employment programs around food justice. I got to design and run semester-long deep dives into leadership and spirituality for cohorts of adults at Urban Adamah in Berkeley. And I got to do it as a hospital chaplain, designing rituals and weekend-long immersive retreats for folks who are grieving the loss of loved ones. 

 

When I came to Harvard in the Specialized Studies program, I wanted to focus on the art and science of designing experiences like these. How do we create strong containers for transformative group experience? What do the very best summer camps and executive retreats and social movement trainings and mass art festivals and meditation retreats and leadership intensives and boarding schools have in common? And how can we apply their design lessons to all sorts of programs and gatherings? 

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What do i mean by transformation?

For my purposes, I mean the kind of experience that shifts what participants experience or see as possible. This generally requires a disruption of the status quo and a held destabilization that opens participants up to the new.

Importantly, transformation here does not center permanent, measurable shifts in behavior or attitude. Instead, it centers the present moment, affective experiences of participants. 

This kind of transformation is hard to measure and track. Sometimes it is challenging for participants themselves, even, to name exactly what was so profound about an experience, even as they’re certain that something powerful took place. This ineffable quality, though not a favorite for social scientists, is familiar to artists, clergy, and educators.

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what do i mean by "container"?

A container is an intentionally designed context that "holds" an experience. 

 

Entering a context is like entering a world. It brings to mind David Foster Wallace’s famous passage about two young fish who happen upon an older fish. The older fish says, “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the young fish responds, “What the hell is water?” Context is the water we swim in. A container, then, is a sort of aquarium, the boundaried vessel that holds and facilitates an experience. 

 

Experience designer Ida Benedetto astutely observes that scholars in different disciplines have different names for what we’re referring to here as “the container.” Johan Huizinga, studying games as a play theorist, refers to it as “the magic circle,” the temporary world that defines a game. Mary Douglas, studying ritual as an anthropologist, calls it “the ritual frame,” or a marked off space with transformative potential. Erving Goffman, studying performance as a sociologist, calls it a “bounded region,” a space set apart through barriers to perception that creates a highly curated, shared reality for participants.

Containers matter because they are the primary lever with which we can impact experience. ​

Even though we talk about experience design, we can’t really control participant experience. We can only design excellent contexts. This is true for designers of all types of experiences. How can we create something that will generate a certain experience when someone--or, in my case, even more complex--a group (!) interacts with it and each other? The answer lies in designing a strong container.

We know that context is a powerful driver of experience and behavior. While often we are told that traits and personality are static, following people into the contexts they inhabit, the truth is more complicated. In fact, the situation we’re in is hugely influential for how we act, feel, and relate. It makes sense, then, to harness the power of context intentionally, to design for the kinds of experience we want participants to have.

This is nothing new. Leveraging the power of context to design transformative containers has been a human preoccupation for millennia. We see it in religious ritual, in developmental psychology, and in social movements. Certainly, the art of designing contexts that can hold space for transformation is an old and studied art.

 

Nevertheless, acknowledging the ways that crafting a context is possible and powerful doesn’t discount the fact that individuals are also powerful drivers of experience, and even of context! For program leaders, this often means taking seriously who we invite in as participants, and/or altering the experience based on the participants present. The truth is more complicated than taking context seriously or taking individuals seriously; what transpires in a programmatic environment develops out of the particular interaction of both. It is also worth noting that participants--not just experience designers or facilitators--also shape the context. The best facilitators know that the container is remade in every moment, by everyone in the community. That said, the choices program leaders and facilitators make about the container--both before and during an experience--are paramount, and are what I think about with much of my time!

design principles

Informed by insights from scholarship on ritual, games, and performance, as well as conversations with other practitioners, in my work I tend to use 6 design principles for constructing transformative containers.​ I think transformative containers are....

TRUSTWORTHY

RISKY

IMMERSIVE

They create a world apart.

The world they create is coherent, consistent, and safe.

They meaningfully engage risk.

RELATIONAL

MAGICAL

TEMPORARY

Full of connection, belonging, and relationship.

The experiences they create are time-bound, impermanent.

The mechanics often feel invisible and magical to participants.

I love to talk about these principles and experience design! So feel free to reach out with questions or comments.

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