UAlberta Design graduate’s research connects mindfulness with creative process
MDes Graduate Justin P. is one of the five graduate designers with their thesis work featured in the show Make Good: Design for a Better Now in the FAB Gallery until September 19, 2015. Justin’s research looks into mindfulness meditation as a tool to further artistic practice. His personal experiences with mindfulness as a healing tool sparked a life-long interest and series of experiments that have brought him to his MDes graduation.
Your research is on mindfulness practice and I see that you were president of the University of Alberta’s Mindfulness Meditation Group. Can you tell me a bit about how you came to be interested in mindfulness and meditation?
Mindfulness is a present-moment and non-judgmental awareness.
I was first introduced to mindfulness practice, or mindfulness meditation, as a way to cope with severe and debilitating anxiety in my late teenage years which prevented me from engaging in most social activities and undertaking everyday tasks. The onset of the anxiety was immediate and abrupt and this led me into therapy for an eight month period of time.
My therapist introduced me to basic breathing meditations that were guided by an audiotape—and even though my anxiety remained present during meditation practice, I was able to manage my stress and successfully continue studying at college.
Learning how to ameliorate anxiety expanded my faculty of self-awareness and allowed me to explore other benefits of this practice of stillness and noticing what arises. It was through experiencing stillness that I began to understand the importance of spaciousness and how it helps cultivate creativity and leads to insight.
Do you consider mindfulness a spiritual practice or simply a tool for training the brain?
Yes and no.
Jon Kabat-Zinn, Professor of Medicine Emeritus at the University of Massachusetts who revolutionized the use of mindfulness by introducing it to the scientific community, said that there is nothing particularly Buddhist or spiritual about mindfulness because we are all mindful to one degree or another. It is an inherent human capacity, although its roots go back thousands of years to ancient Buddhist and meditation practices.
In my own story, I was introduced to mindfulness for practical reasons; however, in the last few years, as I’ve experienced the many benefits of practicing mindfulness continuously, I have been inspired to investigate mindfulness beyond these reasons. I felt compelled to investigate Kabat-Zinn’s viewpoints that intersected with Buddhist practices and teachings, as well as other spiritual practices related to non-dualism.
Investigating the depth of mindfulness is a personal decision and journey. Facilitators who wish to incorporate mindfulness practice in educational or organizational contexts should allow others to have the freedom to maintain their own beliefs and not require them to believe anything specific.
Can you tell us more about your research in this area?
My thesis research project explored the connections between mindfulness practice, ideation, and creativity through semi-structured interviews, with mindfulness practitioners, design educators and an educational specialist as well as an exploratory workshop with design students from the Department of Art and Design at the University of Alberta.
One objective of the research was to develop a visual framework showcasing mindfulness practice as a visual aid to help explain the concepts to design educators and students. Another objective was to identify the extent to which mindfulness practice is already incorporated into design education. Throughout the process of investigation, themes related to mindfulness were identified. Connections were then made to the concept of ideation and creativity.
You can read more about a 20-Day Mindfulness Challenge Justin undertook here on his Behance page.
How can a mindfulness practice help creative people with their art?
A common theme that emerged throughout this research project was that allowing oneself to experience stillness and space could lead to a feeling of being mentally present, calm and focused. In turn, it is possible that being mentally present allows ideas and creativity to flow because when we slow down, allow for stillness and spaciousness to affect our experience, we are less susceptible to over-thinking and running into mental blocks while engaging in the creative process. Another finding was that certain moods, such as happiness or an absence of stress, could allow creativity to flow more readily.
One significant finding from the exploratory workshop was that mindfulness practice made participants feel mentally present and less pressured to perform while engaging in the creation of visual explorations. It was reported that this lack of pressure allowed some participants to gain new perspective and explore possibilities, which may have led to creative insights.
Your Behance bio says that you are “researching a fusion of creativity, design thinking and mindfulness meditation in design education.” Do you think there needs to be more training in mindfulness and meditation within design programs?
Within design curricula there are some analytical techniques for generating creative ideas. These ideation techniques exercise certain analytical processes in the brain; however, it is possible that this may limit a student’s creative process. This is because they exercise only certain parts of the brain. By quieting the mind through the mindfulness practices, a student may boost his or her creative flow and therefore ideation ability.
Interestingly, findings from my research project suggested that some of the ideation techniques currently used within design education appear to show a relationship with mindfulness-related attitudes such as beginner’s mind and curiosity, in addition to other attitudes. Therefore, it might be useful for design educators to find a balance between analytical approaches to ideation (thought-oriented) and mindfulness-related approaches (sense-oriented) in the classroom. In any learning environment, educators should inject moments of spaciousness, or “pause moments”, so that students have opportunities to process information and reflect.
What do you plan on doing with your career now that you are finishing up grad school?
That’s always the big question for any graduating student.
I am lucky to have a few jobs lined up. I will be continuing my role as a Career Coach at the U of A’s central career centre and as an instructor in the U of A’s Department of Art and Design. Both roles allow me to continue sharing my experience and knowledge of mindfulness practice.
At the career centre I am helping to develop a new program called Transition to Career that includes mindfulness practice throughout the different modules.
As a design Instructor, I will continue to include mindfulness practice during the brainstorming and ideation phases of project exploration. Last year while teaching a course called Design Fundamentals, I guided students through various mindfulness practices such as breathing, drawing and eating meditations. Students were required to “journal” in their sketchbooks and I received positive feedback from most, if not all of the students. I hope to explore a few different mindfulness activities with students while teaching two design courses this academic year.
You can view more of Justin’s work on Bēhance: www.behance.net/JPritchard
Event title: Five Graduate Designers 2005. Make Good: Design for a Better Now
Exhibition dates: Until September 19, 2015
Closing Reception: Thursday, September 17 at 7 p.m. to 10 p.m.
Venue: FAB Gallery (1-1 Fine Arts Building, University of Alberta)
FAB Gallery Hours: Tuesday to Friday: 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. Saturday: 2 p.m. – 5 p.m.
For more information see the UAlberta show page: https://uofa.ualberta.ca/events/five-graduate-designers-2015