Invitations to be human: the beauty of designing questions

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Illustration by Katie Lee
Hero image
Illustration by Katie Lee

As users, consumers and designers alike it’s tempting for us to seek solutions that make life easier — experiences that are curated, convenient, frictionless, delightful. But, in order to engage fully with life and the richness of human experience we need to encounter situations that take us outside of our comfort zones. We need experiences that present us with challenges and uncertainties we can only navigate and appreciate by drawing on our human resources. We need experiences that ask us to be vulnerable and invite us to learn about who we are and what we’re capable of.

In a previous article on this topic I wondered what could happen if we embrace a version of human-centered design that focuses on questions over solutions. I wanted to know what would happen if we put the aspiration of humanness — the process of being alive — at the center of our creative efforts.

This week, thanks to the Hornall Anderson exhibit at the Seattle Design Festival, I had the privilege of witnessing an answer to that question.

Exploring the festival theme of trust our team created an installation that asked people to look at themselves in a public setting. The product of many hours, brains, hands and skills from all corners of the company, the resulting artifact — ‘Public Reflections’ — was deceptively simple.

All it took was a mirror, a chair, and a few requests: Sit for a minute. Look into your eyes. See yourself. This is trust.

A man facing himself in the mirror of an art installation. A red chair is behind him.
A man facing himself in the mirror of an art installation. A red chair is behind him.

Following the installation process, I stood spellbound for more than twelve hours over two days as people recoiled from, grappled with, tiptoed around, or embraced each of those statements. The result was a heartwarming, heartbreaking, inspiring, intriguing, and beautifully telling series of interactions between people and the conundrum of being alive.

Witnessing these private public encounters and hearing the stories of people who engaged or avoided, I learned more than I could have imagined about the human condition — and our fascinatingly complex relationship with the person through whom we experience life: ourselves.

I learned that although we regularly look at ourselves, we rarely see ourselves.

It felt really intimate, which I didn’t expect. I know holding eye contact with someone else is meant to be a trust-building thing, but it’s just as much with yourself. That was surprising.
A man sits in a red chair, staring at himself in the mirror of an art installation.
A man sits in a red chair, staring at himself in the mirror of an art installation.

I realized how sad it is that we don’t take time to sit and appreciate the conscious, thinking, living, endlessly fascinating being we get to be for a blink in time.

Awkward and uncomfortable. I don’t like looking at myself. Even when you’re getting ready you’re looking at other stuff. You catch glimpses but you never stop and look at yourself in the way other people might. I have no idea how long that was, it felt like an eternity in my eyes.
A woman looks at herself in the mirror of an art installation with a red chair behind her.
A woman looks at herself in the mirror of an art installation with a red chair behind her.

I saw that — stripped of distractions, filters, fixes, and fantasy — spending time with ourselves can be terrifying.

“I guess I just don’t really want to see past the surface. It’s daunting. It’s scary to look at yourself, really see yourself. I was nervous. You see it all: who you are, your flaws, your faults, what you want, who you might be. It’s uncomfortable. I guess I’m an introvert even to myself.”
An art installation with a large mirror and an empty red chair prompts visitors to really look at themselves.
An art installation with a large mirror and an empty red chair prompts visitors to really look at themselves.

I discovered that although there are many reasons for not taking the time to see ourselves, none of them are good enough to outweigh its importance and worth.

“Knowing yourself, looking at yourself, sitting. We’re always rushing, always getting ready, never really looking. Taking a moment in public to see yourself is…is great.”
A man looks at himself in the mirror of an art installation while a little girl sits in a red chair staring at herself.
A man looks at himself in the mirror of an art installation while a little girl sits in a red chair staring at herself.

I learned it takes courage to hold eye-contact with yourself — to look beyond masks and carefully woven narratives until you encounter and accept the light and dark that jostles inside.

“You look at the layers of the onion and peel them away: see what’s going well, and what isn’t, see what I don’t want to look at and say: this is me.”
A man sits in a red chair looking at himself in the mirror of an art installation.
A man sits in a red chair looking at himself in the mirror of an art installation.

I discovered that Pascal was almost certainly right when he wrote, ‘All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.’ And I have huge admiration for anyone who’s willing to try — especially in a public setting.

“I was just trying to be myself, I guess. I was just trying to look at me, you know? It was incredible. It was amazing. It was kind of meditative, I was just being there in the moment. It was like I was there and meditative and perfect in that moment and then when I realized other people were walking I just smiled realizing all this was happening around me.”

I realized that all the hippy, cliché stuff I want to hate is true: compassion and love for ourselves is hard, but important. Not superficial, self-indulgent, Instagram horseshit; but the kind of honest, supportive, hardworking, forgiving love we manage to cultivate with other people.

“Thank you for that gift. I told myself not to be judgmental and to give myself this moment. I was pretty successful, so thank you.”
A woman sits in a red chair looking into the mirror of an art installation while a group of people observe.
A woman sits in a red chair looking into the mirror of an art installation while a group of people observe.

Most of all, I learned that designing for humanness is possible.

“It was interesting. It was a new experience. I was just zoned into myself and thinking, ‘this is the human being that I am.’”

John Yeats wrote: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, — that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know”

What I witnessed last weekend was a constant stream of truths, and it wasbeautiful. Not beautiful because it was all happiness, smiles, and love — often it was quite the opposite — but beautiful because it was true. Reading those words and looking into that mirror provoked a human reaction in people, a moment of truth however fleeting. And I had the privilege of sharing that encounter, of feeling compassion for those who found it difficult, admiration for those who tried their best, wonder at the presence of such vulnerability and bravery. This wasn’t a solution in search of users, but an open question in search of humanness. When people saw themselves, they let us see them, too — and I loved every second of it.

Thank you to everyone at who made it possible, and to everyone who took part.

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