Design an experience that reduces the taboo around death

My roles

  • Coding
  • Writing

Our process in theory

Our process in reality

Why are we designing for death?

When I signed up for a Creative Mornings event, I didn’t notice the title “6 Things Death Teaches Us.” As a result, I flinched when I heard the Shoshana Berger say the word death for the first time, and felt pretty uncomfortable for the rest of the event. Why did I have this reaction? And why did I feel so uncomfortable?

After sharing my experience and my reactions with some close colleagues, they also shared several stories with me. A few hours later, we ended up watching BJ Miller’s TED talk together, which in turn led us to thinking about how we might turn our newfound curiosities into a design project.

Death is taboo

Understanding why death is taboo

To understand why death is taboo, we dove into secondary research and found that when the plague first arrived in the 14th Century, dying moved from homes to hospitals.

Fast forward to today, death is still hidden away in basement morgues while birth is celebrated. Death is taboo because it is simply not part of our cultures anymore.

Death is simply not part of our cultures anymore

Discovering how we might make death less taboo

To understand how we might make death less taboo, we incorporated some traditional and not so traditional research approaches due to the taboo nature of the topic.

For example, we organized several lunches inspired by Death Cafe and built a phone booth, inspired by Itaru Sasaki’s Japanese wind phone.

People need time, space, and permission to talk and think about death

Understanding why death should be less taboo

When talking to Dr. Dawn Gross, she explained that “having a conversation about death, really is having a conversation about life.”

Talking and thinking about death can be very uncomfortable, but doing so can help us cope with loss and realize what’s really important to us in life.

Death informs the way we live our lives

Ideating solutions

When brainstorming around this opportunity, we came up with several ideas including a camping experience, and a series of murals across the city.

However, we had to acknowledge the fact that we aren’t licensed grief counselors or artists, and that we are interaction designers.

Acknowledging that we are designers, not artists nor grief counselors

Prototyping the experience

Starting in CCA’s meditation room, followed by setting up a tent, we arrived at the Lumen experience.

Instead of telling you more about this experience, we created a short video to show you.

An interactive, immersive experience that empowers us to have meaningful thoughts and conversations around the end of life

Testing the experience

“It made me think of my family, who is very far away right now.”

“I had this feeling in my chest, which doesn’t happen in most designed experiences.”

“I love that this exists, please take it to places so that people can experience it.”

Everyone enters with their own stories, and everyone leaves with their own meaning-making

Proposing next steps

In addition to gathering many stories, we’re incredibly grateful for the opportunity to install the Lumen experience at Reimagine in New York City. With the help of Dr. Dawn Gross, we received a grant that would help make that happen.

We can also imagine offering this experience in everyday environments like schools and offices. What if your co-worker passed away for example, where would you go? Who would you talk to? We’d like to distill Lumen to suit these environments as well.

Distilling Lumen to suit other environments like schools and offices

What did we learn?

Personally, I sometimes forgot that death is still very much taboo. Others had not been through the same journey as the four of us, so to make sure they weren’t too uncomfortable, I often reminded myself to refer to death as the end of life instead.

As a team, we realized that we needed a framework to help us talk about our integrity, process, goals, communication, and collaboration. As a result, we designed and prototyped a project dartboard which we filled out once a week.

Filling out a weekly project dartboard helped us grow individually, and as a team