A Spiritual Approach to Information Design

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The restless mind is sometimes compared to the chimpanzee’s behaviour while playing with a cappuccino maker machine

If we have a closer look to information design, we will see some interesting parallelisms and strong conceptual links with the practice of Yoga (yes, Yoga). The same way information design goes beyond the creation of visual solutions, the practice of yoga entails much more than stretches and strengthening the body.

In previous posts, I have extensively written about information design, so in this opportunity the focus will be on defining yoga and unpacking some aspects that have commonalities with the information design mindset. It is important to point out that this post is not meant to convince information designers to practice yoga, nor to impose information design skills to yogis, but to highlight common aspects to both practices that may benefit from each other.

What is Yoga

The Sanskrit meaning of Yoga (to yoke) is “union,” and yoga is defined as a spiritual, mental and physical activity, which reunites mind and body by combining the practice of Asanas (physical postures), Pranayama (breathing exercises) and Meditation (understanding the mind). All of them aim to bring mind and body back together. Mind and body have been separated in the modern society, and this separation is leading people to suffering. While working towards (re)marrying mind and body we achieve a greater degree of clarity, which helps us:

  • learn how to listen to our body,
  • experience health benefits and greater enjoyment
  • live happier
  • understand life from a deeper level
  • approach challenges and situations from a point of view that we may have not considered before

In addition, by practicing yoga, our outer body gains flexibility, but, with time, that flexibility also reaches our inner body and mind, finding a sense of balance. This sense of balance helps make wise decisions, find adequate solutions and handle expected and unexpected situations with more calm.

To some extent, yoga is a process of discovery. During this process we start to identify (our) patterns of behaviour and (our) ways of communicating with others, but also (our) ways of solving problems. With time, this process leads us to gaining better understanding of our mind and our physical body.

It is important to acknowledge, that this is a slow process (which may seem even slower for our current busy lives), in which consistency is the key. After regularly practicing yoga for a long long time (e.g. over 20 years), we may only be only a little more balance (e.g 2%). However, even that little more and the fact that we have started to go through that process of discovery would help us see every situation with a more significant sense of clarity and freshness that we didn’t have before. Eventually, this sense of clarity may lead to not being clouded by past experiences or future expectations, being receptive to alternatives, and having greater appreciation for daily little and big things.

Understanding (mind and body)

There are many reasons why people practise yoga: to get fit, to get health benefits, to learn a more spiritual approach to life, or just for fun. In all cases, having a full understanding of what each posture (Asana) does for the mind and body is the first step. It is equally important to know what is right for each body structure too. In some cases, we learn that even after regularly practising yoga for a long time, e.g. 10 years, we won’t be able to do some Asanas, simply because of our skeleton structure.

Each posture is meant to open a different part of the body and unblock each one of the major seven points of the human body, Chakras, which are centres of life force (energy). “The chakras correlate to levels of consciousness, body functions, colours, elements, sounds,” creativity and imagination. “The blockage or energetic dysfunction in the chakras is believed to give rise to physiological, psychological, emotional, and spiritual disorders.” Each chakra is represented with a colour and symbol, and is located in a specific part of the body along the body centre (vertebral spine). Unblocking chakras is another step towards achieving a greater sense of balance and clarity.

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Name, colour and main affirmations of the seven points of energy of the body: Chakras

Organising (the mind)

The mind is restless, constantly jumping from one thought to another, and it is rarely quiet and silent for more than a few seconds. This is why it is said that it can be as active as chimpanzees left alone with a cappuccino maker machine. One strategy that yogis use to pause their minds is categorising thoughts and states of mind as actions. Based on this classification, we could identify ourselves as being:

  • Planners. When our mind is frequently in the future rather than in the present.
  • Rumminaters. When our mind is frequently clung in the past and replying the same events over and over.
  • Judgmental. When our mind has a strong negative opinion about ourselves and the things we do.

Another strategy to clear the mind is by grouping and labeling recurrent situations that we find ourselves frequently thinking of or mentally doing. For example, we are sometimes mentally shopping, planning or thinking about last night’s events while we were supposed to be working or enjoying a nice meal with a friend.

Both strategies constitute the core of meditation practice, which helps make sense of our own mental structure and leads to gain better understanding of the mind.

Visual thinking

In information design, visual thinking is frequently used to visualise words and processes, in yoga visual thinking is often used (although not referred to with this name) to heal, and visualise thoughts and energy.

An inner approach to visual thinking is very much used as a meditation technique to help visualise mental blocks and behaviours, and approach situations from different angles. Understanding through visual processing and mental drawing is another way to make sense of how we solve problems. As an example, many Pranayama exercises (breathing practices) require visualisation techniques, in which the practitioner visualises energy (as breath) flowing through the body and being directed to specific parts and organs in the body that need to be unblocked.

Bridging practices

Yoga like information design is about making sense of the world and gaining clarity. The major difference between these two practices (yoga and ID) is on what each of them if making sense of. While information design aims to help people make sense and improve understanding by approaching a problem situation from a new perspective, yoga has a very similar aim, but with an inner focus.

The following is a recap of parallelisms I have identified between yoga an information design:

  • Principles. Both have as an initial step of the (problem-solving and discovery) process to define and frame the challenge, followed by having a clear mind and thorough understanding in order to find adequate strategies and appropriate solutions.
  • Aims. To improve communication and understanding. While information design aims to help others, yoga aims to help us first, so then we can help others.
  • Ways of making sense. Unraveling challenges by approaching the problem-situation from a new angle, classifying and organising (metal, written, visual) information, and identifying patterns and recurrent behaviours.
  • Clarity. Likewise information design, clarity is yoga driven force and ultimate goal, which helps make more appropriate decisions, communicate better and see the world from a more honest lens.

Gleick (2012) stated that “in the long run, history is the story of information becoming aware of itself”, I would like to add that history is also the story of human beings becoming aware of themselves, and the world.

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– Gleick, J. (2012) The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood. New York, NY: Pantheon.

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2 comments

  1. Rebecca

    Hi Sheila,
    I found your blog regarding a spiritual approach to ID very interesting. I’m always amazed at how people can take two things that on the surface appear to not be connected and find connections that make sense. Spirituality is extremely important in my life, and thus is why your blog caught my attention. Actually, it is the cornerstone of my life. So, it is interesting to me that I never thought about ID in a spiritual sense and I certainly have not seen it through spiritual eyes. Thank you for helping to make that connection for me. I’m new to the ID field and your blog triggered a question about mindfulness. In our busy world, it is hard for many people to slow down and be in the moment…be mindful of everything in the moment, actually, be mindful of the moment. In your experience, do you find mindfulness an important aspect of ID? If so, then what role does mindfulness play in your ID?

    • sheilapontis

      Hi Rebecca,
      Many thanks for your comment. You bring up a very interesting and complex topic. Mindfulness itself is a broad topic, and ID itself is another broad topic. To some extent, ID can be seen as a way to slow down and unpack the thinking process, by focusing first on understanding the problem (the moment) before acting on the problem. So, there is a connection with being mindful (although I haven’t really thought about it in this way before, so thank you for asking me this question). As a teacher and practitioner, I work with a strong emphasis on the conceptual side of the process rather than on executing ideas without thought. Sometimes is easier than others, because, as you pointed out, students are eager to put into practice new knowledge and see (visual!) results, and clients want solutions often in a very short time. I think as information designers, we have the skills and mindset to stop, and make sense of problems/moments/experiences first, reflect, and only then act on.

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