Ritual design: bad and good
Why Design for Ritual?
This is a post about the design of rituals.
I will use a mostly negative framing to start with. This is because I live in the UK and there is new King’s Coronation next Saturday. It is an event lathered in ritual (most of which was invented in the 19th Century and then, in comic book language, retconned as ancient). However, I will move onto a more positive framing at the end as I am looking at ritual design for a Design Council project. Ritual, in this framing, is a way of ensuing positive ideas of ethics and principles can be held communally when designing during the Climate Crisis.
Ritual is about change in a community in a time and place. It is a way of holding things together.
Change can cause cracks in seemingly solid places and institutions. Change unfoots people. The solidity of what they believe, what they do and who they follow can suddenly be revealed as fake. The ‘Wizard of Oz’ problem of systems that are maintained by a mixture of inertia and delusion.
Change, the death of a Queen or the rapid change in climate conditions, cracks established ideas. Radical change rather than simply the established and historic patterns of being becomes possible.
Ritual is a bandage over the cracks. It tries to bind together all the things that seem to have broken.
For monarchies, this moment is a moment of terrible risk. The risk of a coup. The risk of violence. The loss of everything they hold now and into the future.
This ritual is a way of not merely bandaging over the cracks. It is a way of delberately connecting the past and future together to prevent violence to those who have power and privilege. Ritual now is a way of stopping the possibilty of future change. For a monarchy, the crucial point to maintain is legitimacy. That their ancestors ruled, that the new King should rule and that future generations will rule.
3 V’s of Ritual
Ritual design can be split into 3 V’s. The V’s prevent Violence.
At core a ritual muct be visceral. It must be enacted.
It must be in a time and place, with people and artefacts. This is visibility. Rituals must be seen and experienced. They must be broadcast and shown to all — even tho the specific time and actual place must be bounded and private to an invited elite.
Speeches must be given. Names and titles allocated and announced. Special ways of speaking used as incantations spoken to transfer legitimacy. This is voice. The name of the King must be announced. The people must know the name and title of the legitimate ruler.
In the time and place of ritual, the assembled people are expected to state their allegiance to the named ruler. This is because there is a shared awareness of how much the power and privilege of the people near to the past, current and future monarch is bound to the continuation of legitimacy. Many groups, from families to whole instititutions, also fear that possibility of radical.
Ritual, for these people, is a shared lifeboat not merely a royal barge. It must happen. They will take on titles and roles to ensure it does.
Ritual Design Elements
This is the final diagram on ritual design in the negative framing. However, all the design elements re-occur in the positive framing.
Due to the specific time and place I am in, I recommend reading the Coronation Liturgy for Kings Charles III. It is a strong example of ritual design in action.
The 3 V’s are expanded.
The visceral is in a place and with presence. There must be physicality.
That physicality is held in the visibility. There must be ceremonies. Rituals must be enacted in special ways. There must be a pattern and it must be separate from the mundane. There also need to be artefacts. People are a given. Rituals are based on the presence of people. However, it is the artefacts that shift meaning. The objects link thru time and space. They carry legitimacy. They are held by people. They are held by the new monarch. They show the transfer of power (even when they are just cloth, metal and stone).
The place, the people and the artefacts hold the presence of ritual.
The voice is how attention is drawn and held. Voice has titles:all the roles must be named. Naming is hugely powerful. This is why pharaohs employed criers to go round Egypt announcing their names. It is the ancient use of voice that even appears today in the shout of ‘shotgun’ for the front passenger seat.
Ritual, in the broader sense, tho has whole speeches and ways of vocalising text (like chants, call and response). Incantations are the magic coating that makes sense of all the artefacts and titles. Without that coating, all the ritual elements are open to ridicule. Any single part of ritual, without incantation, is meaningless.
You need words, you need special words, you need to say them in special ways.
From the ‘Wizard of Oz’ problem of the fragility of legitimacy to the ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ problem of the ridiculousness of ritualistic artefacts and titles when unbound from the magical spell of incantations.
All of these are the design elements of ritual. All are needed for greatest success. At a minimum tho, you need the words, for the attention, and the ceremony, for the presence, with people.
Not habit, not culture
As a sidenote, it is only after explaining all these elements that it becomes possible to explain what ritual is neither habit or culture.
Habit is personal and regularly repeated over time (but not necessarily place). You have habits. They are closely visceral to you. You control them and hold the artefacts and words. Habits are not communal. You share a habit in descriptive terms but not the time or place. It is yours, it is you.
Culture stretches over time (often locked to place) and is held by institutions not individuals. It imposes itself upon everyone within the purview of that institution but not necessarily in ways that deeply held or visceral.
Ritual is in a time and place when change has happened or is about to happen. It is communal and visceral.
Using ritual for radicalism and regeneration?
More as a postscript, I want to write about ritual in different sense. Most of the text above is framed by the sense of ritual in terms of the Coronation. It is about ritual prventing change and maintaining legitimacy for the use of privilege and power.
All of those diagrams were not sketched because of the negative framing. That the Coronation is this week is simply accidental relevance.
I am working on some workshop design and faciltiation materials for the Design Council. They are using one of their most powerful artefacts, the Double Diamond Design Thinking concept, in a new way to approach the vast issues of design in the Climate Crisis.
The Beyond Net Zero report (plus additional materials) describe ways of shfting and enhancing the Double Diamond into a Systemic Design Framework. More elements, more words and more titles.
Having run a few test workshops, I began to recognise that all these pieces needed something to bind them togther when used by teams or within projects.
Ritual seemed a possibility. That sense of something that is in time and place. Not a habit, not a culture.
Using ritual in a design project
There are a number of interesting posts on Medium from Stanford by Kursat Ozenc. I have used their way of talking ritual design and linked it to the words I have used. The 5 parts of ritual design discussed in the posts are Trigger, Intention, Script, Enactment and Props. These are easily linked the way I talk of ritual.
This image is where my work currently stops. Having the 5 ritual design elements and splitting the tasks into Facilitation or CoDesign. The facilitator holds structure and intention, the proeject team hold words, roles and props. We can offer examples of what has worked previously but the power and meaning of the ritual has to be co-created in the context of the people present. Putting diversity and divergence into the ritual design rather then conformity and historic legitimacy.
The final image is what I hope to do. This is the positive dream of ritual as a positive force. Holding principles and ethics alongside mindfulness and compassion.
I will be working on this over the next few weeks. I am glad to hear of examples of ritual design that you have encountered and seem relevant.
I am sharing this post, not because of my certainty but my uncertainty.
A mini workshop
I am running a 2 hour online workshop on ritual design on 11th May at 18.00 (UK time).
If you would like to attend, please contact me by DM or email email@example.com
Originally published at https://acuity.design on May 1, 2023.