Transcendent Design

I’m thinking about how to explore transcendent experience design. It’s something at the edge of my existing work on sensory design and cognitive accessibility.

I’m thinking of running an experimental workshop in a museum to test out some raw ideas.

User experience and content design are treating interaction as a way of enforcing an action, probably a transaction. Meanwhile design thinking and innovation keep enforcing the ideal that products must be made, things must be created.

There’s some very raw biases in all: the need to perceive, to understand and to act is one.

Yet we know there’s more than the mundane that the transcendent is a thing of human experience.

What I’m currently thinking (and I’m quite open to be quite wrong) is that Transcendent Design is in the interstitial moments, the gaps between things, and it is in not acting, not deciding.

We design for action but we need to create moments without action to enable possibilities of transcendent discovery?

The frictionless rush to make a decision, to do the thing that makes the next thing happen. It is in all that we trap ourselves in the mundane.

UPDATE 26th April 2016

Liminal Thinking in Cardiff

I attended Dave Gray’s Liminal Thinking workshop at the Cardiff School of Art and Design on Saturday 24th April. He has a new book on the subject out from Rosenfeld Media.

It was an excellent day mixing ideas and new practice.

I used the day to try and think more about Transcendent Design.

The moment of meaning making in between perception and action still seems crucial. In particular, the orientation moment. The rooting of perception to place and time to enable action.

Human meaning making can be like those old images of a car driver holding up a paper map and turning it round and round trying to orient themself to the journey they are trying to make.

The mind is repeatedly making maps, making patterns, out of sensory experiences and then trying to match those images to the memory and experiences of previous situations.

People try to make the familar out of the novel.

This meaning making is human but there is a related bias.

The bias to decide. The belief that you must act, you must make or do.

I think that this bias is what traps us and diverts us from transcendent user experience.

I was thinking about this at the workshop as I sat with others making thought objects out of craft materials.

Thought object made at Liminal Thinking workshop

Disorientation and new journeys

To finish this update: perhaps transcendent design needs firstly to look closely at the orientation moment and how it can be used either to have content that is impossible to orient with or, secondly, to imagine ways of making a new journey that is not about the decision to act or to make.

The opportunity to be more may be in the design of moments of disorientation and indecision.

Update 25th October 2016

Awe — how vastness is accommodated

This update is to add a few diagrams and sketches from reading on awe and transcendence.

I have been invited to give a talk on this subject at Camp Digital in Manchester next May so I have been looking at some more detailed research.

What is interesting to me here is the flexing of sizes. An almost Alice In Wonderland sense of small and tall, vulnerable and strong, in new places that fill a person with awe. Building on the orientation/disorientation idea of the last update, this is how the person finds themselves in a new strange land and finds meaning.

How a person changes scale as they travel between new and unfamiliar places

Having moved, through disorientation, into this adjacent experience the person is awed by the vastness but also creates meaning and accommodates the strangeness.

This mapping and pattern making is natural to humans but, in transcendent use experience terms, it is not merely about individual meaning but also social connection. The small/tall-vulnerable/strong idea is a way of becoming more aware of the importance of society. The realization of something greater than the individual is also a realization of how more connection matters.

I will update again as I read more and think about the structure of the talk.

Update 30/12/2016

Structuring a talk

I’ve been thinking about the structure of my CampDigital talk in May.

I’m using a fairly standard 3 Act form and introducing each section with a story of an experience from my life.

The pictures above are more about note taking for myself than anything that will be meaningful to you, dear reader, now.

Have a Happy New Year and look forward to 2017.

I’ll update this blog nearer to the event.

Update 16th February 2017


I was at the IXDA’s Interaction17 conference last week to run a workshop on Indigenous Research techniques and usability.

Whilst I was there, I was able to hear a number of great talks on design and have some chats with interesting people.

In terms of Transcendent User Experience design, I was writing down the flow of my CampDigital talk and trying to identity the fewest words I can use to describe it. That flow is shown in the photo above.

I think I will need to explain about 5 – 10 words.


One thing that did come up in a curated talk at Interaction17 is discussion of magical design.

This photo shows Nathan Moody talking about the installations he has created in different physical spaces.

Magical design as a concept worries me.

  • Magic isn’t real
  • Magic is always a trick
  • Magical design is founded on a lie

That’s not good person-centred design.

I think Nathan Moody’s point about “creating magicians, not magic” is better in that agency remains with the person. It is a trick but it is their trick.

Still, when talking of transcendent user experience I will be avoiding talking of magic. It takes people down a design route idea that is not helpful for most people.


I did have a long chat about Jewish theology at the speaker’s dinner event of Interaction17.

That was very helpful as I know very little of the core tenets of Judaism and how they differ from Christianity.

It was helpful because of the way in which a person’s experience of life is contextualised as a person in their relationship to community and as a person in their relationship to God. This is true of many spiritual practices but there are always differences that highlight other ways of being.

Transcendent experience design is about the fullest expression of being as a human so it is in these discussions that more meaning and ways of structuring experiences can be explored.

CampDigital 2017

CampDigital has updated the conference website with full text on talks and workshops.

Above is the blurb for my talk. Below is the blurb for Elizabeth Buie’s workshop that I’m helping out at.

Do come along. The conference website is here.

Update 12th April 2017

From Flow to Transcendent

I’ve been reading Stealing Fire lately. It’s a very good book on hedonic experience design.

I just sketched the above picture as I need to think about a gap between the ideas of Flow and Transcendent experience design.

Flow seems a popular idea – timeless, selfless extended moments of creativity and capability.

Yet, that concerns me. It is skill-based. Use-centered.

Transcendent experience design is beyond that.

It does not require skill. It does demand personal creativity. It is personal but it needs only your sense of patterns of artefacts in time and place.

Both require the person in the place at the time.

Both require artefacts (things, drugs, art, etc).

However, skill and capacity are not the same.

Even agency is not the same.

I had a transcendent experience, thru Rothko’s Seagram Room, without any intention. I merely walked into the room (tho I had chosen to be in an art gallery that day).

Flow – the area bounded by the blue circle – is one thing.

Transcendent – the yellow line that fades into the night sky – is another.

There is a space between them.

That is the design space I’m interested in.

The above diagram is not correct but may be useful in trying to separate the tool use and artefact experience difference. The diagram would be better if it recognised that Hedonic Design is an overarching concept that links both Flow and Transcendent experiences.



Sensory Design Consultant, usability researcher and workshop facilitator. Twitter @acuity_design & @visceralUX

Love podcasts or audiobooks? Learn on the go with our new app.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store