Having recently been privileged enough to slow down, put some of my professional activities on hold for a while, and reflect upon them, I came to this question: during the last 15 years of my professional life, what have been the most nourishing and life-changing experiences? What has impacted and profoundly influenced me - not only at the time, but up until now? What has really mattered most?
I think there are, so far, two moments that have really been decisive, each one distinctive but what connects them together is the desire to accompany people on their journey towards developing their creativity.
1. The first experience was a workshop I invented with my brother, the designer Thomas Dariel, in partnership with a German social enterprise based in China, in order to "Design in the Dark". It was about exploring an intuition I had had about the future of design and creating provocative conditions for innovation with a multi-disciplinary and international group of people; sensory deprivation as a path to personal creativity.
2. The second experience was "The Breathing Hour" I organised, set up and facilitated every Friday at my brother's design studio in Shanghai (Dariel Studio). It was about accompanying young adults individually in their creative journey and developing their awareness and confidence in their own emotions and creativity. I'll come back to this experience in another article.
1. The "Design in the Dark" idea came up in February 2012 during an inspiring discussion with Declan O'Carroll, the then head of Arup Associates, now Architecture Practice Director at Atkins. Declan is a natural thought leader, always enthusiastic about breaking the rules to push boundaries, explore new territories and bring people from different disciplines together to shape new visions. At the time, I had just read Peter Zumthor's poetic lecture "Atmospheres" and I was very interested in some architects' attempts and difficulties to talk about emotions, to embrace irrationality - what Zumthor calls "the Magic of the Real", and to involve life scientists and psychologists in urban design, particularly in China. So I decided that one of the cross-disciplinary design workshops the Design Lab I was running would be about emotional and sensory responses. With our partners from ACCOR, Philips, Somfy, Arup and from Tongji University, Shanghai Normal University and the Sleep Lab of Hong Kong University, we decided to focus the next workshop on the design of the hotel bedroom of the future under the prism "Sensory Delight".
Few weeks later, my dear friend Richard Hsu, one of China's most visionary minds (and a heart of oak) and who among other activities has brought TED talks to China, introduced me to Shiyin Caï, the then CEO of the German social enterprise Dialogue in the Dark (DID) in China. DID seeks to raise awareness of the challenges faced by people with no sight or partially sighted and in order to do so, they organise workshops in complete darkness for companies willing to improve internal communication for instance, and these workshops are facilitated by trainers who are blind.
I thought a design workshop in the dark would be an incredible challenge for architects and designers as they would have to place the focus not on the aesthetic aspect of things, but on their sensory and sensitive experience of place.
Not on what they could see, but on what they could feel.
Not on the vision but on the sensation and the emotion.
My brother Thomas and everybody agreed it was a great idea even though nobody could actually 'see' what I meant exactly by "designing" in the dark.
Using the DID's methodology, I created an experience that required our 40 participants (mainly professional architects, engineers, designers, design students and psychologists) to enter, holding hands, a completely dark room, divide into 5 groups of 8 people and, sitting at round tables, design together, without seeing anything, a hotel bedroom.
With skilled facilitation by my team (brilliant students from NYU) and DID's blind trainers, and thanks to a creative partnership with a French perfumer (Mane), a Chinese material library and a German soundscape artist, the 5 groups assembled at each table were invited to open their senses and explore some unusual dimensions of space; smell, touch and hearing.
They were given scents, material samples and had to listen to several bespoke soundscapes. Then they were asked to share with each other the images, colours, imaginary landscapes triggered by the sensory samples. Based on their impressions and feelings, each group had to choose the samples they wanted to work with and had to work creatively together to develop a design concept for the hotel bedroom.
They first realised that even in complete darkness, they could actually 'see' things, therefore a space was not only a visual design.
The darkness allowed them to express themselves with more confidence. Darkness gave them space. Darkness created safety. Safety allowed individuals to express feelings, mental images, reminiscences, sensations, fears...
After few minutes of physical adaptation in the dark, people loved being given the opportunity to reconnect with their senses, other than sight. They had to hold hands to walk to their seats and join their assigned group, or touch each other when they had to pass the scents and material samples around the table, which was very unusual but it created a genuine feeling of connection, contact and solidarity.
Besides, many of the restrictions of culture and hierarchy (particularly strong in China) were forgotten as people were talking more freely and with respect and attention, one after the other.
Not in front of others, but with others.
The sensory deprivation acted as a gateway for open engagement and communication. Everybody was enriched by the experience and the 40 participants with no exception said it was definitely their most powerful professional experience.
On a personal level, it was the first time I combined design thinking and coaching of people's creative potential, with a very big (and thrilling) part of unknown and uncertainty.
And it makes me embrace uncertainty with so much more serenity in the workshops I have facilitated since then. Wasn't it the whole point actually?
It was also a successful team work and cross-disciplinary collaboration between our lab, the DID team, universities & students, designers, psychologists, sponsors, and external guests like perfumer Benjamin Bellizon or sound artist Olaf Hochherz.
At the core of this success was one essential thing that connected everyone: trust. And I am still so grateful.
PS: Tony Llewellyn was kind enough to mention this workshop in his book: "Performance Coaching for Complex Projects; Influencing Behaviour and Enabling Change"