somatic research for design
how can somatic awareness support design theory and practice?
dear friends and readers,
this issue of the newsletter is entirely dedicated to one of the core questions that pushed me to start es_ design somatics: how can somatic awareness support design theory and practice?
Somatic movement practices can provide a solid ground for design research - this is at least what my experience has taught me so far. In the last couple of years I had the opportunity to be a supervisor/adviser for some graduation projects that used this approach; with this newsletter I'd like to give voice to the people who made them.
“soma, space, action”
I asked a couple of questions to Mariachiara De Leo about “Soma, Spazio, Azione”, her graduation project for the MA in Graphic Design for publishing at ISIA Urbino in 2020.
Can you briefly describe the subject of your MA degree project?
Of course! My MA degree project is about our body as an understanding tool of places and our bond with them. I tried to represent the body and the place in this relationship of mutual determination. I experienced my own body as a tool for the design process, by engaging in somatic and aesthetic excursions in the wild, and by walking and exercising active perception. I produced a series of maps representing the body and the walked space in a specific time and psycho-physical conditions. I’m from south Italy so I chose to immerse myself in a national park near my home, the Alta Murgia.
How did you use somatic movement as a research tool in this project, and which kind of knowledge does it offer from your point of view?
Since somatic movements focus on perceiving the body from within, I practised it as a probe to comprehend how the sensations that I was experiencing would change with time, as I walked through places. I included the place in the somatic process composed of body and movement. I was able to grasp how my body was responding to the inputs of the place I was walking. Moving and sensing are a form of learning, this means that during those excursions in wild fields I was in the process of learning and discovering the place…through my body!
Andrea Olsen would describe my research better, she said that our body is composed of the earth, the water, the food and the air of a specific place, therefore movement is the most essential tool to understand how body and place are intertwined with each other.
But I had to exercise before diving into these experiences, small dance and contact improv. really came to my help, unlocking a whole new world for my body. I needed it to be a measure of time, space and itself. The somatic movement exercise prepared me to be a blank canvas, ready to be receptive to myself from within and outside. During my exploration of nature, I gathered so much information like, for example, how every limb was feeling, if the pain was collected in a specific part of my body, or how the perception of gravity would change after hours of walking. Every time I stopped for a little break, I would repeatedly make sure to pay attention to the place's characteristics: were there any predominant smells? How was the floor and how affected my walking? Did I get fatigued easily because of that? Or, I started this walk not feeling very motivated, how did my mind change?
I would ask myself questions like these. Turns out, that noticing how body, movement, mind and place determine the perception of each other, really gets you on another level of understanding and awareness.
My interest in this subject sprouted out of the necessity of interpreting how I was navigating the world, I was curious to understand how I was experiencing my reality and all the places I was crossing. Was I aware of how my beliefs, my mood, etc. were shaping rooms, homes, the perceptions about physical and social places? Was I aware of how much the place (both natural and human build) was affecting my beliefs, my mentality, my way of living, if I felt at ease or if I felt unsafe.
I guess the core of this is we frequently forget we are living, shaping and experiencing the world with our minds, our eyes but also with our bodies. Our body, the variety of our gestures and movements are involved (or forgotten, when talking about accessibility) when creating artefacts or when designing homes, cities and technologies and so on. In fact, we have been able to create another reality that takes place in a non-material dimension! It might not even seem immediate, but bodies and virtual reality are connected as well! Let's think about how we access technology, and how visual communication is expanding on platforms where we can make use of interactive experiences that involve body gestures, to produce engagement with a product.
As people and as designers it is critically important to comprehend things also from this perspective. It can encourage us to design better and to stay actively connected with what surrounds us, without losing our perception of what's happening and avoiding remaining just a passerby. Emotions are very much involved in these connections and relationship processes: somatic movement can also help us to better embody other people and be more empathetic, making us better designers.
This is the kind of knowledge that somatic movements bring, and I think it is somewhat archaic and primitive, and at the same time very meditative.
Supervising Mariachiara’s project was an important experience to me; I realised that sometimes you just need to give a limited input and be there to see how things develop over time. Mariachiara wes very open to observe what was emerging from her experiences and to adjust her project to this new knowledge.
I will share in the future the results of other projects using somatics as a research tool. Let me know what you think about this thread at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Till (quite) soon,
es design somatics was initiated by Silvia Sfligiotti. You can receive updates on the project through this newsletter and es design somatics’ instagram profile.