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What designers can learn from Burning Man

Burning Man

Upon departure to a week of dancing, meditating, bike riding, art project exploring and big dreaming in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, I wrote a cheeky little e-mail to my office.

Email to my colleagues about Burning Man

They all knew I was taking my first trip to the Playa, but still, I sent out this courtesy note. “Team, I’ll be out of the office next week without access to the internet,” I wrote. I gave myself the permission to divorce from communication mediated by technology. I spent the week having collocated interactions with people. I had human-to-human conversations that over flowed with emergent ideas and were loaded with implications from body language.

“I’ll be in Black Rock City, Nevada” I said, which for a week is actually Nevada’s 4th largest city and otherwise non-existent. For 7 days, 50,000 people gave gifts of music, food, teachings, photos and so much more.

I was given so much in Black Rock City. My bike pedal broke twice while on the Playa. The city is too big and the weather is too extreme to commute by foot. I found a bike-expert in our village of 170 people. He found a piece of wood and told me to search neighboring camps for a saw. I kid you not, he prototyped a peg-leg wooden bike pedal for me. And within and hour, my new friend, with his big heart, gave me the city back.

Burning Man

I’m “doing participatory, ethnographic research” I continued to my teammates. I immersed myself in an environment that was beyond foreign to me. I was living in a sci-fi novel. Yet, people repeatedly said, “wow, you’re really in your element here.” Socially, geographically, culturally, economically, I had a new lifestyle. As someone who studies people, their desires, their wants, the emotions, their motivations, there was so much to learn here. In my life of international travel, I have consistently found humans to be relatively the same all over the world, in the most beautiful way. Stripped down we share our qualities that make us human, our desires, our challenges, our drives. So here, at Burning Man, were people any different? What do we do when the societal rules change?

Other Worldly Take away money, take away time, take away digital devices, are we the same? Pretty much.

I cooked for my camp each night. I started cooking dinner when the sun was a few inches from the peaks of the mountains. The camp knew when the sun goes down, dinner is ready. There was no 15 minutes late, time was about light.

We had some friends who camped about a mile away. In the afternoon we asked if they wanted to hang out at night.

‘Sure. just come by later. I don’t know what we’ll be up to.’ So sure enough we suited up with headlamps and coats. It was like an after-dinner ritual. We tricked out our bikes with El-wire trimmed wheels and loops of glowsticks on our handlebars. There are no streetlamps in the dessert, so we, ourselves need to be illuminated. There are thousands of commuters and yet not many bike crashes. People take care. Culturally, it’s understood to keep yourself lit as a method of identity and expression but also as a way to be visible and safe.

Burning Man

So, we rode over to our friends’ camp and, after all that, they weren’t there. We kept riding, it was no big deal. It was like the 90s. There was no follow up game of sms ping-pong or trying form a tweet-up. We just kept riding. We found something new to do and you know what? It was so fine.

So I told my colleagues, I’m doing research on “urban development.” Before campers arrive and after they leave, Black Rock City it’s an empty desert. Everything there is intentional, something that is there is because someone has brought there, it’s designed. Nothing remains from last year except the dust.

How would people build a functioning city in a week? What does a new city look like? It has bike repair pros, spas and brunch spots and a census. I worked in the post office and our neighborhood bar. If we could build a city and roads and culture and economy, just for a week, what’s a better way to do it than the way it is where we live? And every year Burning Man must be different because every year, the people change.

Burning Man

“User experience,” is something I listed I was researching. I thought a lot about what I read in grad school by Plato, by Dewey, by McCarthy & Wright, by Russon and their philosophies of experience. Burning Man helped me meditate on the Sensual, Emotional, Compositional and Spatio-Temporal 4 threads of experience. These are the same threads that weave into our every day lives but are center but at Burning Man are imposed front and centered. We’re faced with manufactured, designed art projects juxtaposed against the backdrop of the sun as our clock and the desert as the canvas. We have only one objective measure of time, then sun, and half way through the daily cycle, the sinks behind the mountains and without our anchor, the night is infinite.

If you were so lucky to dance all night in the dark, cold desert, you might have heard Lee Burridge play a siren songs to beckon the sun. And with the last drags of our tired feet, we turn our backs to the DJ, gaze to the horizon and see the edges of light peak above the Earth and the next day begins. There is no alarm clock.

Burning Man

“and human-computer interaction design.” was the last point I said I’d be researching. There we are, 50,000 people, doing whatever we love to do most, for a week, with our friends, some new, divorced from communication technology. And yet, in this natural, beautiful place we  are still immersed in a space with impressive light design, massive sound systems and volts of power thumping through generators to power the art and music projects.

Burning Man I got to see how else humans and computers can interact with each other. That being, humans and humans, computers and computers and humans with computers. We do it all with dust in boots and sweat on our brow. We have a lot left to learn about what we as people want and need and how we’re going to get it, if we ever do.

But having dropped myself in some places that are beyond other-worldly, I’ve learned how delicate our fleshy, vulnerable, skin and bones and hearts are. If we’re going to design chairs and phones and streets and clocks and code whatever else it is that we design, let’s give our work voice and human touch. Someone, some person, will be using it.

The Financial Times wrote an articulate piece about the village in which I stayed at Burning Man, The Chillage. You may enjoy April Dembosky’s article Turn off your phones, techies, welcome to Burning Man.

Nina Mehta is a writer and product design leader in Brooklyn, New York. She began her design career in journalism and has been writing online for 20+ years. Nina is from outside Chicago has since lived and worked in San Francisco, Berlin, London, and Tokyo. Learn about her work at ninamehta.com.

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