Ritual Design – A New Perspective or Sacrilege?

“We needed a fresh approach, all our clients already know service design and how to use the tools”, starts anthropologist and service designer Veera Suomalainen her talk at October’s IxDA Helsinki meetup.

My first thought was what?! Every time I tell people that I study service design, I have to explain them what it means. I guess the clients of Suomalainen’s Exove are more enlightened.

As Suomalainen’s background is in anthropology, she got the idea to look at rituals and how they could be used in service design. Rituals are repetitive actions with a greater goal and bigger meaning than just the function. Examples of rituals are rites of passage such as the Finnish military service or penkkarit.


Veera Suomalainen explaining rites of passage.

When a person is performing a rite of passage they are in a liminal space, not here but not yet there. This liminality garners great fellowship with others in the same position. Liminality can be found in non-places such as airports or shopping malls as they do not have rich meanings.

In her work Suomalainen has delved more into airports. Airports are often in the middle of nowhere, they have an artificial culture and they look the same everywhere. Often airports have personal meanings for people. One such ritual can be found at the Oak Barrel pub at Helsinki airport. Most Finnish people know the pub, it has been at the airport for years and it is a common ritual to go and have a pint at the Oak Barrel before taking off. The ritual is then shared with others on social media.


Brussels Airport © Jérôme / Creative Commons

There are great possibilities for ritual design in liminal spaces such as airports. Rituals can be turned into services three different ways. Firstly people’s behaviour can be changed through making new rituals. An example of this is the Finnish Restaurant Day. A new ritual was created where nothing was before.

Another way of creating services around rituals is ritualizing common occurrences. An example of this is the unboxing fad online. People buy new products and record how they take the product out of the box.

A third way is to support existing rituals. An example of this is IDEO’s voting app for Los Angeles.

When starting ritual design according to Suomalainen it is important to first find the moments to create commitment for. After you have identified the moment, such as the time at the airport, you should spend time at the airport observing the rituals and understanding the culture. Keep your eyes open and see the ritualistic behaviour. Then you can start thinking about what kinds of services you could offer for the rituals.

While listening to Suomalainen’s examples I was not quite sure what to think. I understood the idea about liminal spaces and the potential for new services for them. But is it right to monetize rituals and rites of passage? Are rituals not something sacred? What do you think? Please share in the comments below.

The author Noora Penttinen is a journalist and a recent Service Design student who believes in creative chaos and thinks that best ideas appear at four in the morning.

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