Why we need more somatic
culture in design

Silvia Sfligiotti
21 min readOct 1, 2021
An image taken during the second “es_ design somatics” workshops, 2018. Photo by Gianpaolo Contestabile

Abstract| Drawing from multi-disciplinary literature, this paper argues why somatic culture is essential to designers and can promote a radical change in the way we respond to contemporary challenges. Somatics is “the field which studies the soma: namely the body as perceived from within by first-person perception”. Somatic practice can influence design on several levels. It can shift our focus from a “neutral” point of view to a situated one; prepare us for intersubjectivity; help us develop relational and empathic skills that contemporary designers should be equipped with; and enhance our perceptual skills to widen the knowledge of ourselves and our environment. Finally, in a field where professional uncertainty is ever increasing, it can give us tools to counteract its negative side effects. A turn towards somatic culture in design practice and educational approaches can therefore be an appropriate answer to the complexities that design is encountering.

Introduction

Confronted with the continuous evolution of the social, economic and technological contexts in which it operates, design is a practice in constant redefinition. Studies and reports strive to establish new areas and required skills (AIGA Designer 2025) while designers and institutions struggle to keep cognizant and up to date. Hasty curriculum innovations run the risk of only providing buzzwords and superficial answers; expectations towards design and its ability to bring solutions to complex problems are increasing; new solution-oriented design practices are emerging but at the same time are being criticized for having a weak and reductive culture (Manzini 2016). So how can designers prepare themselves for the inevitable changes to come?

In this paper I will argue that somatic culture can provide a foundation to a new design culture and can also promote radical change in practice and education.

Somatics: a definition

Somatics was defined by philosopher and movement therapist Thomas Hanna as “the field which studies the soma: namely the body as perceived from within by first-person perception” (Hanna 1986, p. 341) as opposed to the third-person perception prevailing in science. Somatic learning relies on the ability of thesomato sense actively and regulate itself: through focused awareness it allows us to learn the unlearned (Hanna 1986). This term now includes many different methods and practices, ranging from Feldenkrais Method and Alexander Technique to dance forms such as Contact Improvisation, which all share the intent of bringing individuals to a higher awareness of themselves and their environment through conscious movement experiences. According to Hanna, “somatic learning (…) expands the human soma’s range of action as well as perception” and “the more [that] is learned in this manner, the greater the range of voluntary consciousness for the constant task of adaptation with the environment” (Hanna 1986, p.351).

The purpose of this paper is to underline the (self)-educational relevance of somatic practices, which are always grounded in experience, which aim at awareness and integration, and which can provide a rich and fertile terrain for the development of design practice.

Contemporary design culture and human experience

The international design community is trying to address the changing scenarios affecting it by way of discussion and debate, most often through the forms of scholarly conferences, papers and reports. One such example is AIGA’s Designer 2025 report, which proposes seven trends that should inform the evolution of design and its education in the medium term, listing what college students and educational institutions should do to respond to each of these expectations (AIGA Designer 2025).

Design is a collaborative practice and requires practitioners to be receptive towards people, behaviours, environments, materials, and much more. Any kind of design, even at the smallest scale, requires interaction with a number of “others” — be they institutions, clients, regulators, collaborators, experts, producers, publishers, distributors, etc. — along with the great number of other people who, in many design projects, are still placed at the receiving end of the process: users, citizens, audiences, consumers, participants are only some of the different names designers use, according to their culture, to define the people they design “for”, or sometimes “with” and, unfortunately, even “against” (Sfligiotti 2011).

Many methods have been developed over time to interact with and account for this “receiving end”. As a result, essential words originally used to define human life and relationships, such as empathy, experience, collaboration, sharing, have been co-opted into the design vocabulary with a purely functional — if not perfunctory — intention. For instance, in design thinking methods (as if anything such as a unique way of thinking shared by all designers actually existed), a designer is usually asked to “empathize” with someone as a required step in the process of delivering a new or better product or service to that individual or entity. In order to develop this empathy, activities are suggested such as conducting interviews with users and visiting their living environments (IDEO 2015). This approach, however, seems to take it for granted that a designer who uses specific methods, will automatically be able to empathize with others — indeed a questionable assumption. As discussed by Devecchi and Guerrini, the heart of the issue depends on what we mean by “empathy”. We can see it as a tool for “understanding others’ experiences and emotions”, or we can give it a deeper meaning as an intersubjective experience, as “the skill to be (…) really involved in the face-to-face encounter with a concrete Other, acquainting and accepting his/her otherness”; in short, from empathy as a tool to empathy as an end in itself, as a response to a widespread need for meaning, dialogue and sociability (Devecchi & Guerrini 2017, p. S4361–2).

Several authors agree that these empathic skills can be developed through somatic practices. Albright (2019) believes that we can “learn how to engage with one another in the face of (rather than in the absence of) difference” (p.15), and Höök (2018) claims that somatics “connects the self (…) with empathic engagement with others” (p. XVIII).

Methods and processes

Designers and design institutions rely on methods to improve their effectiveness, to claim authority over their field of practice, to gain credibility, and to promote their brands. Design methods are usually presented as procedures, with steps to be undertaken in order to find a solution to a given problem: their description seldom takes failure into consideration.

Whatever method we adopt, however, needs to be supported by our capacity to see its limits, to adapt it, and to consider each situation at hand whilst engaging with it and acting within it, without being blinded by assumptions and preconceptions (which are usually a side effect of methods learnt top-down in abstract environments). As dancer and scholar Ann Cooper Albright (2019) points out, “practice is a way of committing oneself to being present in a situation, no matter what the outcome. In this sense, it is always an act of improvisation” (p. 5).

This requires abandoning the idea that design should always be fast and deliver predictable outcomes. In order to develop an open and receptive attitude, designers can use somatic practice to reach a state that — borrowing a title from psycho-somatic therapist and educator Thea Rytz (2009) — could be described as “centred and connected”, where they can “attune their awareness toward themselves, others, and their environment” (p. 15) and learn to be responsive instead of reactive.

It also implies allowing more time for the process: only over time can relationships be established, situations understood, and proposals organically developed without recurring to default, standardised “solutions”. This slowing down might prove itself revolutionary because it requires a radical change of attitude over the whole spectrum, and it is surely something worth investing effort in.

The privilege of partial perspective”

The way we conceptualize knowledge and practice shapes the way we design. For instance, while the notion that design should be impersonal, objective and neutral was central to the development of Western Modernism, ever since the late 1960s the notion has been seriously questioned. To quote feminist designer and educator Sheila Levrant de Bretteville, “‘Designed’ has almost come to mean exclusive, universal, clear and simple, rather than inclusive, personal, ambiguous and complex” (De Bretteville 1974, p.115). I propose adding two adjectives to the discourse, “situated” and “intersubjective”, which I believe can contribute to a more articulated account of design.

In 1988 feminist scientist and philosopher Donna Haraway introduced the term “situated knowledges” in an attempt to contribute a new perspective to the debate on scientific objectivity. As she argued, knowledge is never separated from its subject and location, and only by embracing our situated, partial point of view can we make rational, responsible, objective claims: “the view from a body, always a complex, contradictory, structuring and structured body, versus the view from above, from nowhere, from simplicity” (Haraway 1988, p.589). This perspective seems to resonate with Hanna’s viewpoint when he states that “the soma has a dual talent: it can sense its own individual function via first-person perception, and it can sense external structures and objective situations via third-person perception” (Hanna 1986, p.346).

If we adopt this perspective, we are likely to recognize that it is impossible for our individual experience and (physical and ideological) position in the world not to shape the way we act as designers; thus, it helps us to eschew the perception of our opinion and ideology as neutral or absolute. At the same time, it allows us to acknowledge other people’s own “situatedness” and their multiplicity of experiences: that is, it prepares us to design with, and for, a plurality of human beings.

Intersubjectivity is a concept used in philosophy and psychology, defined as “the sharing of experiential content (e.g. feelings, perceptions, thoughts, meanings) among a plurality of subjects” (Zlatev et al. 2008, p. 2). It was used in design theory by Giovanni Anceschi in his discussion of Josef Albers’s teaching approach, which was based on guiding students through a shared observation and evaluation of effects: “the validity of the results is based on a method of acquisition and judgement that is neither objective nor subjective, it is an intersubjective approach” (Anceschi 2010, pp. 45–46).

Somatic practice can facilitate situated and intersubjective attitudes; Höök, for instance, emphasizes how “focusing on our own soma is a preparation for intersubjectivity” (Höök 2018, p. 147).

Movement, knowledge and learning

The fact that forms of tacit knowledge acquired through movement and perception exist in addition to discursive, language- and mind-based knowledge has been part of philosophical and psychological debates for several centuries, just as it has been a principal concern in art and design education. Architecture historian Zeynep Çelik Alexander (2017) coined the term “kinaesthetic knowing” to identify an idea of embodied, experiential knowledge developed over the course of the 19th century and within a German lineage of educational-reform to which the foundations of the Bauhaus can in part be traced.

Introducing somatics in design culture is a way to acknowledge the relevance of this tacit knowledge in learning and in the design process. Moshe Feldenkrais, the founder of the somatic method of the same name, described a “learning in which quantity grows and turns to a new quality, and not the mere accumulation of knowledge”. He affirmed that “most truly important things are learned this way”, referring to all our essential human abilities (Feldenkrais 1977, p. 7).

Furthermore, somatic practices provide us with unique information coming from proprioception (Hanna 1986). According to psychologist James L. Gibson (1968), proprioception “considered as the obtaining of information about one’s own action” does not depend on specialized receptors (p. 34) but is the result of combined (muscular, articular, vestibular, cutaneous, auditory, visual) information. This ecological view goes beyond the traditional idea of the senses working separately in a specialized way and can help us transcend the primacy of the visual that tends to guide many design choices.

Movement and perception at the Bauhaus

The belief that breathing and movement exercises should be an essential part of a designer’s education was a defining feature of the early Bauhaus.

This belief did not emerge in a vacuum, but related to ideas that had developed previously in Germany — such as those promoted by German education reformers in the 19thcentury (Alexander 2017) and by the Lebensreform movement, which became newly relevant in the wake of the First world war (Ackerman 2019, Wick 2019) — and was parallel to other utopian projects from the same period, such as the Loheland and Schwarzerden women’s communes (Neugärtner 2019). These examples, however different from each other, all shared the conviction that the body was central to the development of a new idea of humanity and society.

In the early Weimar period, Johannes Itten in the Vorkurs and Gertrud Grunow in the Harmonisierungslehre proposed breathing and movement exercises to improve psychical and physical capabilities, to activate artistic expression and to achieve a “spiritual enhancement of the body” (Burchert 2019). Both teachers, even if they relied on different theories, saw regulated, rhythmic physical activity as a remedy to the negative effects of modern life, and as a way to find balance and achieve individual development. Inspired by Mazdaznan philosophy, Itten put an emphasis on the three human spheres of body, spirit and intellect (Burchert 2019); thus bodily care and practice were essential as a means to a higher goal, to develop “the human being as a physical, mental and spiritual entity” (Wick 2019).

In 1923, with the arrival of László Moholy-Nagy — who along with Lucia Moholy had already visited the Loheland and Schwarzerden communes — his organic, integrated view of senses and human experience was introduced at the Vorkurs.

Moholy-Nagy embraced modernity and technology, but believed that — in order to fully participate in modern life — human beings need to develop an “organic confidence” before approaching specialized education; his belief was that “each human being is gifted” and has the capacity to “participate in all the joys of sensory experiences” (Moholy-Nagy 1929, p. 11). He rejected, as the Futurists before him, the traditional distinction of the five senses (Botar 2014). His exercises addressed visual, spatial, equilibrium and especially tactile explorations (Wick 2019) with an experimental, comparative, rational approach (Alexander 2017). However, these Grundlerlebnisse (elementary experiences) were not aimed at achieving a direct design outcome because “not the object but the human being is the purpose” (Moholy-Nagy 1929, p. 14).

Even if these early examples of the centrality of the body in design education cannot be considered “somatic” the way we intend it here, Moholy-Nagy’s idea of “organic confidence” strongly resonates with the integrated awareness that can be fostered through somatic practices; they also remind us that any real change can only start from the ground up, by giving a new base to our learning and doing: this is in fact what the Bauhaus’ Vorlehre – also known as Grundkurs – was about.

Training somatic skills for design

Interaction designer Kristina Höök (2018) discusses several aspects of the connection between somatics and design: in her view, somatic practice can both lay the ground for and be an essential part of design research processes. Even if the author’s research originates in the field of Interaction design, I am convinced that many of her theses and proposals can apply to all fields of design. While it is easier to establish a one-to-one correspondence between specific movement practices and their application to interaction design, in other design fields the relation between somatic training and its effects on design projects is less obvious; it can be found, as discussed above, mostly in a different attitude throughout the design process, and in the capacity to deeply relate to others and the environment, which in turn will affect the outcome of a project.

Höök draws on Richard Shusterman’s concept of Somaesthetics — “the critical, meliorative study of the experience and use of one’s body as a locus of sensory-aesthetic appreciation (aisthesis) and creative self-fashioning” (Shusterman 1999) — to invite designers to learn how to direct and deepen their own experiences and be thus able to use them as a source of information in the design process: “learning about your soma is a prerequisite to designing with it” (Höök 2018). The richer and more articulated the experiences we have are, the better we will be able to fully understand and respond to complex design situations.

Albright (2019) describes six states of being that can be experienced through somatic practice: falling, disorientation, suspension, gravity, resilience and connection; these can be seen as different ways to respond to contemporary conditions, such as social uncertainty, attention overload, digital hyper-connection, and disembodiment, which have consequences on the way we design. She also underlines “how perception is a learned behavior and how intentional practices can structure new ways of thinking” (p. 7).

Ways to defy the pressure to perform”

The contemporary design context gives us other reasons to turn to somatics for a new grounding. Many of the current narratives about design describe it in an idealistic way, as if it were always a successful process, where designers act as respected consultants providing effective solutions to like-minded clients. These narratives are often reinforced in design education, both in mainstream institutions educating the next generation of corporate designers and in niche schools catering to a smaller audience of independent practitioners.

Reality is often very different, and designers find themselves operating in the midst of complex power negotiations — where economic, political and social powers come inevitably into play in the decision-making process, adding to and interfering with the design process (as it is expected to be).Moreover, young designers often work in a precarious position (Design Census 2019), frequently as freelancers or interns, and feel forced to adapt to a self-promotional attitude, moulded on a success- and performance-driven narrative which — even when harshly criticized (Verwoert 2008, Elzenbaumer & Franz 2015) — still dominates the conversation.

In his aptly titled article Exhaustion & Exuberance. Ways to defy the pressure to perform, contemporary art critic Jan Verwoert points out some of the contradictions that haunt the so-called creative professions: “In a high performance culture, we are the avant-garde but we are also the job-slaves” (Verwoert 2008, p. 90). It is essential to counteract the side effects of this unstable position and develop the capacity to stand one’s own ground; in order not to be continuously pushed off-centre designers need to find their own balance and autonomy: “(…) we then face a two-fold challenge: 1. to understand the conditions of our agency in order to enable us to define them according to our own terms; and 2. to imagine another logic of agency, an ethos, which could help us defy the social pressure to perform and eschew the promise of the regimented options of consumption.” (Verwoert 2008, p. 91).

These issues are not entirely new. Moholy-Nagy (1929) expressed similar concerns: “Today’s creative human being knows (and suffers from it) that the deep values of life are being destroyed under external pressure (moneymaking, competition, business mentality)” (p.13). It was extremely clear to him how this suffering was deeply connected to each person’s body, to the “exploitation of his vitality, from the flattening out of his instincts, from the levelling of his biological tensions”.

Somatic practitioners might easily agree with this idea: the body is the place where the problem is most strongly felt, and can therefore offer the path to overcome it, a way to find one’s own agency. Albright (2019), for instance, suggests embracing physical experiences of falling and disorientation as an opportunity to reorient ourselves and rethink our own assumptions. Hanna (1986) describes “somatic freedom” as “a state of autonomy” and “the optimal human state”. To me this means we can develop the capacity to respond to uncertainty without uncritically accepting the conditions that cause it.

Somatics in design research and education today

In and outside academia, there are a number of design research projects, courses and workshops that take a somatic or body-centred approach.

One remarkably articulated example is the Somaesthetic Design project that Kristina Höök and her team have been working on at the Royal Institute of Technology (KTH) in Stockholm. Their approach has led to the development of a prototyping and testing method, a teaching curriculum (Tsaknaki et al. 2019) and several interactive design projects, such as Soma Mat, Breathing Light and Sarka (Höök 2018).In spring 2019 I had the opportunity to participate in one of their workshops in Milan. Before and after a session guided by Elisa Ghion, a Contact improvisation teacher, we were asked to record our bodily sensations on specially made “body sheets”; we were then asked to engage in the testing of several interactive prototypes. The heightened awareness achieved through the initialsession allowed us to give a detailed feedback on the quality of interactions, and the shared experience facilitated the exchange of ideas. This way of working also provides a valuable common ground for teamwork, which is key to all design work.

Other cases, just to mention a few examples in Europe, are Riccardo Blumer’s courses at the Accademia di Architettura in Mendrisio, Switzerland, where students practice specific body movements to prepare themselves to design objects around them (Seratoni 2017); Lotte van Gelder’s teaching in several departments of the Gerrit Rietveld Academie, which includes group movement sessions and individual project work (van Gelder 2016); Emma Hoette’s courses at Goldsmiths and other universities; and Amanda Montanari’s “From body consciousness to design praxis” at the Design Academy Eindhoven.

An analysis of such cases would call for separate research and discussion; nevertheless, these are signals of a growing interest in the centrality of the body in design research and education that cannot be easily dismissed.

My position and experience

I myself have been practising as a designer since I was in my early 20s, and I began teaching just a few years later. This early start made my approach dogmatic at first: I tended to rely on established rules that could give me “authority” towards clients, colleagues and students. In my thirties I started a regular dance practice (Release technique and later Contact improvisation) and more recently began practicing the Feldenkrais method.

At first, I thought these activities were only addressed at personal well-being, while designing and teaching were something I did with and for others. Over time, though, the information I acquired through somatic experiences ended up influencing my daily life, my professional activities and my teaching. Once I acknowledged this, I started creating open and informal spaces for movement in my teaching and developing research workshops (outside the academic context) to test somatic activities that addressed design-related themes such as perception of space, relation with others, and collaboration in a group. These experiments, carried out in 2018 and 2019 and now collected under the name es_ design somatics, have provided me with many useful insights that I can use in my teaching and research thanks to the participation of a supportive group of artists and designers.

Somatic practice can also bring visible changes in teaching attitudes, modifying the quality of interactions with students; in my experience it has caused a move away from typical educational settings and hierarchical roles, a clearer positioning and expression of my views, and a greater openness towards the possible outcomes of the projects I propose.

I must admit I feel slightly awkward discussing somatic subjects in the form of an academic paper; without direct experience many of the statements made here may sound abstract. However, I decided to take up this challenge anyway, in an effort to add my contribution to the existing attempts at including these issues in academic discussion.

Proposals and conclusion

Since most educational institutions tend not to be open to radical change, especially to the kind of innovation discussed here, I invite whoever is interested, students or educators, to pursue this field of inquiry independently and informally. Several somatic disciplines, after initial training, can be practiced in self-organized research groups or labs, where participants work together experimenting, developing and discussing “materials” around commonly chosen subjects. The presence of students and educators who adopt a somatic culture and practice will inevitably — albeit indirectly — bring change to the institution itself. Therefore, I believe a somatic turn should not be an individual endeavour but a collective one, going beyond personal well-being to aim at making a wider and deeper impact. As Martha Eddy described in writing about “Social Somatics” (Eddy 2017), this process can have substantial social and political implications: its potential is explored, for instance, in the practice of Generative Somatics, an activist organisation using a soma-grounded approach to social change and trauma healing. In their view, “a politicized somatic theory understands the need for deep personal transformation, aligned with liberatory community/collective practices, connected to transformative systemic change. (…) A politicized somatics can act as a fundamental collective practice of building power, deepening presence and capacity, and developing the embodied skills we need to generate large‐scale change” (Generative Somatics 2014). A political perspective on somatics is gaining relevance in the face of the growing attention to racism and other forms of systemic oppression: its use in the context of design is worth further research and discussion.

A somatic attitude based on self- and collective care can be applied in everyday life. Simple questions such as “How do I feel today?”, “What do I need?”, “What happens around me?” and “What does this situation require?” can activate a conscious and sensitive attitude towards any activity to be undertaken during the course of a day. Allowing time for the observation of ourselves, for recognizing the repetitive patterns we often fall into and imagining alternative ones, for connecting to the needs and desires of the people we interact with, are just a few examples of what can be achieved through practice and what can have a positive impact on our learning and doing.

I would like to conclude with the words of Anna Halprin — ground-breaking dancer, choreographer and educator — as quoted in an article on the pioneers of postmodern dance: “Halprin, who early on saw dance as a social corrective and pathway to personal healing, creating community-based work (…) is also attuned to the more minor injustices of modern life. ‘That one’s a graphic designer,’ she said to me of one of the students in her California studio. ‘When else does he get a chance to connect to his spirit? He doesn’t’” (Guadagnino 2019).

It is now up to us to create space for these possibilities to happen.

Postscript

This paper was written and delivered to the Cumulus platform in February 2020, immediately before the first Covid-19 pandemic outbreak in Europe, and the notification of acceptance came in Autumn, at the beginning of a second wave. As with many other aspects of our lives, our habits and practices in both education and the professional world were disrupted. The international community is still working to figure out better methods for communicating and collaborating in the new conditions, and although these collective efforts have successfully supported professional and educational activities, our daily life experiences have lost breadth and depth, and our perceptual reality has been further limited; most of all, many people have undergone traumatic experiences. The current situation makes a somatic approach even more necessary; when being physically close to each other is not possible, adjustments and new strategies will be required. However, there is still a wide space to be explored, with new motivations adding to the pre-existing ones: through somatics, we can find other ways to achieve presence and closeness, and to preserve intersubjectivity.

Acknowledgements: This paper and the research behind it owe much gratitude and thanks to a group of people who shared their ideas and practices with me and who supported my research with their presence and advice: Barbara Boiocchi, Claudia Broggi, Alice Devecchi, Elisa Ghion, Emma Hoette, Amanda Montanari, Norbert Schatz. I am also deeply indebted to Giovanni Anceschi for his groundbreaking work towards a somatic turn in design theory.

The text was originally published in Design Culture(s). Cumulus Conference Proceedings Roma 2021, Volume #2, edited by Loredana Di Lucchio, Lorenzo Imbesi, Angela Giambattista, Viktor Malakuczi.

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Silvia Sfligiotti

Works in visual communication as graphic designer, educator, independent researcher and critic. https://silviasfligiotti.it