An invitation to acknowledge death as part of our life and work
Designers are like everyone else: we’re in deep denial about death. Our fear of our own mortality is the foundation for many of our other fears, and it keeps us from being as present and whole as we’d like to be in our everyday lives.
Our company, The Action Mill, is a human-centered design firm focused on improving communication and decision-making about life, death and dying. As part of our work we talk with many people who deal with death and mortality more consistently than most people do: hospice nurses, chaplains and funeral home directors.
Our discussions with people working at the end of life helped us realize that our avoidance of death means that when we arrive at the moments in our life when we must face it, we are unprepared. We don’t know how to have the kinds of conversations that we need to when they are most urgent because we spend most of our lives avoiding this difficult terrain. If we hope to do better, we must become more familiar with the landscape where life and death overlap.
Our work with experts in death and dying lead to the design of our first product: My Gift of Grace, a conversation game for living and dying well. We also offer services to organizations that want to improve communication and decision-making about end of life care. You can find out more about or services for organizations here.
The practice of design is driven by constraints. Boundaries and requirements challenge us to look at problems from new perspectives, find creative solutions, and unlock potential. But we often fail to acknowledge the most fundamental constraint: we, and everything we do, will end.
What we are suggesting is that designers participate in the unhiding of death. We propose exposing it as a constraint on all of our designs: the death of objects, of organizations, and of ourselves. This project is part of an effort to build a community of practice around the use of design at the end of life.
On the surface, design is about creating useful objects and experiences, but great design seeks to create meaning and interaction. We challenge designers, including ourselves, to make space for meaningful conversations about death using all the tools at our disposal. Small conversations, big conversations, conversations with words, pictures, sound and space. Conversations that are concretely about the process of dying, and ones that open up the possibility to think about it from unexpected angles. All of these are necessary if we hope to overcome our avoidance of death.
The hidden benefits of unhiding death
We’ve found that becoming more familiar with the landscape where life and death overlap has surprising benefits. Making death an explicit parameter for our projects has begun to change our relationship to it; allowing it to grant us perspective has turned death from something we fear to something we can learn from. We have come to believe that dealing more honestly with death can help us manage all the other fears that are related to our mortality.
Death will find all of us, and everything we create. Acknowledging that can unleash grand creative impulses at the same time as it keeps us humble and grounded in the everyday world we share.
About this website
This website highlights projects, work, and people using design to bring the unsaid and unseen into the light. These projects make space for conversations about death and dying so that we can be more present, prepared, and thoughtful about our lives and our deaths. Some of the work here is by people who identify themselves as designers. Some is not. But we hope that all of the work we highlight can help everyone — designers, nurses, administrators, doctors, teachers, parents, children, and caregivers of all types — learn how to open up a space for a meaningful conversation about death and life.
If you would like to submit a project or if your organization is interested in exploring the use of design to change our relationship with death and mortality, please use our contact form to get in touch with us.