Design as Empowerment

Mitch Sinclair

Partner at IDEO, and Chief Creative Officer at Palmwood

In this series, we explore design as a spiritual practice with creative leaders, spiritual teachers, and start-up founders from around the world. Here, Peter Gould interviews Mitch Sinclair: Partner at IDEO, and Chief Creative Officer at Palmwood.
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Mitch Sinclair’s creative dynamism, cultural curiosity and determination to be a force for good have helped her become a leading figure of the UAE’s design community. After visiting her vibrant office in Dubai we discussed the relationship between spirituality and design, and the power of intention in determining their impact.

If the tradition holds true, there is still a part of me that resides on the busy walls of Palmwood in Dubai; happily watching the creative energy that ebbs and flows at the design organisation founded by the UAE Government and IDEO.

When I first visited the space to meet Chief Creative Officer, Mitch Sinclair, I was greeted by a Polaroid camera, ready to take my photo that would subsequently be pinned to the studio’s wall alongside portraits of other guests and visitors – a vibrant gallery of designers, artists, and creative practitioners of all kinds who had been through the Palmwood doors and remain part of its collective experience.

Mitch explained to me that everybody who had their photo taken had to write a name on it – preferably a moniker rather than their real names – and on closer inspection I noticed that several pseudonyms came from a video game I was familiar with. Taking up the mantle, I added a name from the same game and became part of the Palmwood furniture.

This welcoming inclusivity, I very quickly learned, is typical of Mitch and the approach she brings to Palmwood. The studio is fittingly situated in Area 2071, the part of Emirates Towers dedicated to innovation, creativity, youth, and the future, and truly lives up to its mission to ‘improve lives in the UAE and beyond’.

Palmwood uses Emirati tradition and culture as part of its design ethos, which is geared towards ‘finding solutions for governments and organisation’, as well as ‘developing creative capabilities in the people of the UAE and opening up new conversations about what is possible through design’.

And Mitch was clearly an excellent choice to lead the organisation – not only because of her experience designing for governments and brands in consumer goods, financial services, fashion, entertainment, and education – but also her openness to new ideas, cultures, and perspectives; taking inspiration from the people, places and experiences around her and her team.

I was flattered, in fact, that her team had a couple of  my design projects on her wall as inspiration for a project they were working on. It was totally unexpected, but spoke to the company’s wide-reaching appreciation for design of all types, and the good you might be able to draw from them.

My own appreciation for Mitch only deepened when I got the chance to connect with her some time after our initial meeting, and discuss her views on spirituality and design. Her answers to my questions were both profound and motivating, reminding me just how powerful design can be when combined with positive intentions and spiritual insight

“Spirituality is an invitation to remember our connection,” she told me. “Our connection between all living beings; between the self and the oneness; between the drop and the ocean; between the acts we choose and the reciprocal nature of  what we receive; between the kinship of community and the possibilities of what we can create together in service of a more joyful, inclusive, and beautiful world.

“At its most pure incarnation, spirituality is, quite simply, love.”

With this beautiful description in mind, and especially her focus on connection and possibility, it was no surprise to learn why design is so important to Mitch.

“Design is an act of power, and empowerment. It’s a refusal to simply accept the world as it is, and instead fearlessly reimagine it as it could be.”

“Design is an act of power, and empowerment,” she explained. “It’s a refusal to simply accept the world as it is, and instead fearlessly reimagine it as it could be.

“Social anthropologist David Graeber said: ‘The ultimate truth of this world is that it is something we make. And we could just as easily make differently’.  I agree with this. A designer conjures possibilities from the air, bringing them down from the cloud of theory, up from the soil of society’s day to day aspirations, and into the hands of the people.

“We are magicians, conjurers, rebels, dreamers, makers - our hands dirty from the joy of bringing forth something wild and new into the world. We are troublemakers with a conscience.”

The importance of intention

Rather than let this wildness run loose, Mitch attaches design to intention – a notion that resonates strongly with me and my journey through design. In my years-long exploration of the intersection between spirituality and design, intention (Niyyah in Arabic) – plays a vital role. So much so that I view it as one of the key principles that make up Heart-Centered Design: a framework that my studio and I apply both inwardly and outwardly in an attempt to make our work more meaningful.

For us, intentionality and purpose are inextricably linked. By being mindful of our intentions, we can reframe what ‘success’ means to us – ensuring that it’s not only about financial impact, but also personal and spiritual wellbeing. We can then seek clarity of purpose in each project, and create work that inspires, informs and respects our audiences; rather than designing for sales and profit, no matter the cost to ourselves or others.

“Design is intention,” affirmed Mitch, before adding the caveat that intentions can be negative as well as positive, leading to designs that can be informed by either.

“It’s a manifestation of what a society values, of what we honour, of how we care for our people. Over the ages, design has always been a tool of societal sculpting, from the beautiful to the horrifying – institutions, ideologies, and tools that belittle and control, as well as spaces, systems, and services that connect and uplift.”

Mitch tied the choice of intention to her earlier assertion that design is also an act of power – likening it to a weapon that “bows to the will of its creator in service of their intentions”, and posing a pertinent set of questions.

“Design is our playground of possibilities.”

“How might the designers of tomorrow use their power in sculpting a society that reflects their values and aspirations? How might the intersection of spirituality and design open up new possibilities for how we reconnect humanity, nature, and all the creatures who call this world home? How might we question the old assumptions of what always has been, in service of what could be?

“Design is our playground of possibilities.”

Keep asking questions

Ultimately, says Mitch, the impact that design has on the world is the result of the questions we ask ourselves. Questions not only about our intentions, but also about the routes we’re taking to make those intentions come to life – questions we’re asking ourselves about the materials we use, the people we’re reaching, the tone and depth of our messages, and the way we present and conduct ourselves. These questions and many, many more, are at the core of design and its potential to achieve something spectacular.

“Design is born of questions,” said Mitch. “It is the wild spirit of curiosity, imagining, experimenting, empathizing, and co-creating a better world than the one we found.”

It is in these questions that she finds the intersection of design and spirituality, calling spirituality “design’s sister”.

It’s a space of wonder, of embracing the impossible questions, of honoring the unknown, of basking in the beauty of powers larger than us all.”

“It’s a space of wonder, of embracing the impossible questions, of honoring the unknown, of basking in the beauty of powers larger than us all. Both design and spirituality embrace the question mark, not the period. The ellipses, not the exclamation point.

“These sisters are spaces of possibility, openness, expansiveness, and delight. Lifting us up. Beckoning us to come play. Reminding us of our power. Connecting us more deeply. And most of all - inviting us to wander into the beautiful unknown.”

There’s a well known book entitled Sea Without Shore, which explores the path of  Sufism, and another called Ocean Without Shore about the great spiritual master, Ibn Arabi. These beautiful titles came to mind when Mitch alluded to the vast possibilities that are open to us as designers, aptly illustrating the depth and expansiveness that Mitch sees in design. It is in this pool of rich and endless potential that we swim in and draw from, whatever we’re designing and whoever we’re designing for.

With such a limitless supply of design possibilities, and such a myriad of ways these possibilities could impact people’s lives, intention becomes critical. It sets our compass so that we are moving in the right direction from the very beginning – wherever a particular project takes us along the way.

It’s clear to see Mitch’s compass and how it guides Palmwood’s work. To paraphrase a well-known saying, she wears her intentions on her sleeve. In doing so helps others to see what’s possible when you combine intention, spirituality, and the creative confidence to inspire and empower others.


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