A Design Lab Is Making Rituals for Secular People

Will it work?

A wish ritual constructed by Ritual Design Lab was featured in San Francisco's Market Street Prototype Festival in 2015.
A wish ritual constructed by Ritual Design Lab was featured in San Francisco's Market Street Prototype Festival in 2015. (Margaret Hagan)

Religions have long been the dominant suppliers of rituals, gamely stepping in with an answer to every question from How do I celebrate the birth of my baby boy? to How can I transfer my own sins onto a live chicken? But in an age of increasing religious disaffiliation, these rituals now feel hollow to millions of people. And even when they don’t, there’s a wide range of new experiences for which the traditional rituals offer no script: How do I cope with my rage after receiving a parking ticket? How can I keep a smart car from exacerbating my loneliness and narcissism? What can I do to mourn the death of my laptop?

Although there is no single agreed-upon definition, a ritual is typically a deliberate action performed in a set sequence that improves our emotional state, by reframing an experience in a way that feels meaningful.

At the Ritual Design Lab in Silicon Valley, a small team of “interaction designers” is working to generate new rituals for modern life, with an eye to user experience. Created by Kursat Ozenc and Margaret Hagan, the lab crafts rituals for both individuals and organizations, including big hitters like Microsoft. The team’s website offers a Ritual Design Hotline with a tantalizing promise: “You tell us your problem. We will make you a ritual.” Meanwhile, its Ritual Inventory invites you to add any interesting ritual you’ve made or seen to its growing database. And its app, IdeaPop, helps you brainstorm and create your own rituals.

Ritual Design Lab has its roots in Stanford’s Institute of Design, where Ozenc and Hagan both teach. In 2015, they proposed a new course on ritual design. To their surprise, more than 100 students signed up. Most were secular. “The interest was huge—so we thought, we should harness this interest,” Ozenc told me. “The new generation, they want bite-size spirituality instead of a whole menu of courses. Design thinking can offer this, because the whole premise of design is human-centeredness. It can help people shape their spirituality based on their needs. Institutionalized religions somehow forget this—that at the center of any religion should be the person.”

Design ideas for preventing a smart car from exacerbating our narcissism (Margaret Hagan)

Ozenc, 38, is no stranger to institutionalized religion. Growing up in Turkey, he practiced Sufi Islam—and he still does. “I know the value of spirituality,” he said.

To help others access that value, he homes in on what he considers ingredients for a good ritual. One is the bite-sized portion size; whenever possible, a ritual should be quick. Another key ingredient is playfulness. In fact, some of the rituals listed on the website border on silly. The ritual for coping with parking-ticket rage involves sautéing and then eating the ticket. “We intentionally take the stance that we believe in rituals that are lightweight and a bit humorous,” Ozenc told me. “We’re not interested in heavy, top-bottom, religious, or government rituals.”

The importance of play in ritual is backed up by evolutionary biology: It facilitates problem-solving and social bonding among bonobos, as primatologist Isabel Behncke has shown. Ozenc and Hagan take play so seriously that they’ve actually had Behncke co-teach alongside them in Stanford’s ritual-design classes. They’ve also collaborated with neuropsychologist Nick Hobson, who studies ritual’s impact on neural processes and writes about the power of playful rituals—even ones as simple as playing ping-pong during your lunch break at work.

Some of Ritual Design Lab’s work has more heft. Ozenc is preparing to roll out a project called Pop-Up Prayer, which aims to give urban young professionals a way to pray when they’re on the go. Here’s how it works: An organization buys a prayer kit, puts it in a room where it’s okay for a visitor to pray, and posts an online listing. You find the building using your smartphone (as with other location-based services), go to the room, take what you need from the kit, and use it to pray. Then you put everything back where you found it.

The first kit to be debuted will be geared toward young Muslims—or “Mipsters,” as Ozenc calls them—and will contain a prayer rug, a compass, water, and a prayer book. Subsequent models will be geared toward Jews and Christians. The multi-faith aspect of the project makes perfect sense, given that Ozenc didn’t create it by himself: He came up with the idea in collaboration with Gil Steinlauf, a rabbi from Washington, D.C., when the two were brought together as a part of an incubator for “spiritual entrepreneurs” at Columbia University’s business school.

“I think people in tech who are creating new rituals really need to be in deep conversation with religious people like me,” Steinlauf said in an interview, adding that it’s all too rare to see a Silicon Valley entrepreneur learning from ancient religions. “I’ve seen people reinventing the wheel, and as a rabbi I kind of laugh sometimes. People say, ‘Let’s take Tuesday—and basically make it Shabbat.’ It’s just funny. Why are you trying to do that when there are already synagogues and churches and all kinds of things that exist for that?”

In the next breath, the rabbi added: “But I understand it, of course. People are alienated from these structures.” For a person who’s walked away from institutionalized religion, it may be psychologically easier to join the National Day of Unplugging than to observe the Sabbath, the original 24-hour digital detox.

Kursat Ozenc prototypes a Pop-Up Prayer kit for Muslims (Margaret Hagan)

On the other hand, turning to new rituals as stand-ins for ancient ones raises the tricky issue of legitimacy. Part of why an ancient ritual seems legitimate or authentic to many of us is because it is, well, ancient. Its validity is sourced from its perceived unchangingness—“My great-great-grandparents did this the exact same way!”—and the way it binds us to a larger community of people, both dead and alive. Absent that antiquity, what makes a new ritual feel authentic?

“In earlier generations, the more we could objectify religion as something that lives outside of you, the more authentic it was,” Steinlauf said. “Now, if you’re really going to speak Millennial, ritual has to be fundamentally subjective in the sense that it has to be intensely personally meaningful and relevant. As soon as it speaks to my truth, that’s authenticity—that’s how we define authenticity now.” If the bespoke and the legitimate used to be inversely proportional, today they are directly proportional.

Although this may be a reality of the 21st century, there are several downsides to it. For one, ancient rituals are technologies that have been debugged, fine-tuned, and time-tested over millennia. They evolved to respond to human needs, and in their crystallized form, they contain deep insights into those needs. By jettisoning the rituals, we also jettison the wisdom they house. “One of the great critiques of modern Millennial spirituality is that the sense of lineage is being utterly destroyed in this radical democratization of spiritual life that we’re seeing,” Steinlauf said. “You lose something very precious when you obliterate lineage.”

To the rabbi, there’s an even graver risk that comes with separating ritual from religion. “When it’s ensconced in religious life,” he said, “ritual doesn’t just serve to validate your experience or to help you through a difficult moment.” It also situates your experience within a larger framework of moral imperatives, and makes demands of you, including that you be of service to others. “Someone may say, ‘I’m just helping somebody who had a bad day at work to process and move on.’ Well, okay, that could be effective—but to what extent are you actually helping the ultimate job of all ritual life, which is to give you the message that it’s not all about you? Rituals that are designed as one-offs for individuals are divorced from that—and that’s very dangerous.”

Finally, an endeavor like Ritual Design Lab has a paradox at its heart. If I contact the Ritual Design Hotline and the team solves my problem by creating a ritual for me, I am implicitly buying into the notion that I’m not capable of creating one myself. By outsourcing ritual design, I am, to use Steinlauf’s idiom, objectifying rather than subjectifying it; I’m reinscribing the old notion that we have to look to outside experts for such things. Only now, instead of turning to a rabbi or a priest or a guru, I’m turning to a designer.

Ozenc does not necessarily see this as a problem. In the Stanford classes he co-taught with Hagan, he ran two sessions. In the first, each student designed a ritual for herself. In the second, students paired up: One, the designer, was tasked with crafting a ritual for the other, the client. “The second version is more effective because you might not be seeing the opportunities in your life—maybe someone else can see better,” Ozenc told me. “There’s value in it if someone you trust comes in, and you give that other person permission to design a ritual for you.”

That, of course, is what religious people have been doing for millennia; it’s just that the “other person” might have lived in the year 218, not 2018.

Others who work in the ritual design world—a community few in numbers, but growing on both sides of the Atlantic—are vociferously opposed to outsourcing. “One should never outsource one’s role as a ritual artisan. That is giving away one’s power,” said Jeltje Gordon-Lennox, a psychotherapist and ritual designer in Geneva, Switzerland. She is part of the European Ritual Network, a group that sprang up three years ago to bring together ritual designers in Switzerland, the United Kingdom, Norway, Denmark, and the Netherlands.

“We are all able to craft our own rituals,” she said. “Humankind has always crafted ritual to mark special events, moments, and places. With the advent of urbanization, we became removed from this creative process as institutions took over. Consumerism reinforced our role as end-users.”

And consumerism is still very much at play. Gordon-Lennox offers a service that she calls “ritual accompaniment.” You can hire her to help you design a bespoke ceremony, like a funeral, but expect the process to be both expensive and collaborative. “I charge a hefty rate for what I do,” she told me bluntly. “And I’ve said this to clients: ‘You’re going to pay me rather a lot. And you’re going to work really hard.’”

Ritual Design Lab does not currently charge individuals when creating a ritual for them. “My intention isn’t really to make this a business,” Ozenc said. “It’s more a statement—that people need spirituality even if they don’t necessarily want to be connected to any institutional religion.” Nevertheless, asked if he plans to charge a fee one day, he said, “Not for individuals, but maybe for rituals in organizations, we are thinking about that.”

For Steinlauf, the problem isn’t so much with ritual designers making a living off people’s spiritual needs—rabbis do that too—but with what happens to our ritual life in the process. Customization risks stripping ritual of lineage, and unbundling ritual from religion can produce a self-centered mentality instead of one in tune with broader moral imperatives. “We need to take a breath,” the rabbi said, “and think about the wider implications of commodifying our spiritual life this way.”