inventing rituals

the working material of design is emotion.1 and, ‘rituals’ serve as vehicles for emotional state-change.2

so: i wrote a course on inventing rituals, and ran it over two weeks with vijay sekhon’s interaction design programme (undergraduate studies, year 2) at anant university in ahmedabad.

how to prepare a ritual-plate for a gender-inclusive rakhi: placing two rakhis in the ritual-plate instead of one (to be tied on the brother and on the sister)


near-future artefacts behaviours

the field of interaction design is disproportionately obsessed with objects, techno-futures and electronic-interfaces (like: screens). in our projects, however, we focused on behaviours : not objects.

provoke : don’t propose

designing ‘near-future behaviours’3 is a good way to encourage students to do two things: to prototype futures they would / wouldn’t like to live in, and then demonstrate those behaviours to “provoke instead of propose”.

for example: instead of declaring “this is what we think the future should be”, use your work to ask “is this a future you’d like to live in?”. in other words, instead of being paternalistic4, let’s be facilitative, and make participatory work.


step 1 — recreate existing rituals

step 2 — deconstruct an interaction / behaviour

students learned how to deconstruct an interaction: to observe keenly, record it (on a storyboard), and articulate it to someone else so that they can replicate it. (these are all things that an interaction designer needs to be able to do well.)

step-by-step instructions: washing hands and removing footwear before entering a gurudwara.

step 3 — theory & vocabulary

what are the features of a ritual, and what separates it from an interaction, habit or routine?

typically, rituals comprise history, context, people and objects, and involve emotions, behaviours and interactions. they manifest belief (for individuals, communities or cultures), are structured/ordered, tend to be extra-ordinary, and, do mark an occasion to make it memorable. down the ages, rituals have been regularly repurposed and hacked ; so, (as designers) we too can ascribe new objects, meanings, stories or contexts to rituals, or even invent entirely new ones.

step 4 — invent new rituals

designed objects are often accompanied by instruction manuals5 and videos. so, for our rituals (which are designed too), we created insruction-manuals and video-reels6 to share them with people.

storyboard for a “phone funeral”: memorialising your old device, and disposing of it responsibly.

(demo video) add a pendant to your necklace for every day you limit your social-media use.

instruction manual for a gender-inclusive rakhi ceremony.

step 5 — demonstrate & discuss

we exhibited our work to the new media design programme at the the national institute of design, gandhinagar. the videos and manuals themselves weren’t the outcome of the project : the conversations they stimulated in the audience, were.

(afterward: nid’s students presented how making lo-fi prototypes helped them iterate-through and conceptually-refine their own projects.)

exhibition of invented rituals (videos, manuals, lo-fi objects), and the discussions they facilitated.

presentation on iterative prototyping.


abhinandit singh, abhineet kumar, ananya bhardwaj, anuja malu, shriya barnwal, meet bhatt, chaitanya bodhekar, darshika lahoti, dhyeya pandya, shivangi gajjar, gauri sharma, gourave prasad, helly vaghasiya, keshika tank, ketki shroff, krishna, kunal khandale, manasi vinze, medha berlia, mohak indulkar, poorva bhombe, priyansh jolapara, purva tekale, r sudharsan, riaan shamdasani, riddhi musmade, riddhima kulkarni, riya khattri, rushil verma, sania goidani, shreya shinde, shubham kumar, tanishka vyas, vijay s, zarqa khan.

with thanks to:
vijay sekhon who led the interaction design track at anant university (in ahmedabad), and let me introduce his students to interaction design in this manner ; jignesh khakhar, whose ‘solving staging speculating’ structure for the new media design programme at nid prompted me to write this course7 ; and, jan rod, who was a director of interaction design at ideo-tokyo, and with whom i wrote the first draft for the course.


  1. these are my views (2023) on what a designer works with

  2. this is a bbc radio4 podcast from 2018: the digital human: series 12: “rituals in the modern world”. (excerpts: “A modern day rite of passage could be getting your first mobile or social media account, but do we have rituals to accompany these new keys to the adult world?”; “symbols and actions […] help us transition from one emotional state to another.”)
    i haven’t read this paper on digital rituals (by namrata primlani, et al), but i read this in its abstract: “We identify digital rituals as talismanic responses to mistrust in ubiquitous computing environments. Findings […] show how digital rituals open up transformative states, allowing transitions from mistrust in the digital to feelings of trust, security and comfort.”
    when we compare this with john dewey’s definition for “what is an experience” (from his 1934 essay, art as experience), we can say that rituals help demarcate moments of transition in life/emotion (and, essentially, that each instance of an experience in our life can be bound at either end by rituals). 

  3. the field of design fiction concerns itself with making artefacts (and behaviours?) from the near-future. these are some examples of design-fictions i shared with the students: curious rituals (nicolas nova, 2012?) and 5 lost notices (julian bleecker, 2020) by the near future laboratory; and my own projects on humanoid robotics (2015), financial futures (2017), and objects from india’s future (2023). 

  4. (he wasn’t speaking about design, but) ernesto sirolli’s pelomic against paternalistic attitudes in aid-work (in his 2012 ted talk, “shut up and listen”, from about 4 min onward) is an essential reference in my book. 

  5. this is how a typical product manual from ikea will describe how to go-about building some furniture: the goal (what we will make), how many people are required, what to be careful about, what items are needed, and (finally) the steps to follow to achieve the goal. a ritual, too, could be described in a similar manner. 

  6. when thinking of future objects, designers will often present an archetype instead of the object. for example, when thinking about the future of agriculture, it may not be possible to build a futuristic tractor [:object] itself, but it would be much easier to make a instruction-booklet or repair-manual [:archetype] for the machine, and present that instead. the same applies to future rituals too. 

  7. (at the time of writing) my favourite example of an invented ritual is shreeya patil’s tebanasu project, from back when she was a student on jignesh’s programme. people printed their worries on soluble paper, folded the paper into a flower, and then “let go” of the flower in water. as the paper dissolved, the printed text (and person’s worries) dissipated into the water.