The Dance of Design

In the last year, I’ve learnt to dance. I have never danced before, so everything is new to me. I wasn’t expecting it, but there are many parallels between dance and design. I’ve learnt a lot about mindset, transformation, leadership and creativity in ways that have shifted how I design.

Specifically, the body in dance is what illuminates these gems.

When I started dancing, I assumed that I would need to work hard to transform my body. I used to do lots of stretches and exercises to increase my flexibility. Then, while on a dance retreat recently, I learned something that completely changed my way of thinking: I learned that bodily sensations fall into two broad categories: loud sensations, and quiet sensations.

A loud sensation would be stretching. Step one foot forward, straighten your rear leg, and stretch your rear hamstring. It feels great, and it's a bit uncomfortable, so I must be doing something good. That's a loud sensation: it kind of shouts at you.

A quiet sensation would be to sit on a chair and breathe. Turn your head to the right as far as you can without any discomfort. Then bring it back, and turn to the left. Is there a difference between those two gentle movements. Is one side easier than the other? What else in my body is working to support this simple action? Quiet sensations are subtle, and the more we listen, the more we find connection in surprising places.

What's important about this distinction is that the first category involves a level of force. I could even get someone else to apply that force to my body, like a physiotherapist or a chiropractor and that could feel good. It could even be beneficial, like a deep massage. The challenge is that after that ‘loud’ force experience, the system hasn't changed. The rest of the body still has the same patterns, the same habits, and within hours it will return to its default state.

What is interesting to me about the second type of sensation—the quiet or subtle sensation—is that it can allow for a level of awareness that actually changes the way that I move on an ongoing basis. I can make or break a connection with the way my body organises itself in movement that feels like it requires no effort, yet actually changes my subconscious mind and my nervous system.

This ‘quiet’ sensation has the power to change the whole system without the usual signs of ‘effort’.

This quiet sensation gets its power from the subtle action repeated over time.

There is a temptation to use force in order to get speedy "results". The corporate world is obsessed with short-term goals and measurable outcomes. This is useful, provided the measures are appropriate to the change required. Just like the body, we need to balance respect for the system with all its nuances and subtleties of operation with offering a new pathway for meaningful and lasting change.

Bodies, like organisations, are complex. They have many moving parts that at all need to interact with one another to get a job done. Old patterns of making change need to shift to deliver something new, and as a designer, dance has taught me to look for subtle patterns to unearth deeper complexity.


Written by Jon Osborne, Senior Strategic Designer at Huddle

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Jon Osborne is a senior strategic designer and facilitator at Huddle. Drawing on a background in the built environment, he helps leadership teams pioneer resilient innovation initiatives based on solid research and fresh thinking. Jon also previously built and led a human-centred design practice at Arup.

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