As the sizable baby boomer generation grows older, skewing America’s population toward life’s end, attitudes and customs surrounding death are changing. Paul Bennett, Ideo’s chief creative officer, doesn’t see these oncoming discussions around death as sad, or even problematic, but rather as an opportunity for someone to find a way to monetize the inevitable.
In a recent profile, The California Sunday Magazine followed Bennett around as he attempted to follow through on a simple realization: “You need to redesign death.”
Going deep inside Ideo’s failed development of a “death app” called After I Go, the story highlights the major problem with the unrelentingly positive belief that all problems can be solved through technology and design alone: If approached without a certain level of scrutiny, these “solutions” just create more problems. Throughout the piece, writer Jon Mooallem cuts through the many optimistic and altruistic layers of Bennett–and Ideo–exposing a certain blindness in the process. At times, the story rises to the level of self-parody. This is perfectly encapsulated by Mooallem’s account of a meeting in which the team members brought in B. J. Miller, an expert in end-of-life care, and hung out in what was dubbed the “Death Yurt.”
Last February, Bennett invited Miller to an orientation for a small team of Ideo designers on the work he was hoping to undertake. Because it felt wrong to talk about death in a conference room, some junior designers took it upon themselves to build this Death Yurt at the center of Ideo’s studio–a black, candlelit enclosure reachable only by crawling through a long, dark tunnel. (“It was like a sweat lodge,” Bennett says.) As homework, Bennett had asked everyone to design their own funeral, and he kicked off the discussion. He explained he’s always been terrified by the knowledge that he’ll die alone. (Bennett’s partner is 15 years older than he is, and they have no children.) But lately he had been reshaping the image in his mind. If he was going to die alone, he said, he’d like to do it outside, in Iceland, under the quivering brilliance of the Northern Lights.
Huddled in the Death Yurt, Miller felt simultaneously invigorated and dubious. On the one hand, this was precisely the sort of more-joyous conversation he wanted to encourage people to have long in advance of their own deaths. (“I felt like I was watching Paul be converted to the possibilities,” he says.) Miller had seen firsthand that, because we spend our entire lives avoiding thinking about death, when it finally comes into view, there’s a thicket of panic, denial, or disbelief to cut through before people can focus, more mindfully, on the experience and begin to make decisions to improve their last days. Then, of course, you still have to reconcile those hopes with the exigencies of the health care system, which can be torturously inflexible. When you sit with a dying person, Miller says, “time is always in the room. . . . At best, you’re able to salvage some peace or comfort for a moment.”
And yet Miller also knew that these more imaginative conversations about death needed to be channeled in just the right way. In the Death Yurt, Bennett and his team seemed to be caught up in what Miller recognized as the “endocrine rush” of finally facing death head-on. That exuberance, while helpful, needs to be moved past; otherwise, it can wind up derailing more practical conversations, or alienating people on aesthetic or socioeconomic grounds. For one thing, Miller later told me, “Paul’s Iceland idea presupposes you can time all that”–that you could fly him over and wheel him out at just the right moment, then cue the Lights. “You don’t want to shit on somebody’s beautiful idea,” Miller said, but “if you start talking about dying well or dying a ‘good death,’ then you also set people up to fail at death.”
The discomfort that arises again and again in Mooallem’s piece, lingering under the surface of every cheery brainstorming session, stems from the total detachment of these designers from the physical and emotional realities of grieving people. In searching for disruptive solutions that will change how we see a fundamental part of our lives (or the end of them, as it may be), Bennett lost sight of the very thing his concept depended on: what the target user would actually want and need in a time of mourning.
As the team delved into the endless complexities of their grand idea, they began to understand how something as vast as death eludes the kinds of solutions that could help fix a chair or website. There’s something important to learn here: Though tackling great ideas and big problems can be a noble pursuit, doing so without humility defeats the point. Read the rest of Mooallem’s profile, Death, Redesigned, at The California Sunday Magazine.