Dr Tamara is an incredible teacher and a guiding light for millions of hearts, sharing traditional scholarship in a profound way that resonates with modern audiences. Her Jedi references are on point. I was keen to talk with her about culture, community and heart, and how she would understand design in relation to spiritual service.
Many years back, when my design practice was starting to get more global referrals, a friend reached out with a branding project for a new organisation called ‘Rabata’ – founded by Dr Tamara Gray, who was based in Minnesota, USA.
Dr Tamara had 20 years of experience studying with traditional female scholars in Syria and was now building a community with a vision to “promote positive cultural change through creative educational experiences”. In the years since that project, I’ve been so impressed by the global success of the Rabata community, its beautiful, welcoming message, and the creative, inspiring quality of her teaching.
She’s always in high demand, so I’m grateful that she agrees to an online call to discuss the ideas of culture, community and heart – core aspects within the traditional concept of Iḥsān (loosely translated from Arabic as ‘excellence’).
As we greet each other warmly, she immediately calls attention to the Salam Sisters toy dolls in the background of her screen, partially visible in the gift shop area of her community center. She’s a fan of the brand, which pleases me because it's a project dear to my heart. I had imagined Salam Sisters several years earlier as a creative way to empower and inspire my (then young) daughters with a group of diverse characters and cool toys, under the tagline ‘Friendship. Faith. Fun’. The range was a success and they’ve been sold in many countries since.
I use this as a starting point for our conversation, asking Dr Tamara how she sees the connection between spirituality and design.
“The word design for me is actually really important because my mother is an artist,” she begins.
“Art was a really important part of our household. She did another job, too, because it didn't always pay the bills, but my point is that it was really important to her, so I grew up with this idea around design. I'm an educator and I do think visually, as scaffolding for the design of a project, the design of a program. When we designed Rabata, for example, for me it was a picture.”
One part of this picture that I greatly appreciate is the way Dr Tamara has included strong gamification elements and contemporary culture into her learning programs. For example, she’ll occasionally lean into examples and analogies from Star Wars and Harry Potter to help make important spiritual concepts more accessible, fun, and memorable. I’m curious, however, to explore how she understands and navigates Iḥsān within such contemporary program designs.
“I think there's a little bit of romance around the idea of slow and fast, as Iḥsān must necessarily be slow,” she says.
“I think that we are tired sometimes of the slew of secular materialism – all this stuff that we don't like. It feels very fast, and we might have a reaction to that by thinking that we need to slow down. But I'm not a slow person. I can't handle anything slow. So I really see Iḥsān in a different way.
“Not to say that it can't be slow, and I can certainly see the beauty in that, for sure. But I also think that if we don't recognize the speed of society and don't design for the place people are – whether programming design, or designs that pull them in or walk them through the stages we want to walk them through, no matter the speed – we'll lose them. I think that Iḥsān is not only about the beauty side of it, but also about timeliness.”
“If we don't recognize the speed of society and don't design for the place people are … we'll lose them.”
Inspiration from the past
This resonates with me strongly, and I feel she has not only captured one of our key challenges as contemporary designers, but also struck right at the heart of my own design journey. In our digital age, how might we design products and experiences to be in alignment with our spiritual aspirations?
We look into the past for some inspiration as I ask Dr Tamara if she has any examples of how design has worked in alignment with a group of people’s cultural experience.
“So, my big historical hero is Nana Asma’u because of her educational program. It's brilliant,” she says.
Nana Asma’u was a scholar, poet and teacher born in 1793 in the area that is now northern Nigeria. Dr Tamara describes how she approached the challenge of communicating with and educating women across vast areas of her African nation.
“She observed that the medicine women would come to all of the villages wearing a certain straw hat. Nana Asma’u would send two teachers to villages dressed in the same hat, but with a big ribbon. The ribbon indicated that they're not medicine women – that they’re somebody new. She used the language of design without really knowing the language of design. She took a familiar symbol and changed it so that people would understand without any words that these women had come to help you – but not in the same way that has happened before.”
“She used the language of design without really knowing the language of design. She took a familiar symbol and changed it so that people would understand without any words that these women had come to help you.”
By understanding the people and their frame of reference, this simple design decision helped unlock a path to educating millions. More than two centuries later, I feel Dr Tamara is living this same spirit. She understands her people, and has designed educational programs in a way that recognises and respects their cultural context very well.
Today, some designers might label these as examples of Design Thinking - an approach that advocates for a human-centered path to problem solving by observing, listening and empathising with people, then rapidly iterating and testing prototypes with real users. This is in contrast to a focus on technology, or engineering solutions to lead decision making in the design process.
I spent two years part-time completing a Stanford Innovation & Entrepreneurship program that centered around Design Thinking, albeit with a focus on building start-ups, launching products and leading teams. One of the core reference texts was the pioneering book Change by Design by Tim Brown and IDEO which explores this concept in detail – one that has been widely adopted into many organisations globally, including my own design team. It’s an effective and useful set of approaches that can be explored and experimented with (as advocated by IDEO themselves), as there is no single process that must be rigidly followed or stuck to.
Similar to Dr Tamara’s understanding and appreciation of contemporary culture as a conduit for traditional wisdom, I often reflect on the idea of proactively aligning the spiritual aspirations of my team, our clients, and the communities we design for with meaningful work that is relevant and engaging for today’s audiences.
Our own Heart-Centred Design approach came out of a series of experiments to contextualise these spiritual aspirations, and apply them to our outward work. We started to explore more deeply the spiritual intentionality of a potential project before diving into it, and looked at how a brand, company or product we might design could align with one of God’s 99 Attributes. For example, how might this app project help manifest the attribute Al-Adl (the Just), or Al-Rahman (the Merciful)?
We also started to reframe questions and terminology to bring more purpose and authenticity to our lines of thinking, as well as closer connection to the people we are hoping to reach with our work. For example, if we change the word ‘users’ to ‘communities’, ‘customer relationships’ to ‘transformation’, and ‘value proposition’ to ‘unique idea’ then we can break away from seeing people as a commodity - part of the consumerism machine - and instead put them and their aspirations at the heart of the conversation.
The question changes from ‘What is the user’s customer relationship to our value proposition?’ to ‘How might the communities we serve be transformed by our idea?’ The mindset immediately becomes more empathetic, more human.
This empathy is evident in Dr Tamara’s approach to education; meeting people and communities where they are, and making sure her programs appeal to them by understanding and appreciating their cultural landscape. All of which means she and her team at Rabata can make a profound difference through their work.
This is a beautiful reflection of the creative excellence, beauty and artistry that we associate with Iḥsān, and serves as an inspiring reminder of the breadth and depth of both design and spirituality as frameworks for positive impact.