Designing for love. A talk for Project Love

This talk was given at the Project Love event in London on May 9th, 2024.

One of the greatest works of love in the western tradition is Dante’s Divine Comedy. The poem is carefully designed. At the central point of its 14,233 lines – at line 7,116 – is the word “amor”. The poem literally pivots on love.

At that point, Dante’s guide, Virgil, is explaining to him that, ultimately, love can never go wrong. It is a quite extraordinary claim. Together, they have travelled through hell and seen the absolute worst that humanity can do – which, in a way, would have been no surprise to Dante since he lived in a time of unrestrained brutality, in the civil wars of the Italian peninsular during the 13th and 14th centuries.

They then began an arduous climb up Mount Purgatory, during which Dante meets various individuals, who are labouring to clarify their love. The people they meet offer a snapshot of a whole society and how love is, and is not, at work within them and their fellows. And this is Dante’s point about love never finally being wrong.

Our love can be excessively confused – in the self-love of pride, greed or anger. It can be woefully mistaken – in the perverse love of avarice, profligacy or lust. The personal and social failures of Dante’s day, which are still ours, stem from these twists and distortions, Dante proposes. Improving our loving, getting it more right, is absolutely fundamental to any kind of hope, let alone transformation.

And if we learn to pay attention to love, to form good ways of life and habits of discernment, then something remarkable can unfold, a kind of virtuous spiral. Clarifying how we love and what love demands of us, has the extraordinary capacity to change us, even as we are drawn by what we love.

This is because, as Iris Murdoch reminded us: “Good is the magnetic centre towards which love naturally moves”. Love is, therefore, the source of our greatest errors but also our highest hopes. We must work on it, with it, for it, because false love can lead to the devastation of wars and environmental destruction, but true love guides and empowers us towards the greatest forms of flourishing.

Because of this power of love, it is great working with Clive, Mohammed, our designers and others. I’ve learnt that carefully researched, imaginatively conceived and deeply informed design can bring into the world artefacts, processes and services that become midwives to love. By intelligently stirring our love – and by embodying virtues of curiosity, aspiration and generosity  –  design and designers can collaborate with love, and so surface that which is good in the human soul and the wider fields of energy in which we live.

Dante needed to learn about love in his time and designed a poem that can change us. Needless to say, we need to learn about love now, too, and this project has convinced me that we must do so thoughtfully, if we are to nurture love well. For love can so easily be twisted to ill ends or bad habits. But love can also join hands with intelligent design to lead us well. For love is not just a feeling, though it can be deeply heartfelt. It is primarily a power – not one of coercion, but allure – working like a magnet. How can the way we structure our lives, personally and publicly, run with that loving lodestar, towards that which is good?

Another great philosopher who understood these things was Mary Midgley. She talked about wisdom being a “loving union” with the people, places and things around us. We can learn to participate with the lives of others, not only gather data about them, because human knowledge is a loving connection, a recognition and comprehension. I think this is why the flow states that psychologists talk about are so appealing: to be in a state of flow – when studying, when playing, when making music – is to have responded to the way that activities call us. To be in flow is to be in a loving dialogue with the world, when we give what we have and so receive more than we have, or can ever possess. Love invites us into that friendship. And so again, the way we design our activities, crucially matters. Does it help or hinder that relationship?

Design can nurture love in the way that it frames and presents experiences of interaction or exchange. Another great philosopher of love, Simone Weil, put it like this: the way to counter the tricky kinds of design that seek to monopolise our attention – the infinite scroll on the screen, say – is to think about the quality of our attending. For instance, a single moment when we see the world in a different way might change us. The implication of her argument is that a well-designed book or app or public space won’t seek to hold us or even please us, but will seek to collaborate with us so as to stir moments of joy or insight. These are moments of ecstasy in the true sense – when we step out of ourselves and our anxious preoccupations for a few moments, not in distraction, but expansion. There is more to life than we knew before. Love ignites and draws us towards that which is beautiful, good or true. Weil called this the love of God, meaning that the perhaps seemingly small or momentary ways in which we find joy are reflections and echoes of the love that sustains us, even when we are not conscious of its presence.

Incidentally, I think this link between love and intelligence and attention is one of the reasons we are not machine-like or robots. We are spiritual creatures, as Murdoch put it, because we track a path through life not by running algorithms in our heads, but by being drawn towards the things that matter. That mattering has been called “relevance realisation” by the cognitive psychologist, John Vervaeke. It is another form of love, when we spot that people or objects or the way ahead stands out to us. And again, that love can trained, indeed needs to be – perhaps by practices like meditation, but also in the way that the world around us is designed.

This makes demands on designers, of course. Not only must they think imaginatively and carefully, but ethically. The person they are, and are becoming, will directly affect their work. A movement of love within the world of design would, therefore, mark a cultural shift, powered by the passion of those involved and what they are prepared to give to it. They will want to be changed as much as change organisations or consumer habits.

This self-offering is a core part of the demand that prioritising love makes upon us. Love is a good energy that can console and connect. But is also a challenging energy that can ask much of us – not in a masochistic way, but because we must be the change. Our misfirings and misunderstandings of love will be put to the test, but so that love can remake and remould us.

Which is say that suffering is integral to this way of life. Breakdowns often come before breakthroughs. The wisdom of love is not about the accumulation of facts, though that is part of it, but more profoundly is about an old mindset or worldview giving way, so as to reveal another, which is more capacious or welcoming. I think this is why moments of breakthrough or discovery are met by cries of “Eureka!” or tears of joy. There is a release in the transition that love can bring.

For that reason, virtues like gratitude and wonder are part of this journey as well. And, a good test of whether a path of love is being followed is whether is leads to wider notions of love. This is why, in our project, the links from personal forms of love, to social and civic, ecological and spiritual love, are not just ways of encouraging design projects that foster love beyond the romantic or interpersonal, immensely valuable though those are. Rather, good loving leads us from the private towards others and even the all. Aristotle talked about how a society needs to be based on friendship, not because we must get to know everyone, but because the friendships we do enjoy become schools of love, the context within which we practice a wider loving. The love of those we do know can extend out like ripples across a pond, to shape the way a society is built and made. Rumi’s thought is similar: Don’t get stuck on petty concerns of revenge or hurt, but instead use them as a training, so as to “flow down and down in always widening rings of being.”

“Love’s existence is the unmistakable sign that we are spiritual creatures, attracted by excellence and made for the Good,” Murdoch wrote – and Dante would have entirely agreed. Love can be discerned and trusted. But we must intentionally work at it, work with it, design our ways of life by it.

This collaboration of design, love and intelligence, I think, addresses the risk of sentimentalising love – “love-washing”, if you will. Because true love is not afraid of critique: it grows by it. True love is not afraid of thought, because intelligence clarifies how we are and aren’t being shaped by love.

And the great thing about focusing on love is that love is creative. Unlike the relentless critique of our times or anxiety about the future or rage at what is going wrong, love can engage all those things and transcend them. It invokes a good energy and that matters because the energy we invoke will typically be the energy by which we live.

Love will take us, at times, through circles of hell, as well as lead the climb up steep mountains. But love is also the fundamental force of life, which is why we can always turn towards it, be surprised by it, and in the patterning of our behaviour and designs, collaborate with it.