Non-Places and Liminality – What are those?



Veera is our anthropologist and has brought a new viewpoint to all of our research phases in projects. She discussed ritual design as an alternative viewpoint to design and understanding the end users. Why this topic has risen in our previous projects is that multiple customers have told us that there already has been a “service design project” and that “they know all their users and possibilities to grow their business”. Also we have been doing hundreds if not thousands of basic “research - ideation - developing - testing” - repeat type of projects and well… it’s getting boring to always do the same thing.

But what does anthropology as a point of view bring to the table? “How do people as communities create meaning?” is the question Veera proposed as the starting point for her presentation. Anthropology as a viewpoint for designers can mean finding a deeper angle to human behaviour.

Rituals are not the same as routines or habits. Rituals add a symbolic meaning to otherwise repetitive actions. Rituals can add the meaning to an individual personally or have communally shared meanings.

We went through a couple of examples about rituals known to Finnish society that have a special meaning other than just the functional meaning. Sauna is a place where we get clean, but it has a way deeper meaning to us as a community. We bathe in the nude, we discuss and spend time together with family and friends. In the discussion part it was pointed out that habits of bathing nude come from a time when underwear were not a thing, so it was practical to go without clothes. Today it may also mean that we are bare in the sauna, and there is no shame related to bathing. One can get emotionally really close to another person in the sauna.

“A cup of coffee” is rarely only a cup of coffee. It might be a personal moment of peace in the morning or a workplace ritual of bonding and catching up. Coffee tables are the places where organisation culture gets actually made, not in the board rooms and strategy meetings.

Why are rituals important then? How can we benefit from observing them? By observing what is repeated and then asking “why”, we can find surprising meanings in activities that otherwise seem mundane. Learning about the rituals and their meaning is a fruitful starting point for understanding a specific culture or a community.

Next stop was Liminality and rites of passage. Most of the cultures have rites of passage, which mark a status change in an individual’s life. Often they relate to becoming an adult, leaving childhood behind. For example, during the initiation ritual of Ndembu tribe in Zambia teenage boys are excluded from the community for several months. Under the supervision of elder males, they are unified in terms of their looks and demanded to perform dangerous tasks. During this time the boys remain in a state of liminality, in between statuses – boyhood and manhood. Sounds like our army duty, right? Separated from your friends and family, losing your own clothes and getting back to the society when you have endured “long enough”.

An airport is a place of liminality, a place of transition, a non-place, in-between. You have not yet left your country or city of origin and you are not at your destination either. You are usually located far from the city center. Usually when you’ve seen one airport, you know how you are expected to operate in all of them. Security checks, baggage drops, overpriced coffee, etc.

Airport can be a place of stress and chaos. It can also be a place of excitement and wanderlust. The liminality and the nature of the non-place actually provide us with an interesting ground for creating meaningful experiences and commitment. So, how could we make the process more smooth, interesting and secure? By harnessing the power of rituals.

  1. Creating new or adding value to existing rituals
  2. Ritualizing a product or service or
  3. Designing something that supports and enhances previously existing rituals.

Power of rituals

Look through the examples from the video recording. Pretty interesting viewpoints to Restaurant day, unboxing experience, Sauna app and digitalising voting experience.

The key when observing habits and rituals is to ask WHY something happens, WHY is it important to the community or individual? This way we create understanding and can design new things being mindful about that why. Veera’s example of airports and their meaning has multiple correct answers; airports can be a place of getting to business trip, to a vacation or related to both, a place of ultimate fear. After understanding how travellers experience airports as places, we can think of different types of approaches through ritual design. We could, for example, soothe the stress of the constant queueing and frustrating processes, or highlight the excitement of travelling.

How have different airports done this in practice? Veera had some cool examples.

Dubai airport has a virtual aquarium tunnel to do a security check. People walk through and look at the walls, in the meantime their face and other such necessities are captured with the cameras in the tunnel.

LAX offers cute puppies to relieve anxiety created by fear of flight or the chaotic liminal place that airport is. Our most known Helsinki-Vantaa has a ritual place of it’s own, the Oak Barrel restaurant. It serves as a familiar place, a place to switch to the holiday status, or, a place in which to relieve anxiety.

Key takeaways

Recording of the talk can be viewed from here:
Slides can be found from SlideShare


Written by

Taina Arjanmaa

Taina Arjanmaa


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