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This week, I and my fellow artist-in-residence Michael spoke in Tembusu College’s Singapore as Model City class.

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It looks like I’m singing, but I’m not. I was just saying hi and asking if they could hear me. Thanks, Dr. Margaret Tan, for the photo.

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I think I like it when the stage design is reversed and I’m looking up.

I won’t elaborate on parts of my talk that I’ve posted before, such as what happened during The Apocalypse Workshops or the comments on DrawHappy that made me rethink what the project could be about. So instead, I’ll emphasize some of the things I learned about experience design and collaborations between art and science.

Experience and memory
The image my have the last word, but for me, experience is the one that stay with you forever. I referred to a series of articles I wrote when I was a young journalist, oh so many years ago. This is a photo of me when I was 19 years old:

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In this photo, I was wearing the costume on the left, although I also wore the one on the right. These are mascots from Jollibee, a Filipino fast food chain that, for me, is one of the icons of modern Filipino culture and taste. It was for a series of articles called Temporarily Yours, where I took on a job for a day and then wrote about it. Looking back, these are exercises in empathy, albeit short ones, where I realized how it was to be on the other side of the fence. Most of these jobs were in food or customer service, such as a barista or a sushi chef. Others were about performance, such as a magician’s assistant or a zookeeper. In this particular article, I wrote about how it was to be a mascot and embody a character beloved by children. I still vividly remember these experiences more than a decade later, such as how the head of Hetty (the female character, short for “spaghetti”) was so big and difficult to balance, and how Jollibee’s butt was so huge, it took two guys to shove me through a door. You know, good times.

Projects like these have shaped my views on how I execute future projects. Though I don’t feel that my work fits just one area of inquiry, I think that the common thread between all of them is that of experience. Experience is very powerful. The image may have the last word, but in a world where we are saturated by images, I believe that experience makes these images last longer and gives them more meaning.

Korea and Experience Booths

My views on experience design have also been honed through seeing South Korea’s experience booths in festivals, which will always mark my memories of that country. In festivals in the US or in Europe, I would usually find people selling me a finished product, let’s say a ceramic pot. But in Korea, I will be sold the experience of making or painting my own pot. In this case, I will find myself sitting down at the booth and getting messy at the table, thus slowing down, making my experience more personal, and hopefully have a longer lasting memory than just having the generic festival experience. Perhaps I will end up treasuring the pot I made myself rather than just another cheap souvenir. I also think these booths give wonderful creative opportunities for families, children, and the elderly.

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A Korean experience booth on printmaking

Korea can get quite creative with their experience booths, such as this one I saw down south in Hampyeong.

I believe that the role of artists / scientists / designers is not just to have these unique experiences through their work, but to share these with others. Typically, we share that experience by writing about it for others to read. Through that reading, perhaps someone will profoundly connect with our writing. However, I think that human bonds can be stronger through a shared experience. Your audience can create their own experiences for themselves and yield results that are unexpected, like what I’ve learned from previous projects. This is when you realize that your audience teach you something as well, which is a wonderful thing. Projects become a conversation between creator and audience, which will only serve to fuel human creativity and progress.

Art, Science, and Sustainability

Personally, I believe that the wealth of human knowledge is too vast to just break down into two, but for the sake of simplicity, let’s go with these two fields: art and science. As I have been trained in both, I have felt what it was like on each “side”. I have been “the scientist” in an art/design studio, and “the artist” in a science lab. Both types of experiences have been very unique to me. Both sides have their own ivory towers. Those who choose to be in those towers, I think, should quickly parachute off. Our world is too vast and our problems too complex for petty squabbling. Unexpected things can happen when ideas from each side, as they say, have sex. Here is a nice comic by Bird and Moon that shows that.

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Image copyright by Bird and Moon

Collaboration is especially important in the realm of sustainability, which is a world I did not expect to enter. It’s quite a booming area, especially in Singapore. Everyone and your mother is doing sustainability.*  (That, and “cities” and “resilience.”) I referred (again) to this Ngram by xkcd.

*Did I really say that in a university class? Yes, I did.

Image copyright by xkcd

Image copyright by xkcd

Instead of being a part of the echo chamber that such “trending” fields create, perhaps new solutions can emerge by letting disciplines hang out together, as they used to do, way back when.

In the end, I emphasized empathy to these bright eyed young students who are in the middle of creating sustainable urban interventions for their class. I said this as someone from the Philippines, a developing country. I cannot tell you how many international consultants in there right now, wanting to save it from XYZ problems. Now, I am very grateful that these brilliant people are there, and I am sure they have great intentions. Certainly foreigners can see opportunities locals may have overlooked, as I have had, being a foreigner in four other countries. But I’ve seen enough projects that never get implemented or never have their full potential realized because of these gaps in empathy. I believe we can do better.

This week, something unexpected happened; I’m a published print journalist once again. Pop the champagne! It’s nothing I haven’t already wrote or spoke about before—I wrote about DrawHappy (full article below) for the readers of the Philippine Daily Inquirer. This is the first print article about the project, and I hope to write about my other projects, too.

DrawHappy in the Philippine Daily Inquirer’s Learning section

How did this happen? Last week, I had coffee with my former editor, whom I hadn’t seen in eight years and who now runs the Learning section. She was kind enough to listen to the projects I am running. That was on a Wednesday; my first article ran five days later. I have been through enough to be grateful for paths of least resistance. It’s pretty much the same routine of me looking at all submissions, except that whatever I send to my editor will exist in print first, then this blog.

Why this newspaper? Well, I used to write for them. While I was rarely in their offices—the consequence of the Internet—I did meet my editor, the president, and the chairperson once, and they’re quite lovely people whom I respect. I have quite fond memories of assignments involving me as a zookeeper, a magician’s assistant, a mascot, a sushi chef, as well as the requisite book and movie reviews. The Philippine Daily Inquirer also has the widest readership in the Philippines. Because it exists in print as well as online media, I hope my projects reach even those who can’t afford technology.

Back in the day, I was what they would call a youth correspondent, and I was just out of high school. (No need for gasps of ageist-related awe; there were people younger than I was, and trust me, the differences in depth of writing among them were vast.) During college I wrote over 100 articles until I moved to New York.

I am very thankful for those years with the Inquirer because it taught me to be able to write about anything with the tightest of deadlines and with the barest of writing instruments and technology. It has taught me to take criticism, hate mail, and the occasional death threat with as much poise and dignity as possible. Going back to those old articles has always made me smile and wince at the same time. What one writes when she is 29 years old is quite different when she was 17.

It’s also funny because, as someone who was always taught that writing is no way to make a living, it has been helping me pay the bills in the almost-two months I’ve been finished with my Fulbright. Back in those days, I deposited all my writing-related paychecks in a couple of local bank accounts that I promptly forgot when I left to travel. It’s not much, but hey, guess who just paid herself while she gets her projects off the ground? Oh, the irony.

Below is the article, with the link to PDI’s website here.

What Makes the World Happy

DrawHappy: A global art project on drawing your happiness

“Happiness is not something ready made. It comes from your own actions.”

—Dalai Lama

Perhaps it was a nagging curiosity, perhaps it was restlessness, but for one reason or another, I found myself in the mysterious and sometimes mystical country of Iceland. It wasn’t just the need to get away from the mania of New York City. I went there on a hunch. For years, I have been fascinated with happiness—its arbitrariness as well as our insistence on studying it as though it were quantifiable. Iceland happens to rank consistently as one of the happiest places in the world. And so off I went.

I wanted to ask these people what made them happy, but ah, how do I get them to show it? I realized that one of the most universal and clearest ways to record their responses was to ask them to draw their happiness. Drawing is one of the earliest skills we learn; its basic elements are comprehensible to people of all ages, cultures, and nations. I reasoned that if people knew that they were happy, they should be able to identify the source and moreover, visually embody this joy.

Kindness is first

I vividly remember the first time I asked someone to draw. It was in a diner, a short pit stop on the way back to Reykjavik after spending time in the black beaches of Vik. The young man, Arnar, who worked the register and couldn’t be more than 17 years old, was such a warm an genuine character that I knew I had to ask him.

When you have a project in your head, the initial step is always one of uncertainty and awkwardness. I didn’t have a name for the project yet. I felt foolish for even asking. But I was immensely touched when he drew something that I never thought would be the first sketch. “When I see people do an act of kindness, that makes me feel truly happy,” he said. Kindness! In a world that’s often depicted as materialistic and disconnected! Perhaps there was something to this after all.

A one-woman happiness machine

That first encounter made it easier for the succeeding ones. I became a one-woman happiness machine right afterwards, asking everyone in my path. Even a particularly cold and windy day (in Iceland, “windy” means “being swept off your feet”) didn’t stop me—I went through the entire street of Laugavegur, the primary commercial street in Reykjavik, and asked every single person who would listen to me. Some turned me away, but many took my offered pencil and drew, which they confessed they hadn’t done in years. Some told me that no one ever asked them this question before, which made me do a double-take (Seriously?) and a cartwheel (Yes! About time!).

I set my goal for the Iceland trip to 100 drawings, a big yet manageable number since my trip lasted around two weeks, with half of the time spent chasing waterfalls, volcanoes, and the Northern Lights. But I persisted, even asking people on the plane with me en route to New York. Upon returning, I reviewed the sketches I had, reflected on why I was even interested in doing this to begin with, and decided to put everything online and continue the project.

Drawings as data

My teachers and classmates at the Interaction Design program at the School of Visual Arts, where I received my MFA this May, helped me a lot in tightening up my story and clarifying my intentions with DrawHappy. A final project for my Data Visualization class led to me creating an infographic about the sketches I had. I began treating the drawings as actual data, categorizing the countries where people came from and what they drew. I think doing this helped me understand why people chose to draw what they did.

Until now, I ask people to give their name, age, country of origin, and profession. They don’t have to, but I encourage it because I think it’s important to own up to your happiness and it gives me a way to see how it is defined by people of their demographic. I also ask them about what they were doing right before they made the drawing; I think our notion of happiness is contextual and affected by the things that surround us. How a person views happiness also changes through time, and occasionally, I get another submission from a previous participant, whose definition of happy has evolved.

Going global

It has been more than a year since Iceland. The project has since received submissions from 47 countries. Even now, my heart would skip a beat every time I get an email from a complete stranger, wanting to participate in the project. I have smiled, laughed, wondered at, and cried at the stories I have gotten from people I may never meet. DrawHappy has been a window into our shared humanity, one that is universal and timeless. I hope to run this project forever; I think it has sustained me as well as the people who have supported it.

Lessons on happiness

DrawHappy has also made me understand happiness in a deeper way. Happiness is a paradox. To quantify it, as I have found, is less interesting to me than to qualify it by what people have chosen to draw. Happiness is also a way of life, not an end. How we are happy, that is, whether we can see the little joys in the day, matters more than the bigger payoffs of life. Finally, I now believe that happiness is something that can be cultivated or practiced every single day. I hope that in getting people to draw, they will be reminded of their happiness and that they take steps to pursue it.

Parts of this article have appeared in the project’s site, http://www.DrawHappy.org as well as my personal blog, http://www.ThePerceptionalist.com. Follow the project at http://www.DrawHappy.org or @idrawhappy.

Starting today, we will be accepting DrawHappy submissions from all PDI readers! Visit http://www.DrawHappy.org/submit for submission guidelines  and terms, and email drawhappyproject@gmail.com with the subject line “DrawHappy PDI.” We will feature a drawing every week in Inquirer Learning, and will post them online at http://www.DrawHappy.org. If you wish to hold a DrawHappy event in your school, company, or organization, please email me as well.