One hundred six submissions into this project, I’ve decided to visualize what I have learned so far. Behold, an infographic:
[Click on the image above to get a bigger view.]
I presented this as a final project for Nicholas Felton’s Information Visualization class here at the School of Visual Arts’ MFA Interaction Design program. This was an emergency project – we were tasked to visualize any collection numbering at least 100 and as someone who doesn’t have a lot of worldly possessions, I was frankly desperate. Then I realized during the eleventh hour that I DO have a collection that is actually interesting and can add to the knowledge of humanity in some way. Sweet.
There are three sets of data here so far:
The first contains general information of participants – gender, age, ethnicity, and hair color. I also plotted whether they were a tourist/native, a stranger/friend. I could chart their countries of origin and profession – note that there are more than 106 points in these two categories since people listed more than one. I also took a page off of Nick’s 2009 annual report and charted the first letter of participants’ names, which was quite interesting. One person had two of the runic letters in the Icelandic alphabet. I remember him well – he was working in a bookstore on Reykjavik’s main street, Laugavegur, and he glanced furtively around (possibly for his boss) before drawing. I told him I would take full responsibility if he got caught. His happiness? Music, travel and beer.
I’ve plotted the countries of origin on a map, which doesn’t look very impressive right now, as I’ve only 106 participants. Eventually, I hope to have a map filled with dots that expand to people’s drawings when you touch them.
The second set of data contained the nature of interaction. I thought that the amount of time they were allowed to draw, what they were doing and where they were at the moment I approached them, and whether they were alone or with others all influenced their responses – some would draw in the same category or style. For example, when two gentlemen were asked simultaneously, one drew “Pie,” and the other drew “Pinot Noir and figs,” which seemed a bit too coincidental.
Finally, the last set of this visualization contains data on the actual sketches. I thought it was interesting at how more than half of the respondents had drawings that were rough sketches, which I’ve defined to be a step beyond stick figures – at this point, hands begin to have fingers, faces begin to have expressions and more detailed parts, etc. I was also intrigued at how 40% of people relied on text; that is, they had to substitute their concept with words when drawing could not do the job. I’ve seen this in more abstract or general concepts, such as “something to do” or “meeting people,” which perhaps stick figures cannot sufficiently convey. As expected, things like “family” came up a lot (33%), as well as “friends,” “music,” “travel,” and “nature.”
Perhaps the most interesting (yet admittedly subjective) piece of data is when I tried plotting all the responses on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, which consists of five levels: physiological (basic needs for survival), safety & security, love & belonging, self-esteem, and self-actualization (I determined that responses such as “travel” or anything related to creativity fell into this category).
It started to look as though love & belonging ranked the highest in what made people happy, followed closely by self-actualization. Nick, my instructor, remarked on how it looks as though Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs was beginning to have a different shape, at least where my project was concerned. Although this was interesting, I (as well as my colleagues when I showed this in class), had a lot of reservations because of several caveats, including, but not limited to, the lack of anonymity of the study, people’s varying definitions of these categories (including mine), the fact that Maslow’s chart is more of a staircase – you need to have climbed on the lower step to get to the next one, which means that it’s not necessarily the case that safety & security do not make people happy as much as love & belonging does; you have to achieve safety & security to have love & belonging, etc., etc. But nonetheless, it was an interesting question to consider.
So, what now? The scientist part of me will be the first to machine-gun this data with holes. I never meant for this to be a scientific study – there are way too many variables and I know that the fact that this is not an anonymous project makes most people unconsciously censor their responses. To a certain extent, I feel that many questions on happiness lies outside the domain of science, which is why this project primarily remains an art project and a social experiment.
But this qualitative view of happiness is precisely what I wanted for this project. I love happiness research, yet the quantitative nature of most of these projects has at times left me bereft. For example, I may rate my happiness level today at a 9, since school is temporarily out for the summer and I can finally get some sleep. That seems pretty high, yet I know it can never compare with the happiness of a man who has been starving for weeks and was suddenly given an entire banquet of food. Let’s say he rates that experience a 10. For some reason, those two examples are just way too different and unique to be reduced to a number.
It also felt great asking people to identify their source of happiness. It was intriguing to hear people say how they’ve never thought about it before, or how no one has ever asked them this question. It was also a joy to see their faces as they spoke about what essentially sustains them as human beings. The question “What makes you happy?” is I feel one of the most powerful (and dangerous) things you can ask, more so than other questions I could have used, such as “What is your greatest fear?” Essentially, I am asking everyone what makes him want to keep on living. To allow a stranger like myself access to their answers almost felt like an invasion of their privacy, and to have obtained about 100 responses from one short trip alone was very humbling.
Now, why drawing? As an illustrator, I’ve often felt that the more I am able to visually embody an idea, the clearer it is in my head. I reasoned that when it comes to happiness, if it is indeed a goal, then one is supposed to be able to clearly see it mentally and then mark it on paper. As a writer, I also understand when people have to resort to text. Drawing for me is more universal than writing, so I was a bit surprised when some people refused to participate because they did not want to draw.
So, now what? I hope to keep working on this project. New Yorkers, alas, are not as accommodating as Icelanders, so I hope to continue this project and these conversations, both through one-on-one interactions as well as accepting online and snail mail submissions. By the end of my term here at SVA’s Interaction Design program, I intend to produce a book of all these sketches, including interviews and essays of all I’ve learned from the project.
Kudos to our chair, Liz Danzico, and my cybernetics professor, Paul Pangaro, for all the advice, encouragement and insightful critique throughout this project so far.
7 May 2011
[Edit: An earlier version of the infographics incorrectly placed Slovakia on the map. With apologies!]