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TEDxNewHaven Talks Now Online

3 Mar

My talks from TEDxNewHaven last year are up online. A big thank you again to Sunnie and Mario and the rest of their team!

TEDxNewHaven, April 2012, The Art and Science of Happiness

1. Start a Hugging Revolution

2. The Sky as a Canvas for Creativity

3. The Memory of Smell

4. Happiness and the Senses

Blog posts about the production process
* Sense kit production process here
* My thoughts on the event here

TEDxNewHaven Experience Design: Happiness and the Senses

5 May

Speaking at my first TEDx conference was a challenge. It was not just because it was a great platform for ideas, but because of the timing, design, and execution needed to pull off four interactive talks in one day.

TEDxNewHaven: The Art and Science of Happiness. Photo by Chris Randall

The theme for TEDxNewHaven was The Art and Science of Happiness. My goal for the talks was two-fold: to engage the audience in something interactive in the course of the day, and to enable them to view their senses as tools by which to achieve happiness. To achieve these, I had to produce 200 “sense kits” that contained physical, non-digital formats of my projects: HugPrints,RorsketchSmellbound, and EatPoetry.

Round One. Photo by Liz Danzico

First Talk: Touch

My first talk was about using our sense of touch. I presented HugPrints, my project where I am attempting to hug everyone in the world and getting visual feedback through a specially designed thermochromic vest. I asked volunteers to come up the stage to hug me.

Hugging on stage. Don’t you just love it? Photo by Chris Randall

Afterwards, I asked the rest of the audience to pull out the HugPrints cards in their sense kits, which contained hugging instructions so they can hug each other (if they wished).

Are you getting enough hugs a day? Photo by Chris Randall

Second Talk: Sight

For the second talk, I explained Rorsketch and first engaged the audience in a guessing game of what clouds looked like and then revealed what drawings I made. After doing this project for a while, I wasn’t surprised about how some people were calling out the same things, while other clouds had very different interpretations.

Yes, it’s a dragon! Photo by Chris Randall

I then asked the audience to pull out the blue Rorsketch cards and the Sharpies in their kits, and they drew their own interpretations on the clouds printed on their cards. To encourage them to draw, I did a live drawing session on a big cloud on stage.

Drawing on a cloud. The cloud I sketched on was taken by Nikki Sylianteng. Photo by Liz Danzico

One of my fellow speakers, Nima Tshering, sent me his cloud drawing. (Thanks, Nima!)

A fairy grandma with a baby by Nima Tshering

Third Talk: Smell, Hearing and Taste

I explained two projects for this post-lunch session: Smellbound and EatPoetry. First, I explained the connection between smell and memory and had the audience remove the Smellbound postcard which contained a printed smell. I showed them the book I made, An Olfactory Memoir of Three Cities. Afterwards, I read them After Apple-Picking by Robert Frost while they ate the apple lollipop inside their kits.

“Now please remove another envelope from your kits…” Photo by Chris Randall

Fourth Talk: Happiness and the Senses

For my fourth talk at the end of the conference, I summarized how we can use our senses to be happy. The key points were that we are all equipped with these tools; i.e. we all had the capacity to hug our loved ones, to interpret a cloud, to smell a memory, and to connect poetry with food, and that if we paid more attention to the world around us, it would promote our feelings of well-being and optimism. I also explained my own explorations with happiness by showing submissions from DrawHappy, as well as what I’ve learned from the project so far.

Photo by Liz Danzico

What Worked, and What I Would Do Differently Next Time

All the sleepless nights making sure all 200 kits had the right contents were definitely called for. So much craft and attention were given to every single detail—each postcard had to be sealed in an envelope so people can only view them as instructed, the envelopes had to match the main color of each project’s logo for easy recall, each postcard had to be branded and oriented in a specific direction, each kit had to contain envelopes in a particular order and needed both a Sharpie and a lollipop. Anything less would have taken away from the experience or would have confused people. Doing something onstage so that people can mirror my actions was also important, and getting all the props together also was something I had to keep in mind in addition to the actual slides.

I’ve also been onstage on different occasions and it was interesting to feel these variegations of audience contact. When performing for the Poetry Brothel in Barcelona, I had to inhabit a certain character and, depending on the piece we were doing, had to maintain a certain mystique. When doing poetry readings just as myself, there was a bit of conversation with the audience when I talk about the process of writing, but during the reading of the actual poem, it was just myself and the text. I felt this while reading the Frost poem to the TEDx crowd—the entire hall was dead silent in contrast to all the other times I was up there. (That was quite fun, actually.) But doing a talk that involved not just a Keynote presentation but an actual creative activity was another world altogether—it’s difficult to assess if everyone was enjoying the activity, although what was great about having a particularly open audience such as this one was that they weren’t afraid of trying new things.

For the next time I do something of this nature, I would have a card that had explicit instructions not to use the objects inside the kit unless asked. Although I anticipated this by making sure the envelopes were sealed, I did catch at least one person eating their candy before lunch. (We were running a bit late, and I suppose he was hungry.) One thing about having a sealed and long candy stick was that it affords a long eating session; they wouldn’t have finished it to begin with and they could just put the candy back in the plastic and in the kit. Hard candy was definitely the way to go.

Also, I would have split the third talk (Smellbound and EatPoetry) into two and let each project have its own 10 minutes. Thus, I would have placed EatPoetry for the fourth talk and followed it with a short summary of the senses. When I went up for the last talk and said that “Ok, I’m not going to make you do anything now,” I could swear I felt the disappointment of some people. If the schedule allowed it, giving each project its own time in the spotlight would have allowed the audience to absorb the concept more fully, instead of rushing to the next project right away. I can’t wait until I develop these projects more and more, and see what I will ask people to do the next time.


I have to say, I love this format of getting the audience to actually do something creative in a talk, instead of me just standing there telling them about myself. Thanks again to the audience for being open to these ideas, my friends and colleagues for helping me pull this off, and to the wonderful team at TEDxNewHaven who worked tireless to make it all happen!

Thanks to Kate Russell and Liz Danzico, my plus two!

Another version The exact version of this post appears in my actual blog, The Perceptionalist.

TEDxNewHaven: The Art and Science of Happiness on April 28th

23 Apr

I have been invited as a speaker at the inaugural TEDxNewHaven conference at Yale University. The theme of the conference is “The Art and Science of Happiness”, and it will take place on April 28th from 10am to 6pm. I will give four talks / exercises of most of my thesis projects as well as some other projects I’ve made in my two years here at the School of Visual Arts in New York City (including DrawHappy and other projects like this one), along with 12 other speakers who will explore the theme of happiness through the lens of their respective research and work. Topics will be drawn from a diverse set of disciplines, ranging from positive psychology, entrepreneurship, education, politics, media, culture, technology, and art.

This conference is designed to inspire people and make them happy. Its primary goal is to foster connections among the diverse audience which will consist of Yale students and professors, New Haven residents, and a global online audience. To that end, the primary aim of the conference is to spark a deep conversation about individual as well as the community’s collective well-being. It is the first time that a TED event specifically presents the theme of happiness, so this conference promises to be very interesting!

I hope you will be able to join me! It will take place in the Sudler Hall auditorium, in William L. Harkness Hall (WLH) on 100 College Street, on the Yale University campus in New Haven, CT. You can apply for a ticket here.

Currently, I am neck deep in my thesis and making 200 sense kits for the TEDxNewHaven audience. This week, I’m defending my thesis on Friday, then catching the train to New Haven to get some sleep in a hotel then wake up to do my talks and learn more about a subject I hope to be fascinated with for the rest of my life. Did you catch all that caffeine in that run-on sentence? I’m excited for it all; I hope you do come!


30 Jan

Yesterday, I gave a talk / workshop to a large group of young girls, aged 9 to 15 (including two young boys and some parents) at the Intrepid Museum here in New York City called, “Wonder, Unlimited: A Speculative Workshop.” I asked them to take a piece of today and imagine it at least 50 years from now. To help them loosen up and get their creative juices flowing, I asked them to draw on clouds and to draw their happiness. I printed simple worksheets (see below) to hand out to the kids. Go download them free here, and use it for your happy needs.

Would YOU like to be a HappyAgent?

16 Jan

If you’ve already drawn your happiness, or want to spread happiness, then DrawHappy wants you! I drew the poster below inspired by a lot of the submissions this project has received. If you’d like to spread the love and be a HappyAgent, simply print the poster below and tape it in your neighborhood cafe, workplace, apartment building, or any other place that’s allowed. Cut along the dotted lines so people can rip off a piece of it as a reminder when they get home.

Here’s a colored version, though the black and white version is also available for download, so you can color it or personalize it any way you want.

Visit our Downloads page for US letter and A4 sizes.

When you do, take a photo and email it to with your name and the location you’ve placed it in, and we’ll feature you on the site! Or better yet, approach strangers and ask them to draw their happiness, too! (More on this later.)

Be a HappyAgent, because happiness is contagious!

DrawHappy, One Year Later

2 Jan

Well, almost. I returned from my trip to Iceland on January 10th, bringing with me a hundred sketches, a sea of stories, and a now-heightened tolerance of the cold that is quite useful for one who grew up in the tropics. I never thought I’d continue DrawHappy, as I’m usually doing other projects and have a really short attention span. But the post-Iceland sketches came in sporadically, and I’ve realized that it was the occasional email or package with a happy drawing that helped sustain me—and I hope those who follow the project—throughout 2011. It didn’t even have to be a fancy sketch; many I’ve received were beautifully simple. But I think it was this simplicity that made these drawings a joy to behold. Others were more elaborate, and I’ve been speechless at the amount of time and effort it must have taken to do some of them.

But first, hurray, we have a logo!

(A little late, but grad school has kept me busy.)

I used a stick figure jumping for joy, since in Iceland quite a lot of people drew that, handing their sketch tentatively and apologetically because their drawings weren’t a da Vinci. But I think the simplicity of it brought about clarity, which was the reason I asked you all to draw instead of write. I loved the sketches, stick figures and all. Thank you for all of them.

Remember the visualization I made after the 100 sketches? Honestly, I did that to pass a class, as I felt I had no other interesting data to use for my final project. But I loved what I learned from the analysis of these sketches, especially where happiness may be plotted on other standards of happiness. It made me ask questions. Why draw? Why record the moment of drawing? So what? Now what?

Why draw?

Drawing is one of the earliest skills we learn; its basic elements are comprehensible to people of all ages, cultures and nations. No one is judging how good the drawing is; the lone requirement is that you embody your definition of happiness by taking a pencil to paper. To draw is to make clear to yourself. The project forces you to dig deep into your memory and pull from its recesses that which sustains you as a human being.

I believe most of us lose opportunities to draw. Our lives are run on devices, which I love and use eagerly; this project would never have had this global reach without technology. But while we can externalize some abilities to our machines, I hope that we don’t forget some of the basic skills that are not just universal, but critical for self-reflection and growth. I consider it a minor triumph to get people unplugged, if only for a few minutes.

A more practical reason for drawing is that while the aspiration for happiness seems to be universal (although I suppose there will always be a lot of masochistic grumps in the world), our definition of it is not. Moreover, there are times when it is difficult to label it; this is why the labeling of the sketch was not required. (I still believe it shouldn’t, though it might help me entitle your post! In these cases, I’ve done my best to simply describe what I saw, and not interpret them.)

Why the moment?

I am a scientist by training; this has given me an analytic stance when doing any project. Our definition of happiness as well as the quantification of how happy we are is dependent on what we are doing in that specific point in time. If you were riding horses that day and were still feeling exhilarated, then naturally you will draw horses. What makes other human beings happy also affected what we think makes us happy; hence, the company you kept at the time of your sketching was also recorded. I recall a time when two friends I asked both drew food. One sketched pie and the other, Pinot noir and grapes.

What I wished for

I hope that this project has made the participants want to pursue their happiness because of this brief moment of having to have considered it. There were some people who told me no one ever asked this of them before, which made me both do a double-take (Seriously?) and a cartwheel (Yes! About time!) I, too, have learned so much about the universality of happiness and how, despite our different zip codes, we all aspire for similar things in life.

Other things I’ve learned

1. Brazil is a very happy country. I hope to physically take this project there one day. Obrigado for the shout out, Super!

2. Beauty comes from boredom. Another reason why it was interesting to examine the moment of drawing:  many drew while they were bored in school, a meeting, a conference.  It must feel very satisfying to take that moment back for oneself. I loved it.

3. One should participate and not just observe one’s projects. I drew my own happiness, too!  It also inspired a lot of sketching projects, such as this and now this. It has also been a great reference to my lifelong obsession with human perception.

Now what?

I really want this project to go on forever. It would be interesting how this would look like in 5, 10, 20 years. I’m not expecting to receive hundreds of submissions a day (though that would be awesome!). I am  fully aware that drawing is asking a lot from people. I hope to take this project many steps further. It’s not just because it’s such a joy to do; more broadly, I want to ask, “Is it possible to have a record of what sustains humanity?” And once we know what does, will we take steps to ensure that we, our community, and our society make it easier for us to grasp them?

Thank you for supporting this project! In the meantime, please do keep sending me your sketches. Or  let me know how this affected you, if it has.

More updates soon!

A happy pause: a visualization

8 May

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
New York

[Edit: An earlier version of the infographics incorrectly placed Slovakia on the map. With apologies!]