View the full project in PDF here.

Why this project exists

Taken from pages 1-2 of the booklet.

As a creative, I am interested in understanding the human condition. Most of my projects so far have reflected this, I explore topics such as culture, language, and mental wellbeing. In 2017, I did an embroidery project detailing the type of anxious thoughts I had. A few years later, someone sent me a message telling me how my work resonated with them. They were surprised that someone else had the same kind of anxieties. My assumption was that they were from a conservative place that didn’t talk about mental health. They told me they wanted to try out my project to better understand their own mental health.

My project on anxiety made me realize how documenting my life through data could help people better understand who they are. The power of visualizing data comes from being able to see it. Once we see it, we begin to understand. And when we start to understand, we develop an awareness of ourselves, which allows us to change who we are.

The project I did on anxiety only scratched the surface of mental health. I felt that there was potential for me to go deeper on this topic. I drew inspiration from Pictal Health as I was fascinated by how data visualization design was applied in healthcare. Katie McCurdy, founder of Pictal Health, visualizes the medical history of patients. And I started to wonder, “could I do this for mental health?”. It would be interesting if I could see trends by plotting my mental health over an extended period. I’ve spent about 10 years on and off with therapy and couldn’t show my progress over time. Apps and gadgets do a great job at measuring our physical health, such as weight, blood pressure, number of steps we walked, etc, but fall short on tracking our mental wellbeing.

So, I set out to make this project. For several months, I collected data on my mental health from April 2019 to June 2019. The method for collecting data was loosely based on thought records used in CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy). I had data structured around situation, thoughts, and feelings for the day.

This project is an expression of the data I collected on myself. I have designed it as an internal dialogue, which almost mimics the therapy sessions I would have. In this dialogue, there are two parts of me present. The first is the one that I felt was rational. It is the one that wanted to get better and it could see consequences. I call this side Jane. The other self is less rational, it thinks and behaves in ways that don’t make any sense. For example, this self would procrastinate, fixate over small details, or jump to drastic conclusions. I call this self Wyn. Wyn is the side that caves into unhealthy thought patterns, while Jane is the one who sees this happening and tries to make it better.  Writing the interpretations of the data as a dialogue helps me feel more comfortable talking about it. It can feel crippling to talk about mental health. Talking about it in almost a third-person perspective makes this easier and almost ‘safer’ to do.

The concept for this project is to untangle. I view the thoughts and emotions I feel like a big ball of yarn. All the information is cluttered and unclear. I’ve created the story in this project as I would approach data. Start with an overview analysis of the data available. Look for things that stand out and understand why. I hope that this book offers insights into mental health and how it affects people like me.

Data Collection and Analysis

I collected all my data through Google Forms from April 22-June 21 2019. I set a notification on my calendar every morning with a link to the survey. At first, I wanted to do the survey every day, but this was a challenge so I only managed to complete the survey on weekdays as I commuted to work.

After I finished collecting the data, I organized it and cleaned it up on MS Excel. It was a mess to comb through. I am most comfortable with MS PowerPoint so I plotted the data there. Here’s an example of a week’s worth of data for cognitive distortions I identified. These charts were really rough and it was just meant for me to show the information quickly.

A chart I made in MS PowerPoint.

Project Brief

I have started to incorporate project briefs into my personal projects. It helps me articulate why I am doing it and to lay out the desired outcomes. In the brief, I include the following to help me organize my project:

Project Overview
Target Audience
Goals and Objective
Deliverable
Design requirements
Schedule

I wasn’t very strict on adhering to the brief, I followed it like a guideline. Things always change as the project progresses. For example, I originally intended to finish the project by the end of November, but I had challenges with the project so finished it one month later.

For goals and objective, I had goals for the audience and for myself. For the audience, I wanted to leave an impression of my story and I wanted to show what it was like to live with anxiety. For myself, I wanted to get better at design. I never studied graphic design in school, I picked it up here and there. For this project, I wanted it to be well designed. I wanted it to look like a designer had a hand in it. It was important to me to be able to execute on a concept. When I look at things that are well designed, it starts from a point. This point represents a compass, it is what guides the entire process. For example, IKEA is guided by democratic design. Their products are guided by five pillars: form, quality, low price, sustainability, and function. From beginning to end, they design with these five pillars in mind. Being good at design is never losing sight of the ‘why’. It is understanding it from start to finish. And I wanted to practice this. It’s a hard skill to cultivate, but it’s important if I want to become a good designer.

The concept

An early sketch of the concept for the book. I was doodling and I ended up creating the direction for the book.

Untangling by digging deeper together. This is the concept of the book.

I think best when I use pencil and paper. One of the things I drew was a big tangled ball. I realized that this project was trying to untangle all the mess that goes on in my head.

I dig deep into my mental health by progressing back into my history. The story starts with looking at how anxiety has impacted me in a very obvious way, muscle tension. I dig deeper to understand how this started and why I developed them. As I investigate, I go back to my past and look for how my upbringing affects how I live today.

The aspect of ‘together’ is where I deal with this in a “two-ness” approach. I watched a YouTuber play a game called The Beginner’s Guide by Davey Wreden. The storytelling in the game is phenomenal and deeply emotional. I ended buying the game to experience it in first-person. In the game, Davey narrates the story and we get to play the games his friend, Coda, has made. Davey says that Coda has stopped making games. Davey hopes that by putting Coda’s games out there, Coda would be inspired to make games again. There are many interpretations to the story and it’s very meta. My interpretation is that Coda is not a real person, I think it is an alternate self of Davey and when I realized this, it blew my mind. Until the very end of the game, I was convinced that Coda was a real person. I believed that Coda was Davey’s friend. The fact that Davey was able to pull this off astonished me. I couldn’t believe it. I was engaged with the story and the story resonated with me. Somehow, I wanted to implement this in my project. So, I went on to create an alternate character called Wyn. This name was taken to be a homonym to my Chinese name, 文 (pronounced as wen).

Storytelling

I didn’t realize how hard it was to do creative writing until working on this project. I looked at my thought records and tried to figure out how I could write a cohesive story. This was very challenging. I organized the qualitative data on Trello and looked for trends. What were things that consistently came up? What was something new I learned? I come from a background in strategy, so I use sticky notes to organize insights.

I wrote many drafts to get the story to a place I was happy with. I was close to giving up on this project because I had a very hard time writing the stories. In total, there were five stories. All the stories are connected and each goes deeper than the previous one.

To edit the copy, I printed the writing and made changes with a pen.

I wrote my stories with inspiration from The Beginner’s Guide, the game is organized into chapters. Each chapter delves into the relationship between Davey and Coda. Each chapter reveals something new about their relationship and we get closer to the truth of the story.

Games have recently been focused more on storytelling than having great specs. Examples include: Detroit: Become Human, Until Dawn, Red Dead Redemption 2, Death Stranding, and the Simulacra series. There’s been a lot of talk about storytelling in design and business, but it’s very hard to learn to do it well. I think there’s a lot of things we can learn by looking at how games are written. Through cinematography, gameplay, and character development, it shapes the overall story and how players feel.

I also thought the way I decided to show the data through fiction was interesting. All the data in the book is real. I collected it from my life and I make real interpretations. But the way I present it is through fiction. Wyn isn’t real, she’s a proxy of my interpretations. Although the way I write the stories are based on real experiences I’ve had, it’s still a work of fiction. To some extent, all fiction is based on something real, something experienced. This approach wasn’t intentional for me. By design, I wanted to show the qualitative data in some form, and it came about through my fictional stories.

Colour and layout

I made a promise to myself to get better at designing books. The previous booklet I made was on the topic of IKEA’s 2019 catalogue. It was the first time I made something like this and looking back, I wasn’t satisfied with the output. I was proud of creating this project and seeing it to the end, but it showed me that I had much to improve on. I decided it was important for me to learn the fundamentals of graphic design and understand the basics. One book that helped me was Design Basics Index by Jim Krause. This book helped me understand the extent of graphic design and help me determine areas I needed to improve on. I knew I was weak when it came to colour and layout.

Colour always stumps me. How do I choose colours that are meaningful? How can I allow it to be functional? What are ways that I can incorporate flexibility? What are the applications of colour going to look like? I started off with looking at colour palettes from colorhunt.co and testing them out. Here are some early iterations:

I was still stuck. So I grabbed my pencil crayons and just combined various colours. I knew that I needed two colours because I wanted to reflect the idea of “two-ness”. Here’s some colours I tried out:

Colour combinations that I explored with pencil crayons.

I really liked the orange. I think because it was a warm and hopeful colour. When I think back to why this project exists, it’s to help people understand and develop compassion. I also want people to know that life can get better. The topics I talk about are heavy but I want it to be in a positive light.

Ultimately, I ended up with these two colours: orange and black.

In terms of layout design, I studied a couple books for inspiration. Knowledge is Beautiful, Spectacle, and Envisioning Information were referenced heavily for this project. I also went to the bookstore and a second-hand bookstore to study books.

I saw this book at my local book store and browsed through many books to study layout design.

I went with a two-column layout (following the idea of “two-ness”). The layout is has narrow margins to give more space for visualizations. There is a lot of space in the footer for the page number and additional notes if needed.

Taken directly from InDesign, this is the layout I used throughout the book.

Also, it was so hard to find good precedents when I was doing research. There aren’t many well-designed books or reports that exist for data visualization. There are books that compile examples of data visualization or talk about it, but not many that have good applications of colour or layout. It’s hard to find a cohesive story being told through data in books. Annual reports are good examples, but they are hard to find online and they usually have data as a supplement, rather than the focus. One of the resource I found helpful was work done by The Design Surgery. They put up their work online so I was able to learn a lot about colour and layout.

What Now

In the period that I collected data, I saw how my choices led me to burn out. I saw how I was making choices that made my life overwhelming. I saw how I was overworking myself and I saw how I feared failure. I am reflecting on these aspects of my life and I want to live better. I am not happy with how my work interferes with my life. I’ve started to notice that when I overwork myself, my immunity takes a hit and I get sick more often. I don’t think the answer is to simply work less. Like someone who suffers from insomnia, you can’t tell them to just go to sleep. Being addicted to work, the issue is looking at other ways for me to feel a sense of worth and value. The answer isn’t simple, but knowing the problem is the start to finding it.

As I worked on this project, I realized that the kind of work I leaned towards were similar to documentaries. I was interested in capturing things as they happened and going in-depth on the why. It is like qualitative research where you look at a small sample size but work to create insights with depth. So how is my work different from people who make documentaries through film? I think film tell stories over time. You watch a film that lasts anywhere between 50-70 minutes. What about data documentaries? I think it has the ability to condense time. I can quickly show you all that has happened to me in three months with a timeline. You can quickly experience my life with a page spread. Although, it might not be as impactful as watching a 60-minute film. But I think that is the key difference between film and data.

There’s something interesting in looking at everyday data. It’s almost like a daily vlog. A snapshot of mundane life. Vlogs are interesting in that they capture other people’s perspectives. Why are we so interested in the lives of others? Maybe we wonder what it’s like to work on Singapore Airlines, or we are curious of the average day of a medical student studying to become a doctor. We are curious to know how other’s live and want to understand their way of life. Maybe we are just searching to understand something.