The case in BKK

UX | Mental Health

The first photo you will see when you scroll down says a lot.


In the photo, my colleague Paricha Duangtaweesub, is leaning over a computer with an elderly woman. This is in a tiny print shop just off of a university campus in Bangkok. Paricha was negotiating with her the price of printing our workbooks and tickets in color versus black and white. I took this photo as we were preparing for a week of workshops on design thinking, resilience, and mindfulness.


The workshops were also secretly an experiment we were running about how the urban landscape and the emotions people have are intertwined. The result of this experiment took us down a twistier rabbit hole than we anticipated.

In general the world is changing (duh) and some people just naturally adapt better than others. Bangkok set up Design Week 2020 as a platform to have the entire city come together and come up with solutions to modern problems that work for everyone. The theme was "resilience."


We wanted to take part, so we set out to learn what we could from the citizens of Bangkok. We set up a series of 3 workshops around the city. These workshops though were also a method for participants to help us analyze some data. I presented my findings on resilience and mindfulness and in return participants examined  the urban centers around Bangkok.


Prior to the workshop we filmed some of the most common locations around Bangkok as well as recorded a soundscape of the city for people to reflect on. The experiment was to see how people would characterize the different locations. The data we got from the workshops were:


1) a Diary Survey asking people to track a stressful place and a joyous place in their lives.

2) A full A-E-I-O-U breakdown of each of the 4 common locations by new groups during the 3 workshops. Every post-it note also had a linked emotion: beneficial :) or hurtful :(

3) Extracted themes and mindmaps from each of the groups about the common locations.


We collected everything and clustered it and created a few 2x2's to examine major themes that emerged from across all of the participants.

An interesting spectrum emerged which we presented on our final talk on the last day of BKKDW2020. Some spaces were clearly bad causing people to feel isolated, inactive, and idle (ex: rush hour). These spaces are dubbed "crowded." Other spaces were clearly good causing people to feel connected, rested, and alive (ex: parks). These spaces are dubbed "lively." In the middle are ambiguous spaces which can go either way (ex: street markets).

A person can do the same action in any spaces, but the space will color that action to be hurtful if the space is "crowded", or beneficial if the space is "lively." No matter where people are, they will mostly do the same things: sit around and stare at a mobile phone, be walking from one area to another, talking, or looking absent mindedly into the distance. That list explains 90% of what people do, physically. But the emotions behind the actions totally changes depending on where they are.


If they are in a park, people will generally feel more alive and in tune with their surroundings and themselves. A person is "chill" and "serene." If they are in a crowded bus stop, people will feel disconnected and isolated even if they are physically doing the same thing. They are "bored" or "passive aggressive."


That example is not a universal truth. Every person, as an individual, has particular spaces that will color an action to feel positive. They also have particular spaces that will color the same action to feel negative. Not all crowded bus stops will make everyone feel annoyed. It’s just in general they do.


The problem is that people spend most of their day in "crowded" spaces which are also exceedingly common. Secondly, the "lively" spaces are precarious and a trigger can make them inaccessible or turn them completely into a "crowded" space. For example, malls used to be considered "lively" but with the recent COVID pandemic they have become places of fear with people wearing masks and sanitizing their hands at every turn.


Once a "lively" place becomes "crowded," it is really hard for it to go back and a new "lively" place doesn't simply pop up to take it's place.


Our recommendation follows Hazel Markus' Culture Cycle:


1) The easiest step is to shift "ambiguous" spaces to be more "lively" which can be small scale interventions done by an individual.

2) The medium step is to shift "crowded" spaces to be more "ambiguous". This must be done by groups and communities and requires more people interacting with one another.

3) The hardest step is to strengthen precarious "lively" places. This can only be possible through the work of institutions like the government and media.


Everyone has a role. It is up to everyone to make permanent change.


In the next phase, we began studying what it actually takes to transform crowded spaces, and what makes them that way in the first place. We took a long look at the feeling of disconnection that permeates crowded spaces.


What we found wasn't good.


The people of Bangkok are facing an emotional epidemic where mental disorders, and suicidal tendencies are three times higher than the national average. We started the project to help people overcome deep-rooted conditioning from living in a culture where expressing unpleasantness and vulnerabilities are avoided at all cost. Our research, based on the neurobiology of resilience, showed that conditioned smiles and behavior actually stifle our ability to manage our emotions and think rationally.

Phase 2

"Words are like a poison arrow; the best thing to do when shot is to pull it out and begin healing where it hurts." - Attendee of the Smile Space Exhibit

We believe that the residents within Bangkok’s busiest of the busy areas urgently need to vent and cognitively reconnect with their sense of empathy, decision-making, and good judgment. The common crowded spaces needed to become lively. With this in mind we began the second phase, Smile Space, with funding from YSEALI Seeds.


Originally, Smile Space was a physical space where people would be guided to reconnect with their inner selves through interactions designed to counter emotional triggers from urban living. We began the project by conducting ethnographic interviews to understand the subtext of fake smiles and displayed vs. felt emotions.


Through the interviews we were able to create a mental framework that allowed us to fine tune what Smile Space could look like; a model that describes how “normal” people are separated from “crazy” people by a thin but robust wall made of labels, cultural idioms, and social stigma. In short, we saw no room for people to share their feelings without getting judged. There was no lively place for it.


When COVID-19 spread, we had to radically shift our approach to a fully online experience.


While inconvenient, this shift helped us refine our point of view. We wondered: why aren’t more people talking about how they feel? Perhaps, it is difficult to talk about something conceptual, at first. So, instead of focusing purely on the emotions we feel, we decided to focus on the words we can hear. Or rather, "wordisms."


Wordisms is the inconspicuous, everyday language that people throw around, that actually create a "crowded" space and incrementally damage others or cause them to disconnect. Wordisms became our term for loaded words and phrases we commonly use without questioning how they make us think or feel a certain way. Smile Space became the place where we put a highlighter to it.


Wordisms + Smile Space had to be an experience where people can reflect on the subtext of common phrases and microaggressions that are in-part responsible for creating the deep-rooted conditioning that we noticed.


After a few prototypes, we settled on an Instagram platform as a starting place and started bringing people onboard for graphic design work and managing the account. An earlier prototype was designed for people to explore different emotions and parse complex feelings. This prototype is now used as a resource in a course when students learn about recognizing emotions in others in order to create a better empathic holding space.


@wearesmilespace is an online Instragram page that translates common phrases and lets people reflect on the reactions that they trigger. The page ran several rounds of topics each lasting about a week. Some topics included COVID-19, consolation, supportive words, intimacy and violence, and sexism.


The next step in the process was to move Wordisms beyond instagram and to let people engage with Wordisms in different ways. So we began to collaborate with other groups to design workshops as the first and second wave of COVID-19 eased out. We collaborated with MindTerra who ran journaling workshops to get people to reflect on wordisms they hear through writing. This type of workshop ran several times and culminated with a few stories that were presented in the final exhibit.


We also collaborated with Navinda Pachimsawat to create a movement workshop that allowed people to express their inner reality through their bodies. Lastly, we collaborated with Lego Serious Play® facilitator Siriwan Siriwangsanti to develop a workshop that used Legos to explore subconscious meanings of wordisms.


All of this work finally culminated in a physical exhibit where the public could explore the work that happened but also engage with the material and themselves reflect on wordisms and the emotional triggers they face. With help from a design team, this final exhibition showcased to the public that mental well-being can begin with an everyday act as small as a single word.


In every space, we tried to be interactive - through explicit activities (workshops, exhibition) or through implicit thought processes (Instagram) - thus involving our audience in the act of creating that safe space together. On top of the hundreds of people who participated in our three core activities, and the thousands of engagements online, it was heartwarming to hear people share very intimate stories in the presence of strangers.


In addition to the audience, we’ve also had the opportunity to design an interactive experience for a digital artist in his first solo exhibition on the theme of love. The diversity of collaborators helped us realize the universality of the concept of wordisms and gave us confidence to explore further the possibilities of a sustainable initiative.


Through our activities, we’ve met with some incredible people working in mental health that we have begun conversations with about future partnerships and contributions with Smile Space. After the completion of the exhibit, it became very clear that Smile Space can become a huge value to the social impact organizations through mental health conscious content generation, and workshop/experience design. Because we deeply engaged the teen population in the Bangkok through @wearesmilespace, we began a new chapter with Mindventure: a social impact organization working on developing emotional intelligence in adolescents. Additionally we are helping with Nook who are the organizers of Unknown Together, a mental health campaign sponsored by Facebook.


Smile Space is continuing forward and becoming more localized in an effort to create more "lively" spaces for people to connect with their core.