A Talk with My Grandmother

On the drive home from the farmer's market, I had a touching conversation with Grandma

She's known about my interest in sustainable end of life design, and today she put me in charge of designing how we mourn her death, treat her body, and remember her, when the time comes. 

"I don't really care what you do with my body, throw me in the ocean, throw me in the toilet. I do prefer ocean, though."

We discussed options for treating bodies and why some are sustainable and some aren't, and why the sustainable ones aren't being used (see my other post about this). I talked to her about mushroom burial shrouds and she talked to me about resomation. Can you believe it? My Chinese immigrant grandma knows about resomation. Spell-check doesn't even know about resomation.  

She volunteered to be the first person I design an end of life experience for. As I choked back a couple tears, I felt so incredibly lucky and grateful for the love and open-mindedness that let this happen.

My grandma turns 81 this March. Her sense of humor is still a daily delight, though definitely an acquired taste (I’ve acquired it). You can always depend on a brutally honest, raw, pragmatic perspective from her. I think that's the reason why the conversation wasn't difficult or dreadful, we could've been talking about what we’re having for dinner. Something about my grandma made that conversation effortless, and the topic of death easy to bring up again. I feel comfortable discussing not only death, but her death at any given time. This dynamic made me grateful, but it also made me wonder how to make it ubiquitous.  

Anyway, the other day, I gave her one of the worry stones I made. Her sister died a month ago, the first sibling she's lost. To help her mourn, I explained that she can keep the stone in her pocket, and rub the surface of the stone whenever her sister comes to mind. I explained that when she passes, the same stone that offered her comfort can be passed down to my mom with the same purpose, but a deeper meaning. She liked the idea of comforting my mom with the same object she found comfort in.  This may have been the first step in helping her plan her end of life experience, I’m excited and grateful for the next. My grandma gifted me an invaluable opportunity. 



When's it ok to take a photo?

Last week, I had an interesting conversation about when it's inappropriate to take a photo. It brought up interesting concepts like taboos around photo-taking, the authenticity of experience, and the way culture adapts with technology.  

Below is a photo my friend took on her tour of a building. What you see here is a little diorama, a perfectly accurate model of the space she was in...with the exception of the man laying face-down across the central walkway.


She wanted a photo of the hilarious sight, but it actually took her three times walking past the model to eventually gather enough courage to do so. She didn't want to be rude, but what made it feel rude?

We take photos to capture something, the motivations behind this vary greatly and have evolved alongside photo-technology. So which of these motivations are good and which are bad? Justified and unjustified? What's that even mean? 

Why Do We Do It?

So why do we take photos?

to remember - we take photos for ourselves to capture a memory, an event, or a thing we need to buy at the grocery store. 

for composition - we take photos because the photo will look good. 

to share - we take photos as a way to share something with someone, whether or not the recipient is known. 

When's It Bad?

So when does taking a photo feel uncomfortable? When don't we like when photo-taking takes place? When shouldn't we take photos?

when you're in the way - when the action of taking a photo prevents people from having an experience, it's unpleasant and inconsiderate

Crucial to any modern concert-experience is the struggle to peer through the phones capturing the concert in front. 

Second-Hand Photo - the obligation to poise yourself for a photo taken in your vicinity

when you seem vain - due to current use-cases for photography, people often judge photo-taking as a vain endeavor

With the emergence of social media, image-making is no longer just for the sake of memories, it's now for the sake of sharing, and building a persona, which some perceive as vain, or even inauthentic

when you seem removed - stopping to take a photo sometimes disrupts or halts an interaction between people and an experience

This is actually the reason my friend felt uneasy about taking the aforementioned photo, she worried that it would insinuate her current companion alone wasn't enough to share this funny moment with.

 How has culture evolved around photos? How can it adapt?

Due to our constant access to a camera, the ease of capturing a moment, and image-sharing platforms, we've formed a new relationship with images and image-making. Photos can now be pieces of your identity in a different dimension, they can be a high-fidelity way of exchanging information, they can immortalize literally every waking moment of your life. 

Today, photos serve a different function, and consequently have taken on a new role in our culture. Now we need a new set of morals/ethics/etiquette for image-making. We discussed interesting perspectives about the new meaning of (taking) a photo.

Photography and Authenticity

The conversation brought up interesting dichotomies like natural/unnatural interaction, soiled/clean experience, genuine/fake depiction

The Authenticity of Experience We often refer to photos/camera experiences as being other-than the experience captured. (i.e. when you're videoing a concert, you're not experiencing the concert. When you take a picture of a meadow, you're not experiencing nature). But could photos/cameras be just another technological advance that enhances our experiences, just like our glasses, and our shoes? Could taking photos together be part of the modern concert-going experience? When is technology a part of something and separate from something? At what point does technology go from a being useful to being destructive? In the situations listed above?

The Authenticity of Persona - There's a perception that photos on social media are an inaccurate, disingenuous representation of one's identity. I think this is because we're used to seeing photos as snapshots of reality, so using them to depict something is either truthful or untruthful. But perhaps with the increasing opportunity to depict reality (inaccurately), we should adjust our trust in photos accordingly. Now is the time to take photos with a grain of salt in our perception of somebody's identity, instead resenting betrayals of our misplaced trust in photos. 

Lyrics from one of my favorite rappers come to mind:

"I am who I pretend to be
Here and now there's no rememberin'
But you n****s gonna remember me
Even if it's burnin' in effigy"

- Robespierre by Billy Woods

Photography and Ethics

With increasing access to photo-capturing, the discussion of what is right to capture and what is wrong to becomes increasingly relevant. Debate has moved from discussing capturing death on camera to much subtler nuances like "is it ok to take a photo of somebody while they're working out?" 

Photos are just one example of how culture and etiquette must adapt to the evolving landscape of technology. The effects of technological evolution are broad stroke - yielding uncertainty from the trivial (is it rude to use ellipses over text? My friend and I refer to this as 'elipsass') to the critical (what happens to our digital assets after we die? Here's a good book that explores this thoroughly). Technology has a direct relationship with culture, how can we prepare accordingly? Can we design platforms/interactions that allow for moral clarity in the wake of emerging technology?

Take-Aways from the End Well Symposium

Below are some things I took away from attending the 2017 End Well Symposium. "End Well is a first of its kind gathering of design, tech, health care and activist communities with the goal of generating human-centered, interdisciplinary innovation for the end of life experience."

 BJ Miller of Zen Hospice giving a presentation at the End Well Symposium

BJ Miller of Zen Hospice giving a presentation at the End Well Symposium

  • Love constitutes life and death
  • Suffering is ok, let us not try to shy away from it 
  • Death is experienced through community, death can be and is often social
  • Death is profound, and we all experienced it, death has & will shape us all
  • Aesthetic experiences determine so much of the dying experience. "Experiential Care" must be valued more
  • Death is important AND imperative
  • Death and culture function in tandem, they affect eachother
  • Noise causes stress and stress causes noise
  • Death is not a medical issue, it's a human issue
  • Once you accept death, you can begin to think about today, instead of tomorrow
  • Death is not about the individual, it's about his/her relationships
  • High quality palliative care, & EOL protocol saves money
  • We must stop compartmentalizing death in life
  • People want to die in peace, not the ICU
  • Death is always uncertain and dreadful, people need stability
  • "People who are dying are also living"
  • "When somebody dies, it's a moment for the living"
  • Life is about power and control, & when we die, we lose that
  • Death can often bring a new life & it depends on outlook, how can we promote this?
  • Dying is a single event that pushes us to celebrate an entire life
  • Your relationship with the deceased can evolve even after they die
  • We need to care for those who care for others

Dying Comfortably and Dying Sustainably

Below is an analysis of how current mourning practices damage the environment, what sustainable solutions are available, and how we can convince people to adopt them. 

Particularly in Western society, the way we mourn our dead has done considerable damage to the environment. From burning up formaldehyde-soaked bodies to occupying up a million acres of land in the US, our mourning methods pose a dire need for change. 

Throughout the years, technology has yielded numerous significant, groundbreaking solutions to the environmental/long term effect of grief. 

 The Infinity Burial Suit is a burial shroud impregnated with fungal spores that prevent bodily toxins from seeping into the soil, while delivering nutrients from the body to surrounding plants through its fungal network. This is designed by Coeio, see their  TedTalk here . 

The Infinity Burial Suit is a burial shroud impregnated with fungal spores that prevent bodily toxins from seeping into the soil, while delivering nutrients from the body to surrounding plants through its fungal network. This is designed by Coeio, see their TedTalk here

 Italian firm Capsula Mundi turns cemeteries to forests with their  organic, biodegradable burial pods. 

Italian firm Capsula Mundi turns cemeteries to forests with their organic, biodegradable burial pods. 

 "Liquid Burials" are an alkaline hydrolysis process, or Resomation, that turns your body into “a tea-coloured liquid” which can be harmlessly flushed into the local water system. More info  here

"Liquid Burials" are an alkaline hydrolysis process, or Resomation, that turns your body into “a tea-coloured liquid” which can be harmlessly flushed into the local water system. More info here

However, today we still suffer from problems like the real estate of death, the carbon footprint of burials and cremation, the toxicity of embalming. This makes it clear that dying sustainably isn’t merely a problem with innovation, it’s a problem with tradition and culture. 

Some aspects of these traditions are extremely toxic, and target people in grief in exchange for profits:

"wedding complex” [ˈwediNG kämˈpleks] noun

  1. the principle that the more you spend on a wedding, the more you love each other.

This same principle applies for funerals, and is taken great advantage of in the funeral industry. While some aspects of culture abuse people experiencing EOL, others damage our environment. 

Part of the human condition is the obsession with the corpse left behind. All of our death ceremonies revolve around somehow dealing with the body. There are numerous cultures with numerous methods for this aspect of the funerary practice. Unfortunately, the ones we choose between here in America all do tremendous damage.

As of 2014, US cemeteries occupy about 1 million acres of land

We use over 800,000 gallons of formaldehyde annually

115 million tons of casket steel

2.3 billion tons of concrete from burial vaults

Casket wood equivalent to 4 millions acres of forest

According to the UN, .2% of global dioxin and furan emissions are produced by cremation. 

Cremation emits into the atmosphere: carbon monoxide, mercury, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, particulate matter, hydrogen fluoride, hydrogen chloride, NMVOCS as well as other heavy metals and persistent organic pollutants (POP). 

see more statistics on TalkDeath

It needs to change, so why doesn’t it?

Death is emotional. Death is taboo. Death is dreadful. It’s because of these characteristics that death is so impossible to talk about, which is why people don’t talk about it. As a result, so many people find themselves wrapped up in the woes of losing a loved one, without an idea of how that person would’ve wanted his/her memory celebrated, and how their body is treated.

Because the treatment of the body of the deceased is such an emotional, significant experience rooted in tradition, it is difficult to discuss, and thus difficult to execute in a satisfactory way. The current coping mechanism reverting back to the comfort of tradition and structure. Unsurprisingly, structure and predictability are rare commodities in a period full of instability and dread. It is a relief to know that all you need to is pick a casket or urn, choose a song, choose eulogizers, and send out invites.  And therein lies the source of this issue:

People are unwilling to experiment with this significant process in the midst of uncertainty. 

How can we combine dying comfortably and dying sustainably?

Conversely, in the presence of more certainty, people are more willing to experiment. For that reason, the only way to provide love ones with clarity and confidence, is to talk about dying it before the dying die. The only way to encourage talking about death is to make it comfortable and obviously beneficial for both parties.

As a designer, my goal is to remove the taboo behind the topic and prospect of death to allow for progress in the sustainable end of life industry and continue to think of new methods corpse treatment that will protect our environment. 

More of my thoughts on end of life can be found on my Medium, where I documented my progress for an independent study in redesigning mourning. 


Architectural Stretchmarks: Symptoms of a Rapidly Growing City

In this post, I analyze the aesthetic experience of the architecture from growing cities in China. 

I recently visited Shanghai, Chongqing, Chengdu, Taiwan, and Guangzhou, and I kept seeing scenes like these:

These growing cities in China are suffering from the growing pains of urbanism: the city’s influx of people is growing rapidly, and surrounding suburban growth is stunted. And China is not alone in this, this sort of trend is apparent in other big cities as well. 

As I passed cluster by cluster, I could not shake an increasing sense of uneasiness. It felt dystopian, lifeless, and inhuman. Why does repetition in this context feel so bad? How come this is so different than the cute Victorian houses on those San Francisco hills? This was the anthropocene at its worst. But why did I feel this way?

How do the aesthetics of a building change when it’s duplicated? Once? Twice? 8 times?

Homogeneity vs Cohesion

I think it's because while the Victorian houses of SF do look similar, they each have something unique about them. They are cohesive, but unique. These buildings, however, are utterly, completely, in every sense of the word: identical. If there was an urban planner involved, he used Kidpix and the stamp tool. Homogeneity is the antithesis of ingenuity and creativity. It values efficiency over human expression. It embodies the grossly streamlined, industrialized system we’ve come to know and be suffocated by.

The symptoms of these urban growing pains can be seen through these clusters of identical buildings housing the millions of people coming to the city center to chase opportunity. It becomes hard to appreciate the view when there are so many clones copy and pasted around it.

While these buildings are each wildly impressive human feats, something feels a little off. This feels especially unsettling when the buildings are not hubs for business and enterprise, but homes to individuals chasing their dreams. Homes have always been a unique thing to each person, a reflection of their identity. 

These clusters embody a culture where everyone is the same, cause it's simpler that way. 

These architectural stretch marks beg the questions, What do you do when a city grows too fast? When it has too many people? Even further, how many is “too” many?

Form Exploration: Playing with Perception

These concrete forms play with the idea of satisfaction of perception: They look a certain way, but feel a different way.

This dichotomy provides a dynamic experience: it is captivating at first sight and under scrutiny. They promote continuous engagement.

These forms display a soft, almost fragile structure through a raw, indestructible material. 

Aesthetics: Relatable Beauty & Esoteric Beauty

This is an exploration of a principle of aesthetics: it traces our appreciation for beauty as it relates to our understanding. 

We have an aesthetic experience when something resonates with us emotionally. We attribute that emotional response to the beauty of an object, an environment, a person. An aesthetic experience is beautiful when it leaves a lasting impression.

Our understanding of something governs our perception of its every aspect. Beauty is often a function of our comprehension, or lack thereof. We respond to our environment with the empirical knowledge we have about it - sometimes our expectations are satisfied, sometimes they are contradicted. Both provide an emotional response that constitutes our aesthetic appreciation of a space, object, or experience. Aesthetic appreciation can be found all across this spectrum of comprehension. 

Relatable Beauty

We often find beauty in repetition, transparency, and familiarity; themes we find easy to understand. 

A familiar object not only asserts its own presence, but also calls upon past experiences, emotions, or beliefs. It satisfies our expectations. When we see this object, we appreciate it for what it is, and everything it reminds us of, and all the relevant knowledge we have about it. This aesthetic experience manifests in us as nostalgia, comfort, or intuition. We like thinking about the past, we like to see what we expect, we like to understand. 

Where is this seen?

Folk art, for example, is a visual realm built on a history of aesthetics; this history brings back past enjoyments, it is a reference to the viewer’s past. 

This sense of “relatable beauty” can be found in understanding how a watch mechanism works by eye, seeing an edge sweep across the body of a car, marveling at the accuracy of a marble sculpture, watching time pass in an hourglass, hearing a song from your childhood, admiring the historic folk art. We appreciate these things for their clarity, accuracy, consistency, and history. 

How is this useful?

Beauty is found in this consistency: satisfying predictions. Relatable beauty is less about self-expression and becomes a proxy for an experience. In this experience, we are less likely to notice/think about the creator or even the object itself. Relatable beauty provides comfort and avoids surprises. 

Esoteric Beauty

While relatable beauty is significant to our appreciation of things, we also find beauty in the abstract, the intangible. People enter a fine art museum and come out perplexed, in awe, with questions of why and how something came to be, or why we felt the way we felt. Esoteric beauty and meaning can be found in admiring something bigger than us. We find beauty in the unachievable and the foreign, admiring this unreachable state of beauty, admiring the skill, creativity, and wisdom that brought it to fruition. These experiences resonate because they are humbling. This aesthetic experience manifests in shock, awe, or humility. 

Where is this seen?

This sense of “esoteric beauty” can be found in being lost in an abstract painting, admiring the unfathomable intricacies of a piece of architecture, appreciating the great human feats behind the great pyramids, 

How is this useful?

Beauty is found in the striking nature of the unique. this sort to uniqueness demands attention as viewers ponder the meaning of a certain object, or how that object came to be.

Because of its unreachable status, esoteric beauty separates itself from the everyday. Esoteric beauty is more notable than comfortable. Esoteric beauty often puts more emphasis on the intent and achievement of the creator, an individualistic expression, an exposition of competence or uniqueness. 

A Mixture of the Two

Upon observing an object, each element either fulfills or goes against expectation. When they do fulfill expectations, they provide clarity/comfort/nostalgia in tandem with the exoticism/awesomeness/mystery provided by the parts that go against expectations. 

These intersections of esoteric and relatable beauty constitute the “loudness” of a design, an experience, a space. Harnessing this distinction allows artists and designers to pick and choose when to satisfy predictions, and when to contradict them. The nuances of aesthetics and beauty lie in these small points. 

What is Design?

This video summarizes what design means to me, why I think design is important, and what good design is. while drawing parallels between chefs and designers. 

"There is a linkage between the experiences we have, and the things we make. Designers make things that connect with people. These things become the avenue through which we can provide a voice, a skill, or an emotion. When orchestrated well, designed artifacts make a collection digestible, inviting us to engage with a multitude of things without friction. In this way, design becomes the backbone of an experience through the artifacts that compose it. These artifacts act as a delivery mechanism that speaks to each user, it creates something good, something we remember.

With each success, Designers advocate for cohesion instead of integration. Design helps us distinguish the complex from the complicated. With a consistent sense of care throughout the hierarchy of these things, we envision the whole before the whole exists. By creating cohesive experiences, Design pushes us to carefully select each artifact that can offer that to us. 

An artifact is a vehicle by which Design can inspire care, raise standards, and offer solace in a tailored world."