100 Days of Better Conversations

It all started when Jessica Walsh posted about The Great Discontent on her Instagram. The Great Discontent is a magazine focused on interviewing creative individuals for their insight on the creative pursuit. I was intrigued, so I started to read more into The Great Discontent and stumbled across my favorite interview by my favorite designer Stefan Sagmeister. At this point I was convinced that this magazine was onto something big and felt inspired by their content. Their interviews feel more human and honest. A few months later, they introduced this project to their audience:

First thing that came to my mind was shit, this is an insane idea. I want to do it.

I had no idea what or why, and for a few months I went back and forth even deciding what I wanted to pursue (so technically I have been working on this project for about 7 months in total to this date). On March 16, 2015, I celebrated my 21st birthday in London at the Oscar Wilde room for tea with one of my dearest friends, Janya. It was everything I could ask for in a birthday celebration: beautiful physical space, delicious food, earl grey tea, great company, and even better conversations. During the meal, Janya jokingly said, “You love teatime so much, I can totally imagine you designing the perfect teatime place!”

From this one conversation, I felt a fire spark within me, and suddenly I had a million ideas going on all at once. Thank god for the tube and commuting because that’s when I usually wrote down my ideas on my phone.

Conversations. Physical space. Environment. Honesty. Design is everything. Human intimacy. Authenticity. The dying art of handwriting.

I became (and still am) obsessed with these words and phrases for the next few months ahead. I couldn’t let go of them or stop thinking about them, and every chance I was alone with my thoughts (in my room, walking in the streets of London, commuting by the tube, waiting in line…), I would go through these ideas.

While I have been interested in graphic design since the fourth grade, sophomore year of high school I had the epiphany of realizing graphic design is what I am passionate about and want to pursue for the rest of my life. The only other time I felt such a strong epiphany was a few months ago when I realized that conversation is the only thing I felt as passionately about as I do about design.

I always felt too old for my age. Even in middle school I would constantly bother my friends on AIM at 4 AM to talk about why the hell we exist. I had this infinite curiosity to try to figure out the meaning of everything and everyone.

Because this project was occurring so closely with my senior thesis, it was only logical that they related to each other. From the conversation with Janya, I had this crazy initial idea of creating the perfect teatime for my senior thesis. Slowly this evolved and I focused more on the core of the idea: better conversations.

Design is everything. Design influences everyone. Conversations are universal. Bingo.

I want to design a space for better conversations. I feel that an environment plays a major factor in facilitating conversations and it plays a larger role than people expect it to. I remember having a conversation with my professor at Central Saint Martins about how this one time, she was visiting a small town and the power went out at the bar. She said, “We literally could not do anything but talk to each other so we talked for hours and it was amazing. I wish the power would go out once a month.” Think back to the last time you had an amazing conversation with someone. Where were you? What is the difference between talking to someone at an office setting vs a beautiful park?

As of right now, that is still the goal of my senior thesis.

My brainstorm board

So back to the 100 day project. You can’t just talk the talk. You have to walk the walk (that’s a thing people say, right?). If I wanted to design a space for better conversations, then it only made sense that I would actually have to have conversations myself to begin with. You cannot do something without first understanding it. I wanted to understand everything about conversations.

That’s when I began to construct this idea of 100 days of better conversations. I created constraints for myself, and rules and guidelines. For the first time, I had to create my own rules for myself because this was my first personal project. It was totally up to me. No professor or employer was telling what to do or what they wanted. This entire project could only be possible through my own determination and self-motivation. I did this because I was interested. That’s it.

I also wanted this to be about more than conversations. I wanted to test my own boundaries. I made the bold move of splitting it into 50 conversations with strangers and 50 people I know. Why?

My biggest fear is the moment right before you make contact with a complete stranger. I fucking hate that uncomfortable, terrifying moment of possible rejection.

Why not just do 100 strangers then?! Because while it is extremely hard to talk to strangers, it is also a challenge to talk to people you know. It is a different kind of challenge and conversation. This project was about testing my limits. I had conversations with family members, friends, very old friends I had not talked to in years, my new co-workers, my bosses, flatmates, and college classmates. Good conversations exist in all forms and I wanted to test that boundary between my relationship with the person.

The Process

The most critical part about this entire project was it needing to stay an experiment. It was both a social and visual experiment.

Hand-made cards

It needed to be about process. I needed to let go of the idea of perfection and a final product. I needed to not have the added pressure that stifles creative risks. That is why I created every piece in a sketchbook. A sketchbook is not meant as a final work of art. Not a single piece of this project feels like a final piece ready to be shipped and sold. If anything, they are more doodles and thoughts and sparks of ideas. I’m honestly not even sure if I love all of them (as the perfectionist in me). I think that’s the point. When you take creative risks, you can’t expect it to always be a success. That’s why it’s so fucking scary! Nobody likes to fail. As a designer, I am terrified of sharing something with the world that is not completely perfect. The fact that I shared some pieces that I was not 100% happy with killed part of my perfectionist designer soul, but I realized that, that is part of the process. Each documentation was created in one shot. Some were done in more than one, but there was never any meticulous planning before creating. For instance, I would sit down, listen to the conversation, pick a quote, and then illustrate it accordingly in my sketchbook. Sometimes, I would create something really awful and I would start over on another page, but in the same process of creating it in one sitting with no plans. The entire documentation of this project is in one sketchbook.

I also enjoyed the ambiguity in the pieces. At times, people actually didn’t remember which quote was theirs. The point of illustrating these conversations without context is that there is anonymity. And as unique and special as we may believe ourselves to be, we are all human, and we all feel the same things at different points.

For me, each piece was my personal way of visually documenting a moment in time/good conversation I created with the help of a stranger/friend. I wanted to capture the essence of the memory, almost like a photograph.
Hand-made cards I gave to people who I had conversations with

I used a variety of black ink markers and restricted myself to black and white. While I love color, I like black and white because I think it focuses more on the form of the content. My goal was to practice and expand on as many different styles as possible. I also didn’t want any of the forms to be perfect. I wanted to explore the beauty of imperfections. Ugly and awkward can also be beautiful.

My favorite markers are from Posca. They don’t even sell them in the U.S. which greatly saddens me. If I had known this, I would’ve seriously stocked up while I was abroad. I loved these markers because of the way the ink works and the way it doesn’t smell or bleed onto other pages. I used back and front of every page in my sketch book. If ANYONE can give me suggestions of markers to use like Posca’s, please let me know! I will be forever grateful.

The actual doing

I knew that I was tackling a hard challenge when I initially embarked on this wild adventure, but I had no idea how far it would push me past my limits.

100 different questions to pick from–each person had a different question

I was still in London, I had plans to travel later that month, and I knew I was going to have a full time job and take an online class once I got back to the U.S. for the summer. Setting all the logistics aside, I was also tackling one of my greatest fears: talking to strangers. I’m really not sure where I got the guts to go, OH HELL YEAH SIGN ME UP THIS IS GONNA BE SO GREAT AND DOABLE LET’S GO because it was everything except easy. I think it’s safe to say these were some of the most challenging 4 months I have ever gone through. July was the absolute worse. I cut out all friends, family and fun for a month. I barely slept and sometimes even barely ate. I realized that there are not enough hours in the day and that I definitely overbooked myself. I like to take off more than I can chew and deal with the stress and consequences afterwards. It’s a horrible habit. I know.

Somehow, I pushed through, and with a little less sleep, I finished by the deadline I set for myself.

At the start of this project, it was just about my inherent interest in conversations with a side of I want to overcome this fear of talking to strangers and explore handwriting/typography/black ink, but actually going through with this social experiment for the past 4 solid months has made me realize it became something much greater than that. It has taught me more about myself as a person and designer than any project has ever done so. It pushed me past my limits and boundaries. I have never hated and loved anything more in my entire life. There were SO many damn moments where I just plainly questioned why I was even doing this anymore. There were moments of extreme self-doubt, fear, and anxiety.

I wanted to quit more than once. I felt stupid getting less than 10 likes on a visual post I spent more than 5 hours on while a damn superficial selfie of a celebrity would get over 10k. It felt like a wasted effort. I didn’t feel like anyone really gave a shit. It was taking over my real life. I was overbooked because I worked full-time, commuted back and forth from NJ to NYC and I was taking an online class through Rutgers. I was not able to spend time with my friends or family. I distinctly remember Fourth of July was especially depressing because while I looked at my friend’s snapchat stories of having fun I was desperately trying to find strangers to talk to. That was a low blow for me. I walked through Washington Square Park for hours and hours trying to find someone to talk to and was not able to because of my intense, irrational fear. It was demoralizing and I wanted it to end.

But then I remembered that this was the most fulfilling work I had ever pursued in my entire life (granted, I’m not THAT old, I know). This was my must in a world of shoulds. The great conversations I had made me feel more empowered and inspired by life. Yeah, there are always moments where you just want people to care about the work you do, but then there are moments where shit, you don’t even care anymore because you just love it so much that it doesn’t matter who sees and who cares. You embark on personal projects not for the money or fame, but because you have this inherent, deep, indescribable love for the project you are pursuing.

Completing this project felt like saying goodbye to my first love. It was relieving, depressing, and inspiring. It was the epitome of bittersweet because it completely consumed my life for 6 months. Much like a first love, I was unprepared, naive, and felt every emotion there was from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows.

On a more personal level, this project didn’t just teach me how to be a better conversationalist or what it means to have a better conversation. This project taught me to overcome my fears of trying to please everyone and, at the end of the day, pleasing no one. I am one of the most honest people you will ever meet, but I am also terrified of absolutely everything, probably more so than your average joe. I am scared of everything from spiders to human intimacy to sleeping alone in the dark. I have the most irrational fears. I am also scared of doing anything that is remotely dangerous or risky or outside of my comfort zone. I have always strived to be the perfect, proper daughter for my parents and the nice girl who is friends with everyone, but that is an absurd way to live your life. I am so scared to offend anyone in my real life that it ends up influencing the work I produce as a designer because I also don’t want to offend anyone with my designs (because who I am as a person is the same as who I am as a designer). This produces mediocre shit that at the end of the day, no one, including myself, really cares about. The project taught me to be more risky and true to myself. I don’t want to produce bland shit. I want to produce honest, human, awkward shit.

This project also allowed me to have one of the hardest conversations I had ever had to have. I would be lying if I didn’t say that in some selfish way I wanted to use this project as an excuse to have conversations I regret not having. There was only really one in particular I regretted not having. It took me 50 conversations with strangers and 49 with people I know to have this 1 conversation I had wanted for the past 2 years. It gave me the courage to have this conversation and made me realize that I never want to regret not having an important conversation ever again. It’s a horrible regret to live with. It also taught me the ability to forgive. It is hard to forgive someone when you haven’t actually had the conversation with them. This project was about talking to complete strangers, but also having important conversations we often avoid because we are scared of feeling awkward and uncomfortable. Strive to never be comfortable.

Lessons I’ve learned

Many people have asked me similar questions and concerns, and I’m going to just sum it all up into a list of lessons.

  1. Everyone is fucking afraid. Overcoming your fears, whatever it may be, is a lifelong, constant struggle. It is a process. There is no final destination, final round, or easy solution. You have to work at it every day. You have to always want it more than you are scared of it. You have to want to make that connection with someone more than you are afraid of rejection. You have to want to finish that personal project more than you’re afraid of humiliation and failure.
  2. The only way to grow is to embrace discomfort and the unknown.
  3. One good conversation can leave a lasting impact on someone’s life, even a complete stranger. It is better to live a life in which you respect and value each interaction you have with a human being rather than only caring about the close connections you already have.
  4. Being vulnerable and honest does not mean you are weak or cliche. Anyone who is genuine will infinitely be more interesting. Being vulnerable shows that you are just as human as the next person. Everyone just wants to be heard and understood.
  5. The ability to converse and connect with people is a muscle everyone should strive to exercise as much as possible because the less you challenge yourself to do it, the less able you are to communicate with people. The ability to connect, understand, and communicate with another human being is the reason we are in this world.
  6. Life is one big experiment if we allow for it to be. Do crazy shit and yeah, it will probably fail, but it will always be better to have taken that risk than to have avoided it altogether. Stop worrying about the why and the perfect results. Just go for it. Take on a project you’ve never done before, and for the love of god, ask that cute person out. Stop worrying about what may happen and just make it happen. The process is where the magic happens. The struggle is everything.
  7. Your true friends will empower you.
  8. A good conversation is when both people are present and engaged in the moment with an open mind. They are both actively listening to each other and are responding, instead of just waiting for the other person to finish so they can say what’s on their mind. It is about caring and digesting what someone is telling you and then responding to that. It is about caring more about what they have to say, rather than making it about yourself. It also needs to be a safe space to be honest and genuine. The best conversations are when you leave it feeling as though you learned something new about yourself, the person, or something random you just never thought of. It takes patience, empathy, and honesty. At the same time, “good conversation” feels like an abstract term to me like love, dating, or home. Everyone has their own perspective and opinion.
  9. Have those hard conversations now instead of regretting it years later. Talk to that goddamn friendly stranger! Stop being guilted into doing something you don’t actually want to do. Do whatever you feel in the pit of your soul you know feels right because the rest is just background noise.
  10. My life is my work and my work is my life. Especially in this project, the two have blended together to become one. I think the creative field is different than some other careers where they seem to be strictly separate. For me, I don’t see a difference, and I’m not sure there should be a difference. Who I am as a person is who I want to be as a designer. The projects I take on as a designer are projects that speak to me in a very personal and honest way. I want to be as honest about my work as possible, but that is also just who I am as a person. If you’ve interacted with me all, you will understand that I have always been a very open, honest, and borderline blunt person. I’m not the type of person who tries to be mysterious because I honestly just don’t even know how to be “mysterious.” This is who I am, take it or leave it.
My celebratory picnic in NYC with friends, family, co-workers, and strangers!

The feedback I’ve received from friends, family, and complete strangers was overwhelming. I cannot express how much it means to me when I receive feedback, good or bad really. One of the best feelings in the world is knowing that a small action I did, impacted someone in a positive way. At the end of the day, that is all that I wanted — to spread positive vibes, to get people questioning the world, to make people smile, to make people get angry, to make people feel something.

This is only the start to my research for my senior integrated project/thesis. I would love to hear your feedback/opinions about this project.

This is part one of my senior thesis. Part two is analyzing and processing the data. I will be writing a separate post more in depth about conversations and what I learned about conversations.

Feel free to email me: biancang.design@gmail.com

This is the actual project: 100daysofbetterconvosbng

Initially, I posted everything on my Instagram if you were following my project, but afterwards I created a website with my own personal, unedited reflections from every conversation I had. Click the link above to see the full project in all its ugly, rambling, and glory.

My Instagram / My Portfolio