Field Guide to Eavesdropping, People Watching, + Paying Attention

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Mockup of a missing flag!

Like I’ve said before, I love to tell stories. It’s my party trick, my go-to coping mechanism, what made me make the choice to become a designer. I often come home to tell my family or roommates elaborate stories of people I saw interacting on the street or in Target — I like to give them background stories, names, relationships. I like to imagine who they were talking to on the phone, what the kitchen they’re carrying their groceries to looks like, who they are. It’s fun, maybe, but mostly it’s innate. I can’t help it.

I’m interested in the way we use language to define these things — how we decide what is mundane versus what we deem significant and how we choose to share these ideas with one another. What happens when we assign or signal significance to thoughts or experiences we generally don’t? What does telling your roommates about the lady you met at the coffee shop say about you or your own perception?

I am interested in the stories we project onto others, what they say about our own lives and perceptions, and the ways that we can alter these narratives. What happens when we designate an image, a color, or a feeling to encountered or out-of-context language? What happens when we assign or signal significance to thoughts or experiences we generally don’t? How can design disrupt our expectations about these things?

This project aims to recontextualize “people watching” and “eavesdropping” in a way that might foster empathy — or at least alter an audience’s perspective. It prompts users to consider the lives and experiences of others in relation to their own, using printed matter as both a lens and as blinders. Field guides, walking tours, maps, and a series of other physical, visual experimentations ask the user to reevaluate the assumptions they make about the people and places they experience in passing. Through information collection, cataloging, and abstraction — all while maintaining the anonymity of the observer and the observed — the audience is forced to disregard any identity that might inform their interaction. When we overhear conversations or watch others interact and then document our own perceptions of those experiences, we participate in a game of telephone, abstracting meaning and language, and sometimes even revealing something about ourselves.

While prepping and compiling research for this thesis, I was thrown a huge curveball. I won a contest, and from January to April, was on call for Adobe and the creative agency organizing the project. It was great! But made working on thesis quite…difficult. Oddly enough, while I was struggling to time manage, the content and intentions of this thesis became really comforting to me. The world was still turning.

Though, in truth, I may be disappointed by the outcome of my thesis project, this semester has taught me and challenged me more than I thought was possible. It was an exercise in balance, problem solving, listening, and, making do when things are out of your hands.

When it comes to eavesdropping and people watching — essentially voyeurism — I am really concerned about anonymity. But beyond that, I am interested in the poetic qualities mundane ideas, words, or images take on when they are divorced from the individual who thought, said, or made them.

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Pages on Anonymity from Thesis Books; Pixelated iPhone Images

Personality and identity in a piece of art shapes the resulting work — but so does anonymity.What if all art in any form was anonymous? Hard to imagine what we would think of Andy Warhol’s work without knowing anything about his personal life or who he was. It’s hard to separate his personality, lifestyle and social circle from his art — one fed off the other. Every group of art by an individual artist has a distinct look that reveals a particular personality. A name is simply a way of referencing the style or body of work. It is named for the same reason each of us living beings has a name — because it has a life of its own once it is created, and is an extension of the life of the artist. V. Plut

The main idea I am building off of is an app prototype called Here, Once that I designed this past Fall semester in Interactive Design. Here, Once is an interactive map that illustrates overheard conversations in the Boston area.

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Here, Once

The Impolite Pleasure of People-Watching — Observation is, at once, a glorified lack of activity and an invasion of privacy. But there’s so much to see in New York.

Before cellphones were fun, when the idea that anything may distract you from New York’s never-ending street theater was unimaginable, I would watch the world happen around me. Observation is, in many ways, a glorified lack of activity, focused attention without a clear purpose. But then again, purpose is
so seldom an explanation for behavior.

Is there a good reason for scrolling through Instagram, an endless array of grids and Stories and now “TV,” all of the ways people want to be seen, or the performed ugliness, everything stretching toward something other or else? I often have to be reminded that there’s so much beyond the screen and all the other physical and psychological confines of my life.

On mornings when the guys outside my building hose off the sidewalk, pools of water gather and flow down pavement into the gutter. An old man yells at them, but no one can hear him over the sound of the spraying hose.

The owner of the flower store gesticulates and rolls his eyes at a dog messing up the sidewalk just outside his door. I recognize some of the other dogs: Bambi, a tiny Chihuahua whose owner will give away treats to any dog who engages with her, and a German shepherd I remember by the sound of its deep bark. And then there’s Liam and Skip, my neighbor and his dog, who, surprisingly, is the one named Liam. — The New York Times

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A page from my Thesis Dictionary. Lyrics from a song I listened to quite a lot while working on this project.

People watching allows us the opportunity to consider and relate to those we just pass by. But who is to say that we can’t learn from these ephemeral experiences? My project aimed to use design as a lens to approach these activities from a different perspective.

If you’ve taken mass transit, stood in a crowded cafe, or just been around strangers before, the chances are high that you’ve eavesdropped. If you say
you haven’t, you’re lying. Eavesdropping, or the act of listening in on the conversations of those around us, is often stigmatized as something only
“nosy” or “intrusive” people do. This couldn’t be farther from the truth.

Sociologists and psychologists agree that “eavesdropping” does ultimately foster empathy. When we learn who people are when they’re not performing some other personality, we are able to understand them on a more intimate level.

The centerpiece of my show was a series of 6 flags, made of type and illustration. The type was derived from overheard conversations, and the images were drawn in response to my reactions while overhearing them. Sometimes the illustrations are centered on the content, sometimes they’re inspired by the tone of the speaker. They are meant to be interpretive.

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I also designed postcards, a field guide, and a walking tour pamphlet.

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Eavesdropping Map of Boston University’s campus.

I’m interested in the ways that we can retell stories using abstract, non-narrative imagery. I was moved by how arbitrary, meaningless some of the moments I experienced seemed, and then were transformed through design. I hope, in some ways, our audience was as well.

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