Grief is a bitch

Losing a loved one is painful and personal. Figuring out how to grieve at work or support a colleague can be confusing. For me the heavy feelings come in waves, sometimes slow, heavy, and droning. Sometimes bright and sharp like a tiger in the face. It can change from minute-to-minute, hour-by-hour, and phase-by-phase. This makes it hard to know what kind of support to ask for, what to take, and how to describe my experience.

I’m reading Sheryl Sandburg’s book Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy about how she moved through the sudden death of her husband Dave. She’s right that “how are you” feels like a ridiculous, unanswerable question. But “how are you today?” or “how are you feeling right now?” is a much easier question to answer.

I lost several close friends in the last few years. That’s not supposed to happen this young. Going to work is so hard. In one case I was a manager spinning many plates and in the second at a new job still getting my footing. On top of the complexities of dealing with the actual grief, my internal dialogue  in the office was louder than ever. I wondered:

Am I acting weird? Can people tell something happened to me? Should I try to act normal? Will it be awkward if I bring it up? How many details are TMI? How much time off is too much? Should I feel guilty for trying to do daily normal things? If look happy at work, will people know I’m still in pain? Do they need to know? Is it ok to feel depressed at work? Do I have to explain my feelings to colleagues? 

When will it get easier? 

Story 1

At my last job, I didn’t tell anyone what happened until I snapped at someone in a meeting. It was pretty harsh and abnormal behavior for me. My manager was out of town but thankfully a mentor figure was in that meeting. She approached my outburst with compassion instead of blame. Once she learned I was grieving, I was immediately sent home with the pre-approved time off to get to rural Indiana for my friend’s funeral.

That grieving process was easier. If there can even be an easier. There was a distinct period when I was off the clock. All my time and energy for the next week was focused on getting to my lost friend’s hometown and being with her people. After her funeral, I returned back to my daily life routine. The feelings of loss still showed up in unexpected waves but the world of her people lived in my phone, not in my daily experiences.

Story 2

More recently, while several weeks into a new job, I lost a long friend I recently rekindled with. We had a lot of history and future of friendship planned for each other. I messaged my manager over the weekend and attempted to come to work. Thankfully he and his manager insisted I go home and take care of myself. My main function otherwise was a warm body in a meeting. The regular reminders from several people that it was ok to take time I need was really helpful, especially in a new environment.

Letting my manager handle communicating to the right teammates what happened was huge. It’s just a hard thing to talk about to people you just met, especially when the information is new. Talking about it makes it real. The personal outreaches were nice. It made me feel seen and felt and cared for. In this case, the friend I lost was part of the city’s fabric. People in unexpected corners of my network knew her and felt her passing. That made it very hard to move on.

Confronting our mortality

The nature of death itself requires us to face our own aliveness. Our own fragility as a simple human being becomes real. Sheryl asks us to think of how the situation could have been worse. I think her sentiment is to help you be grateful for what you have. She talks about the relief she felt, and I agree, when other people acknowledged her pain and shared their own experiences with loss.

Both friends I suddenly lost were artists. They were deeply connected to themselves but also relied on their art forms as a channel for their voice and personal challenges. The last memorial I went to had a guided meditation. He asked us to keep our eyes open, in a soft gaze. We made eye contact with others in the room and spent time seeing each other. During a time of grief, so much talking happens. Asking for support. Giving support. Recounting memories.

In this meditation, we all practiced being together, seeing each other, connecting with our pain, and also accepting something hard and unchangeable. She was a photographer. She said she wanted to make love visible, to help people see themselves as beautiful as she saw them, just the way they were.

Some meditation practices say we cannot create (or destroy) space. But we can invite it and welcome it, which at least makes it possible to feel whatever the feeling is.

Design, Language

My polite explaination of user experience woes to American Airlines

I’ve been traveling to Detroit every Memorial Day Weekend since 2009 for the annual Electronic Music Festival. You may have read my post last spring about why it’s the best festival of them all. But as I’m maturing, I get tired faster and want to spend my travel dollars going other places, so I was on the fence making my pilgrimage this year. 

— But real quick, before we go any further, I’ll give you the miles I had, the miles I bought and the miles AA gifted me for an extremely fair price. please tweet or message if we can help each other. — 

While flight scanning, AA sent me a very kind email about how some miles of mine were about to expire. It felt like an omen to make the trip. I spent about 30 minutes trying to figure out this UI, then parsing out which flights didn’t have two connections or require me to change airports. I did eventually figure out I could uncheck flights from San Jose and Oakland, that was a win. While of course having no concept of the differences between a 12K flight and a 25K Economy AAnytime or 25K Economy Business First, I just tried to pick flights furthest to the left.

There’s some glitch in the system where after I choose my dates and select the seats, my flight on May 24 would shift to May 10. After 30 minutes of finding a loop hole around that bug, I was finally ready to book the flight and get on with my life.

It’s difficult to know how many miles I have, how much they cost, what that means about the minimum miles I need to have (or use?) and that I couldn’t pay the balance of the flight in cash. Upon expecting to purchase the flight, they tell me it’s on hold and I need to buy more miles. I’m so frustrated and ready to buy the flight I maybe want at this point, I just buy the miles. A few dropdowns and fields that don’t auto-complete later, I see the total is $10 less than how much it would cost to fly on United Airlines. Great!

Somewhere I missed the taxes and fees. I’m sure they clearly stated the numbers somewhere, but you can see how after and the clicking and guessing, I just wanted the task done. Afterwards, I see the extra fees and see that I still have to pay $10 to book a flight with miles. This  was not the cheaper option.

So of course I call them on the phone and kill them with kindness. You know I listened to static elevator music for a long time before the representative told me she could not do refunds. I asked if she could put me in touch with someone else who could help me feel better. More static muzak. Same explanation.

But with honest candor I explain to her what my experience has been like. And that I’m sure it clearly stated the costs but this is my first time buying miles and I had a holistic stressful experience that led me to make mistakes. I told her I knew she does not work on the website and that I know AA cares about their customers. I told her my experience starts from the moment I decide I want to go somewhere until this phone call. I asked “what can you do to help me?” She asked what I had in mind and I explained she had more experience helping people like me.

She offered me 2,000 in miles. Naturally, I explained I was hesitant to accept them because it would just return me to this stressful miles loop. Since she absolutely could not offer a refund, a free flight, vouchers or first class upgrades, I accepted. Of course, I cannot actually purchase the flight for 3 days until the miles I bought online can appear online.

The lesson here is to

  1. Be patient and careful with old websites
  2. Be very kind to associates on the phone. It’s just not their fault
  3. Don’t stop til you get enough

But really, will someone please buy my AA miles?

Design, Journalism, Language, London

Guardian Adverts: still brilliant and timeless

London-based Newspaper The Guardian redesigned their print product in 2005. It won multiple awards for its use of the Berliner format along with the ease of readability, consideration of readability, flow from section to section and brilliant use of color, photography, illustration and language.

Later came the website redesign and new advert campaign. I met Creative Director Mark Porter and Special Projects Director Mark Leeds for while in London internship, research and Uni courses. More on that meeting here.

What’s most inspired is how well the redesign and team translated the print vision to their website and marketing campaigns. Nearly 10 years later, their adverts still inspire me:volumecontrolgu81






Design, HCId, Journalism, Language, Travel

What the travel industry has to do with journalism

Airports are among the most magical places on earth. By design.

Some say we’re in an age of ignorance. And why? We have more information than ever before. It’s just too much.

I’d like to revisit some thought’s I’ve explored about reinventing the news. Let’s discuss how I expect to see news storytelling taken out of the traditional vacuum of websites or apps and integrated into our lives when its most useful.

Though my days as a traditional journalist are over, I still frequently think about this problem. Well, that and how my reporter friends can get paid to report.

Why don’t people read? Why don’t I read? Why don’t people care? Why is it so hard to know what’s happening in the world? Why isn’t there more time? In fact I spent a year of graduate school working on this problem.

Context in storytelling

I made Newskite which collected audio snippets from people around the world. Each caller answered a question what they were hearing about a certain global event like the Earthquake in Japan or the protests in Egypt. What this did was give a global and real context to a geographically centralized problem–truly showing the human impact on world events.

Personalized News

What I’d like to see is something similar to, a personalized news concept I made that predated Newsite. It leveraged the power of social feeds and individual data to write news stories for you. It did not recommend news your friends liked–that does not work in an age if ignorance. It figured out how you, the reader, are linked to some news story that any one of us might otherwise ignore.

Steve Crisp/Reuters

Today on the New York Times Front page I see Kenyan Part Says Vote Count Should Stop. An article that seems unrelated to my daily going-ons. But if smart machines could scrape my data and see I once participated in earth hour, am potentially concerned about energy conservation, the elections in 2007 led to power outages and it’s a risk again, what impact that could have on other energy resources and how that influences what happens in my backyard. There are infinite ways to draw links between what’s happening somewhere far away in the world to what happens in my daily life. I then wanted to use natural language processing to rewrite stories, using the inverted pyramid, actually personalized for each reader. And beyond that, have editors, actual people, prioritizing news topics and stories about what to display on the ‘front page’.

But now is not a good time for that. For people uninterested in news, they just will not visit your app or website. No matter how incredible your site. If people don’t care, they don’t care. In this case, we’re not in the business of changing behavior. However, integrating news into people’s lives where it’s useful and welcome is a smart thought.

Let’s look at the travel industry

It’s still quite difficult to get around the world. Flight costs, hotel prices, cost of food, etc. It’s getting easier, and in a few years transportation technology will change how we geographically move around the world. We’ve already seen this happen in lodging and flight bookings. Services like Airbnb, Tripit, Hipmunk all have a vested interest in making

  1. Planning a trip easier
  2. Going to a place easier
  3. Having a wonderful time while you’re there

Because of this, I see an opportunity for travel services to have a vested interest in integrating global news stories with truly personalized smart content into their products.

Perhaps my upcoming trip to Costa Rica has potential to be seriously influenced by the recent news about Hugo Chavez. Or if I’m choosing which dates to go to Buenos Aires, it’s great if they can tell me the wine season has been wonderful. There are so many tasks that come with planning a trip, reading the news rarely is a priority and it’s nearly impossible to even know about what to start reading. Knowing what’s happening in the world can help me decide where, when and how to go there.

A service to do this doesn’t exist yet and I’m not interested in becoming a founder right now, so please by all means, take this idea and run with it. And as always, if this idea is hogwash, I want to hear your thoughts.

Let’s get out of the business of shaming people for not being informed, but of making relevant information available when they need to know it.

Design, HCId, Language

We’ve become lonely, it seems

Jim Campbell
It sometimes seems feels like we can have anything we want, especially as it comes to information, shopping and now even tasks. Google it, get it on Amazon prime, send it to Taskrabbit. And there are mountains of ways to touch base with people we love (and also the people we just kinda like). I’m writing this to introduce an open topic and conversation.

We’re spending more time heads down than ever before. Hands to keyboard, finger to swipe, eyes to screen. It’s a remarkable tradeoff because we get to feel like we can have whatever we want, whenever we want at the cost of becoming screen zombies.

The New York Times posted an article today about the new slew of apps that help us find and discover people we know and people we could meet. Have we become so lonely that we need computers to help us do something as primal as sharing presence with other people? Why these apps now? Are the apps easier to build, are people needier for people, has it become more difficult to find people we love being with?

Finding friends online
Facebook, Twitter, Email and Instagram have specifically helped me stay tethered to people I care or want to care about. Sure. But they just as well create friction and false senses of closeness that do not replace natural interactions among people. I’m not sure we’ll ever create a technology that an replicate the experience of being physically near a person. But I do believe travel and city design will make it easier, faster and cheaper to be near people.

Finding love online
Online dating has become the second most common way to start a relationship, second to meeting through friends. I’m debating whether or not dating has become more difficult and how that’s related to technology because it also is inclusive of cultural and gender norms.  I’m in the throws of reading Marriage, a History that so far suggests in the last half decade our communities have put more pressure on our partners and marriage than ever before in history.

What next?
I’m not sure we’re lonelier than before? Studies have shown that people do retreat to their computers and social communities when they’re most sad (and I think lonely). So whether or not we’re net lonelier, looking back, it will sure seem like we were and we’ll say, what changed, what was the variable? More screens, less skin and bones.

Design, Language, Music

A minimal design’s voice


Design always has perspective and voice. It is always saying something and a good design’s message is intentional and thoughtful.

Three white canvases hang on a white wall aligned side by side at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. This installation could be making commentary on negative and additive space, on shadows, on meditation or virginity, or sound or color. The artists could be saying something about potential, beginnings and opportunity or the intimidation of working with huge spaces or the fear of having nothing to say. Though some would say say, these are just 3 pretentious white canvases in a famous museum and nothing more.

I visited the Pompidou twice during this trip in 2007 and neither time gathered the name of the piece. So if you know the artist or if this is actually an unfinished piece, please share.

Minimal design is not a shortcut
Minimalsts celebrate critical editing and their ability to sensitively the balance between form and function. Design should not be sparse or naked just for the sake of attempting a minimalist aesthetic. Blog themes are the worst offenders.

Dieter Rams MoMa

Minimalist designers edit for voice
We celebrate minimal design in product, layout, architecture, photography, music, dance, writing and fashion. The Design Ethos of Dieter Rams exhibit at the San Francisco MoMA did exactly that.  Minimalists pride themselves on their ability detatch themselves from their work to critique and edit. Omitting what is superflous, removing what is not required and stripping down the design is intended to result in a final product that is an exquisite sum of its best parts.

The b side of design editing is about maintaining voice. Design should still say something. Both commercial and artistic design is still about communication: what it is, where it lives, who it is for, how it can be used or and what it may be. The voice can easily be muted when essential factors are over edited.

We have more access to design software and likely more designers. Minimalist design looks easy to a novice: give it extra white space, switch the font to Helvetica and draw a thin hairline. These designs lack form, structures and constraints and therefore structure, a perspective, a voice, shape, color and membership to a system.

Minimal design executes details
Let’s analyze the Diynamic Music label art from Hamburg, Germany that does an excellent job executing a minimal design.

The records are all designed within a system; each sleeve is precisely and exactly the same as those in its family. The typography, shape, language style and material are consistent. Only the color of the sticker label and artist and track listing changes.

It’s designed with solid color blocks and matching typography. The design system is linear and predictable and its form factors are intentionally basic shapes. Minimalism gives more by challenging to the design to work with less.

Dinaymic Records

So with all of these constraints, the sleeve design still has a very distinct perspective. It speaks with a voice and attends to a message. The reel in motion would move forward voicing process and progress, the dissected shapes speak to the technical sounds of the label, the analog imagery is in conflict with synthetic electronic sounds on the record and the large black blocky image is softened with the gray background. But then all of this is disrupted with a vivid round block of bright color. This design is making an explicit statement with a unwavering perspective about what kind of music is within.

The designer here has also fantastically played with numbers:

  1. There a single main image, the audio or video reel. One.
  2. The audio reel requires a second circle to serve as its border, so the singular main image is comprised of a circle pair. Two.
  3. The rounded rectangles and punched out medium sized circles are intentionally only in tryptich. Three
  4. The reel is cut into 4 slices at shifted on the y-axis at half and fourth heights. Four.
  5. The last detail works in a partnership of 5. Three bullets run vertically down the lower spine of the reel and two stack next to each other like a set of eyes on the top right section. Three and two: Five.
These are subtle, intentional decisions designed in a rhythm. It is beautiful because it is edited and thoughtful. Minimal design especially in art and music does not usually command bold attention. The consumer can easily disregard and let the design go unnoticed or be be very cerebral and studious about its form and function. But to do the latter, you the participant has to bring something to the design conversation. Without a voice, there is no dialouge.
Minimalist design websites with perspective:

I am aware this blog does not have an applied theme.
I’m working on my editing skills. I’m quite aware this post’s length.
I must share the first minimal tech house track I fell in love with. From the Mobilee Back to Back Volume 2 Compilation on the second disc, produced in Berlin, enjoy Pan Pot – What is What Remixed by Gummihz.

Design, HCId, Language

I’ll call you from Twilio

Today I join Twilio in San Francisco as their newest designer. Twilio makes powerful tools that empower people to build communication apps on voice and SMS. Joining Twilio’s outstanding team is humbling and massively exciting. I’m inspired to work with a group that helps people to realize great ideas, build a better society and of course, improve communication.

Improving how we share information has been a thread throughout my career. From my days in narrative as a news designer, to working on the chat app at RockMelt to disrupting the translation industry at myGengo to the core of my design thesis, I’ve been thinking about this space. I’ve nestled up with big questions to understand how humans share information and communicate. Plus, I just love developers. Twilio could not have been a more perfect next step.

I’ll be working closely with Andres Krogh, Rourke McNamara, Danielle Morrill and many more stellar Twilions blending my interaction design and marketing chops. There’s a lot to learn and a lot to teach. Please join me in celebrating this exciting new chapter on my path.

Where’s Nina?
This year took me through 12 cities in 4 continents. Between the time of someone asking “where are you?” and me being able to answer, I was somewhere new. So here’s how 2011 played out.

Combi StopI celebrated the commencement of the year Cape Town on a life-changing trip to Southern Africa with the perfect travel mate. I saw a dear childhood friend and did research to inform my graduate school thesis. In the flutter of a tweet, I earned my Master’s and started packing boxes to pick up nearly a decade of my life spent in beautiful Bloomington, Indiana.

En route to San Francisco, I worked in Tokyo with myGengo, like Twilio, in the 500 Startup powerhouse. I learned from their brilliant team and earned intense design empathy and mountains of personal growth. Call it Manifest Destiny if you will, but I started working my way West. I skipped through Detroit and Chicago and did projects for with SigFig, Milewise and Posterous while planting my feet in San Francisco.

Burning I spent a week under extreme conditions in the dessert that taught me important lessons about design and experience. It yanked everything human about me to the surface of my being and I truly went through a Rite of Passage.

I went to St. Louis to see old friends from my journalism world at the Society for News Design’s conference. I talked on a panel about careers as a 5 year reunion from SND’s first intern competition and got to thank so many mentors who raised me as a professional.

It’s taken me years of patience and an unreal amount of work to build the life I now have in San Francisco. I couldn’t have predicted most of what happened this year and I can’t say what the future holds. But 2011 is not over yet and I’m having the time of my life on this ride.

Nina Mehta is a designer and writer living in San Francisco, working at Twilio.

Photo courtesy Jeff Lawson.


Everything and nothing is interesting

As You Like It party

I don’t care much for the adjective ‘interesting’. To describe something as interesting generally lacks any kind of qualifier or value proposition. To describe something as interesting is a way to suggest that you have offered an opinion without actually having done so. It’s empty.

Everything in the world is interesting. Anything that is not interesting just hasn’t been looked at or considered with enough perspective. To describe something as interesting has no positive or negative value, it generally does not emote a strong emotional and often is void of critique on it’s own. It only implies that the former comment has interest; saying something is interesting doesn’t even invite further conversation.

Please describe nothing as simply ‘interesting’ unless you are trying to be polite an avoid saying you do not like it.

Poor ways to use the word interesting
“What do you think of my shoes?” “They’re interesting.”
“I think your mixes have a distinct sound.” “Interesting.”
“I went to an interesting art show.”

Better ways to use the word interesting
“What do you think of my shoes?” “It’s interesting how the color of the heel compliments the sole. I love the design.”
“I think your mixes have a distinct sound.” “Really? What do you hear that’s interesting?”
“I went to an art show that changed how I think of shadows. You can do so many interesting things with light.”