Mia Living

Born 18 September 1979 in Västerås, Sweden / 167 cm / 51 kg / grey eyes that change with the light / Favorite Atari game: “Never heard of that.”

MIA THERESE LIVING is endlessly curious about the way people think and act. When you speak with Mia, it sometimes feels like the back of her mind is busy cycling through what you’re thinking about. Perhaps that extra attentiveness is part of what makes her one of the most charming and earnest people I’ve known.

Mia works as an interaction designer in Stockholm, designing application interfaces “to make them easy, efficient and fun to use,” she says. “To do that you have to understand and find out how people really think and act in different situations and contexts.”

She arrived at interaction design after moving away to study behavioral science, then picking up again to study cognitive science. After spending some years in England, Scotland and Norway – working for companies like IBM and Hilton – she moved back to Sweden to study service design. That brought her to the career she has today.

Most people in Sweden speak fairly great English and they enjoy doing it, which makes it impossible to get any practice if you’re someone like me, trying to learn Swedish. I will always have a special place in my heart for Mia, because ever since we met she has refused to speak English with me.

In fact, what you’ll read in this interview is the most English that Mia and I have ever spoken together. I always appreciate that she tolerates my immigrant-level Swedish and helps me improve. And I’m sure you’ll appreciate that she spoke English for you.

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HAVE YOU EVER HAD AN X-RAY MADE?

Yes. [laughs]

DID YOU BREAK A BONE?

Yes. [shows a large scar spanning the top of her arm near the elbow]

OY! OH, YES. I’VE SEEN THIS BEFORE.

Yeah. [laughs] When I was eight, I broke it the first day after our sportlov, which is kind of a holiday for sports… [laughter] or something, in the gymnastics class.

IN A FALL?

Yes, yes.

DO YOU HAVE THE X-RAY?

No… I did keep the nails.

HOW LONG WERE NAILS IN YOUR ARM?

A few months.

DID IT HURT?

Probably. [laughs] I don’t remember.

ARE YOU A GOOD PERSON?

[four seconds] Most of the time, yes, I’m a good person.

[laughs] HAVE YOU EVER BEEN ON TV?

Yes, but not, uh… “in focus.” [laughter] Just like “the camera sweeping by some people” kind of “on TV.” [laughter]

LIKE IN A NEWS REPORT OR SOMETHING?

I think the King and Queen came to Västerås when I was… maybe ten or something. And we sang for them. I was in music school so we had a little something… we sang some songs for them. And they came in horse carriage…

OF COURSE THEY DID! [laughs]

…and it was very, very nice. It’s the only time I’ve seen them. [laughs]

THAT’S AN ECO-FRIENDLY WAY TO TRAVEL, ISN’T IT? [laughter] YOU SAID THAT SOMETIMES WHEN YOU’RE BORED OR LONELY YOU’LL CROCHET A BLANKET.

Yes.

HOW MANY BLANKETS DO YOU HAVE?

Two and a half.

OH, THAT’S GOOD. HOW LONG DOES IT TAKE TO MAKE A BLANKET?

If you’re really lonely and bored, it can take maybe three months. But usually about six to nine months. If you work full time.

SO YOU’RE USUALLY NOT VERY BORED?

No.

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IS IT FRUSTRATING FOR YOU WHEN YOU SEE THINGS THAT ARE POORLY DESIGNED OR NOT INTUITIVE?

Yes. Very.

HAVE YOU DOWNLOADED AND USED THE K MATE APP FROM K COMPOSITE?

Yes. [laughter]

FROM AN INTERACTION DESIGNER’S PERSPECTIVE, HOW BAD IS IT?

[laughing…] Oh, I like it. It’s following most, I think, of the Apple guidelines for designing apps for the iPhone. [laughter] So I like the menu. I’ve seen much worse apps! [laughter]

OH GOOD!

No, I didn’t find anything wrong with it.

IT DIDN’T BOTHER YOU AT ALL?

No, it didn’t bother me at all.

DO YOU HAVE ANY INTERACTION DESIGN HEROES? ARE THERE SOME STARS IN THE FIELD?

Well, there are some quite famous people for “people like me,” but yes. Yes. Two that are really famous… there’s Donald Norman. He wrote a few books. I think the most famous one is The Design of Everyday Things and he discusses things like doors, doorknobs, light switches and those kinds of things like water taps, and explains good design. Another one is Jakob Nielsen. He is kind of a guru. He has a very good newsletter that everyone reads. He’s got a lot of nice principles and he does a lot of undersökningar…

RESEARCH? INVESTIGATION?

Research. Thank you. So, when you need to back up your point you can always find something of his… in his huge library.

IS ONE OF THOSE GUYS YOUR HERO?

Well, they’re the most well-known people, but it’s not like I’ve seen their work and I adore it. It’s really not like an artist or a photographer or something like that. It’s more like they’re well known for having formed very good, basic principles that everyone follows.

HAVE YOU SEEN THE MOVIE OBJECTIFIED?

No.

HAVE WE TALKED ABOUT THIS BEFORE?

I don’t remember.

IT’S NOT REALLY ABOUT INTERACTION BUT IT’S ABOUT INDUSTRIAL DESIGN. I’M STARTING TO WONDER IF ONE OF THOSE GUYS WAS IN THIS MOVIE.

Hmm.

YOU SHOULD SEE IT. THERE ARE LOTS OF INDUSTRIAL DESIGN “STARS” IN IT LIKE DIETER RAMS AND JONATHAN IVE AND PEOPLE LIKE THAT.

I don’t know those…

OH, JONATHAN IVE DESIGNED THIS PHONE (pointing to the iPhone that the interview is being recorded with)

Ooooh! [laughs]

HE’S THE HEAD… VICE PRESIDENT OF DESIGN AT APPLE. AND DIETER RAMS IS AN OLD GERMAN GUY WHO DESIGNED FOR BRAUN… THAT APPLE STOLE ALL THEIR IDEAS FROM. [laughter]

Yeah! [laughter]

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SO WHEN YOU WERE A LITTLE GIRL YOU WANTED TO GROW UP TO BE A PAINTER AND LIVE ON A TROPICAL ISLAND. WHAT KID OF STUFF DID YOU WANT TO PAINT?

Palm trees.

DID YOU PICTURE IN YOUR MIND WHAT YOUR ART WOULD BE LIKE? WHAT KIND OF COLORS OR WOULD IT BE SIMILAR TO ANY STYLE?

No, I didn’t picture a specific style. But it had to be real, all of it. It’s because I went to… This idea came from a visit to the Botanical Garden in Copenhagen when I was five, and I saw palm trees and I fell in love [with them]. And I realized that I always wanted to live next to palm trees and that green was the most beautiful color ever [laughs] and that’s all I ever wanted! And I was obsessed with that and actually only wished for palm-tree-like plants for my birthday and Christmas and so on. So I was turning my room into a little jungle.

IT’S PRETTY AMAZING, YOU KNOW? MOST PEOPLE DON’T SEE THEIR FIRST PALM TREE IN DENMARK!

[laughs] That was the closest one. There was probably one in Stockholm, too, but I didn’t know then! [laughter]

YOU JUST COULDN’T FIND IT?

[laughing…] No, I just couldn’t find it!

WHEN DID THAT CHANGE? WHY DIDN’T YOU BECOME A PAINTER? OR WHEN DID REALITY SET IN? …OR WAS IT REALITY?

I… [laughter]

LET ME NARROW THIS DOWN TO ONE QUESTION… [laughter] WHEN DID THAT CHANGE?

[six seconds] It must have been when I started school, I think. Because I was painting a lot when I was in daycare and when I was at home. I always painted ten times more than the other children. I always got complaints because I used up all the crayons and everything. But then, I guess I wash’t that good, really. [laughter] And I found out when I started school and I was told that. [reflective…] I just have these memories of being told like, “No, that’s not what a hat looks like,” and “That’s not how you do that…”

[shocked] AGH! … YOU’RE LIKE, “I’M AN IMPRESSIONIST!” [laughter]

“I’m a child, goddammit! Give me a break!” [laughter]

“I’M FOUR!” [laughter]

Ahhh… [returning to the question…] I don’t know. I never thought about it. But it just kind of [faded away].

SOCIETY CRUSHED YOUR DREAMS?

Yeah.

IS GROWN-UP LIFE DIFFERENT THAN YOU EXPECTED IT TO BE WHEN YOU WERE A KID?

Probably. I don’t remember what I expected. I think it’s much better than I expected. I always dreamt of growing up because I wanted to decide everything for myself, as it was extremely frustrating being a child. [laughter] But then when you first grow up and move away from home and you’re about, maybe, 19 or 20 or 25, and you start getting to know yourself as a grown-up and what you can do with all of your endless possibilities… It’s hard to use that power in the right way and you have to learn by trial and error [laughs] and a lot of thinking. Now, when I’m really grown up, I think it’s amazing. And it just gets better.

I KNOW YOU LOVE YOUR JOB, AND I THINK WHAT YOU DO IS REALLY COOL, BUT IS THERE SOMETHING ELSE YOU WOULD REALLY LOVE TO DO?

[nineteen seconds…] Um, that’s a hard question. [laughs] I think there are a lot of things I would like to do. I don’t have a specific goal that is not really what I’m doing. But I’m sure it’s going come along, because I usually don’t stay too many years in one profession. So, I have to move on.

But what comes to mind first is that I’m very impressed with people who totally, kind of, “change lives.” Living in Stockholm and having an IT-related job is what I’m doing now, and I could do that for the rest of my life, probably, but I would think it would be much more interesting if I moved to the countryside and started my own business, or went abroad… or moved to a tropical island… or just tried a different lifestyle. I think that’s very appealing. And very scary.

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WELL, I KNOW YOU’VE LIVED IN LOTS OF DIFFERENT PLACES, BUT I KNOW YOU WENT TO NEW YORK A COUPLE MONTHS AGO.

Yes.

WAS THAT SCARY?

It was a little bit. Yeah, it was a bit scary. I thought it would be… Well, it wasn’t scary at all. But I thought it would be a little bit scary, but it wasn’t. It was really friendly and relaxed and welcoming… and interesting… and beautiful… and chaotic.

GOOD FOOD?

Yes.

TELL ME ABOUT THE WORST DATE YOU EVER WENT ON.

[six seconds of silence]

[laughs] …UNLESS IT WAS WITH ME!

[laughter] It wasn’t!

OH, WHEW!

“How should I break this to him?” [laughter] The worst date? No, I know it exactly. It was a blind date I went to when I was an exchange student in Norway. I hadn’t been dating for like a year and I was set up with this guy. We were meeting at a bar. I came in and I just immediately spotted him and realized… “No.”

WAS HIS NAME ANDERS BREIVIK?

I have no idea… [laughing…] But, no. No, it wasn’t. He was dark-haired. I remember that much.

OH, OKAY.

No, everything was wrong about him. He was quite cute, but he was just so wrong. It was the worst [laughing…] 45 minutes of my life!

[laughs] THAT WAS MY NEXT QUESTION! WELL, HOW DID YOU GET OUT OF IT?

It was really hard because he wanted us to get another glass of wine and I just said, “No, I’m sorry. I have to go.” Because I had some “research paper to read” or something like that! [laughs] Or a seminar the next day. And the worst thing is that I saw him at the bus stop like a week later [laughing…] and I totally ignored him!

OH GOD.

It was so shocking!

I’M SURPRISED.

I know. [laughing…] That’s the bad person in me. I couldn’t even say…

I DIDN’T KNOW YOU HAD THAT IN YOU.

[laughter] It was so bad.

WHEN YOU AND I HANG OUT, WE USUALLY DRINK THE CHEAPEST SWEDISH BEER AVAILABLE. [laughter] DO YOU HAVE A FAVORITE ALCOHOLIC BEVERAGE IF YOU’RE GOING TO GET SOMETHING NICE?

[six seconds] A good bottle of wine. But I don’t have a specific kind that I buy that’s nice.

I IMAGINE YOU’RE PROBABLY LIKE ME IN THAT IF THE LABEL ON THE BOTTLE LOOKS REALLY STUPID [laughter] THEN YOU WON’T DRINK IT.

No. [laughs] Sometimes I can challenge myself… [laughter]

TURN IT AROUND THE OTHER WAY? [laughter]

…but it helps if it looks good. Classic, kind of French.

IT’S VERY IMPORTANT WITH WINE BOTTLES. IT COULD BE THE BEST WINE IN THE WORLD, BUT IF IT HAS COMIC SANS ON THE LABEL… [laughter] OKAY, ALSO ON THE ALCOHOL TOPIC. I KNOW YOU LOVE GREEN TEA…

Yes.

…WHICH IS AN UNDERSTATEMENT. [laughter] IF I CUT YOU, IT WOULD PROBABLY BE GREEN TEA THAT CAME OUT. [laughter] DO YOU EVER MIX YOUR GREEN TEA WITH ALCOHOL…

[laughing boisterously…] Whaaa..?

…IN A HOT TODDY, FOR EXAMPLE?

[flabbergasted] Absolutely not!

IS THAT OFFENSIVE TO YOU?

[laughing…] Yes! Very! [laughter] When I was in Japan, you can buy alcoholic drinks in strange, little cans in supermarkets. [laughs] And I found one with green tea… some kind of green tea alcohol to drink. And it was the worst thing I’ve ever tried.

HOW COULD THEY DO THAT?

How could they DO that to green tea?! [laughter]

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DO YOU LIKE ICE CREAM?

Mmmm, not very much.

WHAT HAPPENS AFTER YOU DIE?

With…?

WHAT HAPPENS TO YOU AFTER YOU DIE?

I disappear.

THAT’S IT?

That’s it. Nothing happens.

EVERYONE ELSE KEEPS ON LIVING FOR A WHILE, AND THEN THEY DIE?

Yes.

I THINK YOU’RE RIGHT [laughter] BUT IT’S SO… DOESN’T IT SEEM CRAZY?

I think it’s the only…

THE ONLY LOGICAL EXPLANATION?

[laughing…] The only logical explanation! [laughter] It’s the only thing that can happen. [laughs] I don’t believe in reincarnation or something that can detach from the body or something. I think it’s a relief that you don’t have to worry about… If I was a religious person, I think it would be really hard having to worry about the afterlife and “will I be judged?” or what’s going to happen.

BUT YOU’RE A GOOD PERSON, SO YOU’LL BE FINE! [laughter] HAVE YOU DONE ANYTHING THAT SHOULD MAKE YOU WORRY ABOUT THE AFTERLIFE?

[laughs] Well, there’s always a religion thinking that you’re doing the wrong thing, so… you know… [laughs] If you think about it that way, everybody will go to some kind of hell, or something nasty. And that’s really depressing. No, everybody… I think we just go away and it’s kind of like resting.

I LIKE SLEEPING, SO…

Yeah, exactly!

IT SHOULD BE OKAY FOR ME. HOW LONG DOES IT TAKE YOU TO FALL ASLEEP?

[four seconds] Ehhh… [three seconds] Five minutes to… four hours. [laughter] Something like that!

I’VE HEARD THAT IF YOU CAN’T FALL ASLEEP IN 30 MINUTES, YOU SHOULD GET UP AND DO SOMETHING.

I always do and I don’t get stressed out about it anymore. First, I have a cup of tea… [laughs]

THAT’S WEIRD. [laughter]

…which usually helps. If that doesn’t help, then I have toast and a cup of tea. If that doesn’t help, I take a headache pill, and that usually helps. And otherwise I just have “a little think” about everything. [laughs]

WHEN YOU’RE ON THE TRAIN, DO YOU LOOK AT THE OTHER PEOPLE AROUND YOU?

Yes, always.

WHAT ARE YOU LOOKING FOR? OR WHAT ARE YOU LOOKING AT? BE HONEST.

[six seconds, then laughing…] First, I have to make sure there is no one around that I actually know. I’m really good at not seeing or not recognizing people I know on the street, which is not a very good thing. Sometimes people think I ignore them, and that’s not true.

LIKE THAT NORWEGIAN GUY AT THE BUS STOP?

[laughter] “Oh, I didn’t recognize you!” [laughter] I think it’s very interesting to watch other people. I don’t go out a lot and that’s kind of my chance – you know, when I’m on the train to work or something – to check people out. Most people are quite boring, so you just swipe past them and then you read your book. But sometimes something catches you.

DO YOU HAVE A FAVORITE KIND OF PEN?

Yes. I do. It’s from Muji. I bought my first one at Åhléns City [department store in Stockholm] and they stopped carrying it. So when I went to Japan, I bought like nine of those pens. I think I’m down to one now and it’s kind of scary. I’ve checked everywhere. They don’t have it in Paris and they don’t have it in Berlin… and I didn’t check in New York! What?! I’m such a…

YOU BLEW IT! [laughter]