It was under the heat of a 40-degree day in Kyoto that I first met Laura. It was mid-July and the Gion Matsuri parades were happening all across town, which made the streets of otherwise not so crazy Kyoto, very much alive. I was walking through an arcade, partially shopping and partially trying to find some air conditioning to cool me down from yet another marvellous day of exploring and staring in awe in the sunshine when Laura approached me and paid me a compliment. “Nice person”, was my first thought. My second thought came to me so fast, that it exited my mouth before I had a chance to ponder: “Thanks for the compliment. Would you like to do karaoke with us tonight? You see, we are only two people and I don’t think two is enough to fulfil my Lost In Translation karaoke fantasies”. As quickly as I asked, she said yes, “and I’ll bring a Japanese friend along so you can have the full experience”. And there we had it, we were fast karaoke friends.
After one of the most fun nights I had in my time in Japan, it turned out that Laura wasn’t only an amazing singer – that introduced me to the anthem that is “Drowning Pool – Let The Bodies Hit The Floor” -, she was also an artist and an academic that had titles such as designer, facilitator and worldbuilder under her belt.
Originally from Michigan, currently living in Kyoto and based in LA, with a background in film and currently finishing her Ph.D. in Media Arts and Practice, Laura is exploring through worldbuilding how to better the lives of people who suffer from “invisible disabilities”, as she calls them.
Last week, I sat down with Laura for a conversation about desirable futures, worldbuilding and design thinking.
RG- “Artist, designer, facilitator, worldbuilder working in research”. Break this down for me. Who is Laura Cechanowicz?
LC- I come from a film background. I was always passionate about film and psychology, so my undergrad majors were Film, Psychology and German, but German was an accident (laughs).
RG- What do you mean by accident?
LC- I had this influential teacher and that’s the end of it. He said to me “I don’t think that the thing is that you love German so much, I think that you just love international things”, which was right. I always wanted to combine my film and psychology work effectively, but I didn’t know exactly the way to do it. In my Master (she has a Master in Film Studies followed by a Master of Fine Arts in Animation and Digital Arts) I had a professor who helped me understand the neuroscience of embodiment, you know, the notion that mind and body are not split at all, that the body is also part of the mind and you think with your body, you have memories in your body. In my undergrad, I did a piece where people sat in an empty room with a couch, but what I noticed is that there were things missing that were contextual to their environment. Their environment was missing. People are heavily influenced by their space and that’s why for Silence Secrets I went to peoples houses, to be in their environment. (You can watch Laura’s piece “Silent Secrets” here)
RG- Did anyone inspire you?
LC- There is this animator, who wasn’t exactly an inspiration but was doing a technique very similar to the one I was doing, he is South African, his name is William Kentridge and his technique is beautiful. Also, John Cage, who’s paintings with sound deeply inspired me and changed the way I made my films. (You can watch the piece “Visual Score” here).
RG- So your art was changing, but you were still an artist. What I’m curious to know is how did you first came in contact with Design Thinking, and when did it become a part of your professional life?
LC- Right, but the important thing is when I figured out that I was an artist and not a designer. What I mean is that I was an artist, but I was doing design and, therefore, becoming a designer.
RG- At this point, have you started your Ph.D.?
LC- At this point, I was starting my Ph.D. and I met Alex McDowell. He has a company called Experimental Design and he is also a professor at USC. He is the production designer for Fight Club, Minority Report, Man of Steel. I studied his method in his company and I also taught classes with him. Two or three years into that, I realised that people were having trouble understanding the method – including myself – and that was because this was a design process and not a filmmaking process. (McDowell’s method is called Worldbuilding and it is a design methodology applied to filmmaking).
RG- Can you attempt to simplify and explain the process?
LC- When Alex was working on Minority Report, by chance, because they didn’t have a script, they started out by putting a bunch of people together and imagining that future and that became a future-thinking problem. And based on what they’d built after having these conversations with experts and also imagining this world and drawing and building things out, then they wrote the story. Design Thinking, I think, is about finding answers to problems; it is like excavating as an “archeologist of the future”. A lot of what I do is thinking “under certain conditions, what will your world be like”, you know? The unique thing that Alex brings is that coming from film, he is so grounded in story, using story as a core tool to the designing process.
RG- We say here at Echos that Design Thinking is a perfect tool to create desirable futures. With your expertise in worldbuilding (Laura frequently hosts workshops, writes about the theme and has partnered in worldbuilding projects such as Dry City with the likes of Buckminster Fuller Institute, World Building Media Lab and the Bridge Institute @ USC). Tell me how you think this relates to design thinking?
LC- We do a lot of research in the worldbuilding process, even if we’re going really far into the future, and that’s the very core of Design Thinking, right? We come up with “what if” and “why not” questions to do forecasting, so you take your research and you’re like “why if this happens in this world? Why not?”.
RG- So this is sort of your version of prototyping and iteration?
LC- Right. Then we do a lot of expert interviews and pull out insight from the experts and turn those into the “what if/why not” questions too.
RG- And that aligns with our feedback step in design thinking and challenging the initial question to make sure you are asking the right question.
LC- Yeah. And we consider all kinds of people to be experts. For example, a seven-year-old can be an expert of their experience.
RG- Sure. In Design Thinking we would call them an “extreme user”.
LC- Yes. Then we start working on a world map, which is a research map where you organise your information by mapping out categories and assigning information to categories into this chart.
LC- Yeah. In the world map, you create a character who is in the centre of the map and through whom you will understand that world.
RG- Right, like a persona.
LC- That’s right.
RG- Very similar approaches, aren’t they? Is there a difference?
LC- In design, you do not know necessarily what your outcome is going to be. You’re working on that and iterating and prototyping throughout to find the right solution, whereas in film you don’t necessarily work so amorphously, that is kind of dangerous or something.
RG- Tell me about your current project on invisible disabilities.
LC- In the conditions of my dissertation is a world in thirty years where everybody will develop an invisible disability in their lifetime. So then, giving that this is the case, we don’t want people to feel desperate or have too many problems, once this happens, so we decide to redesign society space wise, culturally and in all kinds of ways, so that we have a better living situation for everybody with these disabilities. This is a fictional scenario designed to produce real-world solutions. We interview a lot of people who are presently suffering from these problems. If you think about things like mental illness, aging, etc., you probably could reasonably argue that everyone ends up with an invisible disability at some point.
LC- For example, somebody who is really depressed, it is really hard for that person to call into work to say “Today I need to stay home because I’m really sad”, you know? So we’re thinking about what could we build and make that will help solve this.
RG- So what is the end desirable goal for this world you’ve crafted?
LC- The idea is to make something that as many people can participate in as possible. I think that a goal that is coming up for me now is finding a way to link people around the world to talk to each other because in every country people care. Through my travels, I’ve seen that certain countries are better at certain things than others and we can benefit from that communication about what the situation is.
RG- Right. And the health sector as we know it today is much more focused on diagnosis and medication than it is on the person and the circumstances that got them to that diagnosis in the first place. At Echos, we have worked with several clients in the health industry trying to answer this question: how can we make a health process – whatever it may be – more human-centred?
LC- The more that I can find ways to share peoples stories in an interesting way, the more that I can help people understand where the problems are. Sometimes we can do that through designing funny objects that can draw attention to where these problems are lying and we can come up with solutions; some of them – I hope – are solutions that we can actually implement in the future. Another way might just be designing to help communicate as I think that, especially for invisible disabilities, one of the biggest problems is communication.
RG- You suffer from rheumatoid arthritis, which classifies as an “invisible disability”. Can you share a little bit about what is like living with it?
LC- Yes, for sure. I have constant pain, which is – without taking pain medicine – usually a five to an eight out of ten, all the time. Luckily I have pain medicine and I found a wonderful doctor who really asked me how bad it was and said “Ok, let’s see if we can get that down to four to six” and that’s what we did, we got it down to four to six and, for me, it is a really big difference in functionality. My pain is also very unpredictable, I could be walking around fine for a while and then, suddenly, my knee feels like it is breaking from the inside, so decision making is highly altered for people with chronic pain. You just don’t know when it’s going to happen, how long it is going to last or if it will prevent you from working.
Photo: Yuske Fukada
RG- Hard to plan things.
LC- Yeah, so I need a very flexible schedule as waking up early can be very hard. It is nice when I can make my own time schedule to work around the time when I really get productive. Travelling is also very hard.
RG- And you travel a lot.
LC- I have been, yeah. For my research. So I have to get my medicine beforehand and have it all prepared, which now can also be a problem in the U.S. because of the opioid epidemic issue, which makes the life of people with chronic pain harder. This is now becoming a bigger human problem.
RG- Which to me shows another flaw in the system. There is a reason people are taking painkillers for psychological pain. No one gets high alone, every day, unless they are trying to mask some sort of pain.
LC- Yes! It’s true. That’s probably the best way I’ve ever heard somebody say it concisely, “taking pain meds for psychological pain” because people are not talking literally in that way and I actually think it is very literal like that.
RG- Do you think that diseases are perceived to have a “hierarchy of importance”? Is somebody with depression considered as sick as somebody who has a terminal disease?
LC- I’m sure there are (hierarchies). I have a friend with a mental illness who I helped through a rough phase and, before that, I did not understand mental illness. It made me realise what she felt was at least equal to the pain that I experience.
RG- I think this is a great empathy exercise. You only really can start to understand something when you try to put yourself in someone else’s shoes for a moment. In Design Thinking, we call this a deep empathy exercise.
LC- I really love that. Maybe I’ll implement in my research a part that is called “empathy exercises” and they can be, basically like, thought experiments, too.
RG- The empathy part of Design Thinking is one of the biggest pulling magnets for me, personally.
LC- Since you said it that way, I feel like it should be part of what we are producing. (smiles)
RG- I’m going to shift the conversation so we can wrap it up in a positive note.
LC- Ok. (laughs)
RG- In your view, how can design and technology create social change in the world?
LC- We think that worldbuilding is really great because, once you design the world, whatever technology you need is available to make whatever you want to make. Alex (McDowell) really believes in creativity pushing technology, you know, the idea of using creativity in pushing technology to do what you want is a useful approach.
RG- What about for you?
LC- In my project, I’m looking to create technology, actual objects, that will create change in the real world, or even developing social structures, programs for elementary schools and looking at all of those elements as social technology, we are able to innovate through storytelling and design. I call this the “technologies of the imagination” and a colleague of mine has adapted it to “infrastructures of the imagination” where he uses Design Thinking to create “infrastructures of the imagination” to create social change.
RG- What is something you may actually implement from your project?
LC- A friend of mine is a principle of an elementary school and we are thinking of writing a children’s book to educate kids about disabilities. That would be a first step, a concrete outcome of this project.
RG- Thank you so much for your time, Laura. This was a wonderful, insightful conversation.
LC- My pleasure.
Laura’s website, where you can see most of her published work, is here.
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