• A Conversation with Brenda Laurel: It’s Not Enough to Change the Light Bulbs

    Julia Moisand Egea: My name is Julia and I work with Adaptive Path as an Experience Designer. I’ve been following and loving your work for a while, in particular Purple Moon, Design Research and most recently Gaian IxD. It is an honor to have the opportunity to ask you a few questions. Throughout your career, you’ve advanced a variety of provocative concepts like computers as theater, narratives in video games for girls, designed animism and now Gaian IxD. What is the common thread that binds all of these ideas together? What has influenced or inspired you the most in your work?

    Brenda Laurel: My work has been inspired, initially by curiosity and a desire for creative expression. As I have matured, I’ve become much more motivated by social justice and earth justice issues. The greatest inspirations to me have been my mentor, Don Glancy, who was my thesis advisor at Ohio State. I’ve also had the great good fortune of working with other wonderful mentors—Don Norman, Henry Jenkins, and Mary Flanagan come to mind.

    JME: Rumor has it that you are working on a new book about Gaian IxD. Can you tell us more about it? We’d love to hear how the idea started.

    BL: I have just finished a new edition of Computers as Theatre (to be published in October) that includes some of the Gaian work as well as other scientific ideas that have informed my thinking. Strong influences are Lyn Margulis and James Lovelock, as well as my incredibly smart husband, Rob Tow. The idea of Gaian IxD—or what Rob and I call Gaian Gardening—comes from our deep connection to the natural world and our desire to find ways to use our technology as a way to deal with climate change.

    We can use our technology as citizens to have a real dialogue with nature.

    My current thinking is to develop applications that help us to see Gaia better, to fall in love with it, and to understand more deeply what is going on. Informed (and delighted) citizens are necessary to push for policy changes in these areas. It’s not enough to change the light bulbs, although that helps. I’ve been inspired by Sean White’s work with the Electronic Field Guide and SiteLens projects. My current interest is in using distributed sensing and augmented reality technologies, following in Sean’s footsteps. I hope to be able to work with U. C. Santa Cruz on a large-scale project.

    JME: You’ve devoted a large part of your career to teaching. How did you guide your students to become future professionals? What do you think are the best qualities to have as a designer today?

    BL: The big joke is that they pay you to learn when you are a teacher. My excellent students over the last 12 years have taught me so much. The qualities I try to instill are an ability to stand up, first and foremost—to decide to use your voice through the medium of design. I stress design research, both formal and human-centered, as a necessary skill set and invaluable tool.

    I find that approaching design challenges with hope and a sense of social responsibility is a far better method than approaching design for the sake of mastery.

    I emphasize collaborative work. My students have done a great job of inventing some intriguing and positive possible futures.

    JME: How do you see the practice of interaction design and user experience evolving? What are your main aspirations for the future of the field?

    BL: I see us developing technologies and design practices that reduce cognitive distance for people who use them. I hope that we will continue to create alternatives to the trivial pursuits currently favored by the marketplace. It is still the case that many, if not most, people see technology as the Other. We have current books denouncing technology and the way we use it—I’m thinking now of Jaron Lanier and some others. Technology is an extrusion of the human spirit. When Doug Rushkoff complains about our fast-click-overwhelm, I want to say that we have it in our power to create experiences with greater magnitude and depth. ‘Slow computing’ is an interesting idea.

    JME: Thank you very much for your time Brenda!

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    Photo Credit: Anton Fomkin via Compfight cc

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