Photo credit: David "Kid With Camera" Waldman
So you returned to your old art college to teach technology?
Yes, and since then I've been given the opportunity to design a new graduate program with a group of fantastic colleagues at OCAD and the CFC Media Lab called the Digital Futures Initiative. We were given the green light by Sara Diamond, who's been a long time colleague of mine before she came here as President. She's brought all sorts of fantastic opportunities for technological innovation in the arts, sciences, research and design to the University.
My colleagues Paula Gardner, David McIntosh, Geoffrey Shea and I started the mobile experience lab, and it's been highly successful at doing all sorts of experimental research work. At this point I thought, "OK, I've got a home here. I can teach what I know. I can do research in the areas that I am interested in."
What areas of research does your work at the mobile lab cover?
I run three research projects out of our lab that are funded in various ways. One is working on mobile technology for elders, helping to scaffold memory by allowing families and elders to collaboratively recreate shared memories and engage in sharing family stories together. Another is with the CIVDDD [Centre for Information Visualization and Data Driven Design] which is looking at the sonification of data – how to make data available through sound and how to search it through spoken word. We are working with an amazing data set – 20 years of CBC News Network video that will allow you to choose a day from the past then review and search the news stories On This Day. The third is a project with Canadian Women In Communication helping women in the TMT [Technology, Media and Telecommunications] industries who are trying to move their careers into the full potential of the digital realm. We've just completed three in-person seminars in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, which we're now building into a series of online learning modules.
What kind of material do the seminars cover?
One of the sessions that we did in Montreal with digital artists, Mouna Andraos and Skawennati Fragnito, was called "Good Enough: Iterative Design And Digital Thinking". It was all about the "Good Enough” design methodology that's used a lot in game and app design. You design and put together something quickly that has all of the features you need but without the bells and whistles. You put it onto a platform and then collaborate with your users – the people who are going to be your audience – and you figure out the improvements together.
That kind of "Good Enough" mentality can also be applied to how you advance through different stages in your life. You just have to know "enough" to know that you've got that grounding, that you're open to new ideas, and that you're open to learning.
Do you see having a risk-taking mentality as a barrier to entry for women who want to join the tech industry?
Women can quickly access the information that they need to kickstart or fast-track their knowledge and learning. But it’s true that our research has found that when women are looking at advancing their careers they can they fall short when applying for a new position, particularly if they're coming from a more traditional area of media (the telecommunications industry, for example) and they're trying to move in to one that's more technologically mediated. And let’s face it – nearly every industry now requires a lot more technological knowledge.
When looking at a job description, women will go through all of the requirements and if there are ten things the prospective employer is looking for, they'll figure that if they don't have nine or all ten of those qualifications that they won't actually be suitable or qualified for the job. And so they won't go for it as often as a man would.
A guy might look at that job description and go “OK so they're looking for these ten things, yeah I'm pretty confident about five or six of them, two of them I can I pick up, I know nothing about two of them but you know, hey I'll go for this job.” Whereas a woman might go – “Oh I'm not so sure. If I can't go in and show that I can perform in at least nine or ten of those categories, I'm not going to get hired.”
It’s interesting because it feels like the tech industry is finally beginning to acknowledge the role of women in technology. Has academia done a better job at highlighting this topic?
One of my committee members, Jennifer Jenson, and one of my colleagues, Emma Westecott, are doing a lot of very interesting work on women and games. And I think there have been a lot of good studies in this area for quite a while. It’s an important area because it's a way in. How many guys do you know who are working in technology found their way in through a love for video games? Well guess what: video games for a long time were not that appealing to girls. Some girls love first person shooters but lots of girls really don't. They often prefer collaborative and narrative games. And there aren't nearly so many of those available, and very few have been designed by women.
There aren't many studies on how to get more women into technology, so I wanted to add my perspective as a woman who has been working in technology for the last three decades. It's become clear to me that things haven't really progressed, and that it's not just a bit of a problem – it has actually become a bit of a crisis.
What was it that drew you into technology? Did you play video games growing up?
You know what, [laughs] the first video games only began to appear once I was grown up! I do remember being immediately taken by Space Invaders, the arcade game; I was addicted to it rather quickly. And it was interesting because I first played it in the UK, when I was over there with Martha and the Muffins recording our first album and we all thought, "Wow, this is fantastic!" They didn't yet have it over here so we were all trying to figure out how we could introduce Space Invaders to Canada [laughs].
But I’d been working with computers a long time before that. I'd been working with computers since I was about 19.
So you had a start in technology before recording your first album. Looking back at your career, I had the impression your successes in music, design and technology were all distinct periods of your life, but perhaps they were more interwoven than I had imagined.
When I was younger I really wanted to go to art school here at OCAD (it was the Ontario College of Art at the time), and I needed to make money to pay for my tuition. I got this funny little job where a woman trained me to do punch card programming for big mainframe computers. This was before there were even keyboards and displays. I didn't know anything about it, but it had a logic to it that I really liked, and I was not afraid of it. Once I learned to do basic programming I realize that I enjoyed it, and I could work independently; I didn't have to do a 9-5 job, I could program and do data entry and data analysis in the middle of the night if I wanted. It was a good job and it put me through art school.
There was something abstract about it, something tangible that I really liked. I'm not a mathematician (I don't have that kind of brain), but it seemed visual and physical, something I could get my hands on. Also, lots of people didn't know how to do it, so it felt sort of like a secret and I felt kind of powerful.
At the Ontario College of Art, I was most interested in working in sound, video, holography and disciplines that had technology supporting them. I also did painting and drawing which I had always done, but I wanted to figure out how to combine them. So I took animation, film and video editing; I created sound pieces and edited video to them. The great thing was that in those early days – I'm talking about the late 70s – we had all of the facilities here at the school. We had some of the very first synthesizers, which were not keyboard synthesizers but peg-board synthesizers.
And then I met my pals from the band that I ended up joining, Martha and the Muffins, and we were all really interested in using new instruments and experimenting with tape and sound. We were playing with technology and making abstract sound pieces before we were making music together.Photo credit: Dan (mcwidi_2)
The band split up in 1981 and I stayed in the UK to pursue a solo career, work with other musicians, and learn how to be a designer by working with one of the best designers in the world, Peter Saville, who happened to be at DinDisc (our record label) and had worked with us on all of our album and single sleeves. Peter was also soaring to fame with the work he was doing with Joy Division and Factory Records. I worked really closely with Peter at Peter Saville Associates.
So you didn't have a formal training in graphic design?
No, I didn't have any formal training. I had done a lot of illustration work, and I knew how to draw and used my skills in that way, but I didn't have any formal training in graphic design. I learned how to do graphic design by doing it.
It's becoming more and more of a trend in technology companies, especially within startups, to put design at the core of business. With a background in both technology and design, how do you see design’s influence on technology?
It's one of the founding ideologies of OCAD University that making through art and design is a way of thinking. Design brings great insights to concepts, ideas, materials, and visualising ways of bringing those concepts into the world through technology. It isn't something that is laid on top like a skin. If you don't think from a design point of view about how you're going to make an aesthetically pleasurable, delightful and highly useful product, then it's never going to be any of those things.
Design also asks “why” questions, the kind of questions that if answered early on can differentiate a good product from a mediocre one. Fundamental questions such as: who is this really for? Why do they want to use this? In what capacity are they going to use this? Or where? And how will it improve their life, make it easier, more understandable and manageable, richer and more pleasurable? Those sorts of questions are often overlooked.
How did you end up working as a design manager with Peter Gabriel?
I first met Peter Gabriel when I was working with Peter Saville and Trevor Key on designing the So album. I was working as a graphic designer, but I was still continuing to make music and work in the music industry. I did a couple of singles of my own and put those out. I worked with a band called The Associates, and we had a couple of Top Ten singles, and then I did some work with Roxy Music. It was at the end of a big tour with Robert Palmer when I realized that having children and being in the music business full time was actually really, really hard. I had two little kids then and my husband was a musician as well, a classical musician. He was on tour all the time, I was on tour, and we were trying to figure out how to have this life with children.
I just thought 'this is not the way to bring up a family so I'm going to have to focus on doing stuff that's closer to home.' I decided to get out of London and moved, quite by chance, to the same village in the English countryside where Peter Gabriel had his Real World recording studios.
I ended up going down to the studios one day to hang out with my friends in New Order, who were recording an album there. I knew everyone in the band quite well when I was working with Peter Saville (I had been involved in a lot of the work with them for Factory Records), and we were all sort of music business pals. I just thought “Hang on! There are things I could do here! And I need a job!” [laughs]. So I met up with Peter Gabriel and proposed that we do something together and he said “Yes!”.
What did you work on together?
I worked on one of Peter’s projects, a very cool magazine called The Box, all of the album and tour promotion, merchandise, advertising, assisting with videos; we put his entire fan club online. We were some of the first people I think to be doing online interaction, and this was in the days before internet browsers.
The next logical step was to do all of the design work in-house, so we formed a department with a really talented group of young designers that took over the work for all of Peter's and the Real World Records artist's album sleeves. Peter had artists coming through the studio all the time who needed record sleeves and needed design. It was lots of fun.
You mentioned your move to the countryside to raise your girls and focus on being a mother. Did that decision make it difficult to keep working and keep up with the fast pace of technology?
It wasn't just about being a woman or a mother; having a career in technology whether you’re a woman or a man – there's so much you need to do to keep up, even if it's just in your particular area of technoculture. In the beginning, we were on the edge; we were a part of creating the revolution in information, communication, and entertainment technologies. Things were happening fast, and they are now moving and accelerating all the time and the stuff that I don't know about my field is now much, much larger than the stuff that I do know. But it's okay, because I don't think you have to know everything about everything to understand your field and to make an impact in it.
I think it's really important for women to work. It was important for me that I work to set an example for my own daughters and for me to know enough about technology to be current – in fact, creating currency – and to teach them; I really wanted my daughters to feel comfortable with technology and to enjoy it. I bought them drawing programs for the computer when they were little, they played with my computer, learned how to be technologically creative with software like Kid Pix and they loved video games like the Sims.
It’s one of my regrets that I probably didn’t get to spend enough time with the girls when they were little. But when you work in technology, when you work in music, when you work in design – you are inevitably clocking late nights. You sometimes work all through the night and I still occasionally do that if I’ve got a deadline. You just have to keep going. It all worked out and now both my daughters work in technology so they appreciate what it means to have to work to those crazy deadlines.
What do your daughters do?
Like me, they're both musical as well as artistic. Neither of them had a head for math or science and like me they found their way into technological fields through the arts and through writing, research and designing. It’s worked out really well for both of them.
My elder daughter has got this fantastic job as the lead mobile designer for Net-A-Porter, the largest online fashion retailer in the world. She's designing new more personal and social ways to interact with style and fashion and editorial content; it's kind of a dream come true job. She knows so much more about designing for mobile than I do now and she has learned really fast, even though I remember a couple of years ago she called me up from London and asked, "Mom, can you walk me through creating a wireframe?" It was her first day in a new position, and she was learning on her feet – that is what I mean about taking risks! She picked it up really quickly.
My younger daughter is also working with fashion at an online luxury gifts company called the Gift Library. She's recently graduated so she's still finding her way, but she's doing a lot of social media strategy and content, writing for all of the different platforms that you have to be present and relevant in, for multiple audiences.
I'm just so happy to see them both building careers that have their artistic interests bundled up into interesting new areas of technology. I think that what they and the people they work with are doing will change the way we learn about and buy new products that are useful and delightful.Photo credit: Martha Ladly
In our last interview Dessy Daskalov asked, “How are you changing the status quo and what are you doing to change the things you don't like about the world?”
Well I think that's pretty simple. The status quo has to be that there are many more men working in technology than women. That imbalance affects the world in fundamental ways. It affects the way that we interact with each other through technology and most importantly the way we communicate.
I am changing the status quo by actively getting more women involved in technology, by being a role model, by teaching them, by including them on my research teams, by talking to them about what they want and by making sure that we include women not just in the design process but in the design outcomes.
I really hope that in my lifetime we will achieve a balance, that men and women working in technology will create more equitable technological outcomes for both men and women, in both the developed and developing worlds, to share and benefit from equally
Without knowing who they are, please pose a question for our next interviewee.
If you could imagine and design a new technology that would improve the lives of women, what would it be?
Be sure to check back next time (or subscribe below) for Pearl's answer to this question.