Maria was Plank’s astounding Art Director for just a short time but she left an impression, namely in designing our first app, The Holiday Dodger (an excuse generator for those uncomfortable holiday obligations). These days, she’s in Ottawa working as Director of User Experience for 1Valet.

Erin: You have an impressive career in design, what drew you to the field?

Maria: I’ve always had a passion for design — and composition in general. As a child, I would collect business cards and spend hours looking at the typography, design, and the cardstock itself. Ironically, I never considered myself creative growing up, so I took a few detours along the way. I studied Philosophy at York University and as far as jobs went, I sold vacuum cleaners (no joke), worked in retail, was an inter-office messenger at a large insurance company and a clerk at Immigration Canada before becoming a designer. These detours were essential and part of my path, as they helped cultivate my curiosity, but I didn’t realize this until much later.

During the recession in the ‘90s, there were very few opportunities for work so I became involved with various community groups in Toronto. Within a short time, I found myself designing flyers and posters. I learned Photoshop (using a friend’s computer) and was excited by the possibilities. However, I lacked the skills to take my designs to the next level. So in 1996, after some searching, I took a risk (and a substantial loan) and enrolled in a private college. One year later, I graduated with a diploma in Digital Media Design and got my first official design gig at a local start-up.

Erin: What’s your most memorable moment or project from your time at Plank?

Maria: There were a couple of things… Plank felt like a family. We were a small, tight group in a casual and laid back environment. I never really fit into the corporate mould so I really appreciated the environment — both the physical space and the folks. As a designer, I loved working with Gary and learned a lot from him while collaborating on a number of projects. If I look back though, the one project that stands out is the redesign of the Plank website. The site has since been redesigned and looks very lovely today, but I remember all the discussions and negotiations that got us to that final, polished 2012 version. Being able to effectively collaborate on a challenging and emotional project (as all company site redesigns are) was a testament to how much we valued and respected one another at Plank.

Erin: What’s happening in the design world that gets you excited these days?

Maria: What’s exciting to me is how the User Experience Designer’s domain is expanding beyond the screen to physical environments, such as buildings and cities, and how people move through these spaces. I’ve spent five of the last six years in a product environment, working on mobile applications (and hardware device interfaces) for smart homes and buildings and I’m looking forward to how IoT will evolve over the next few years. However, while the impact of UX Design in these environments has the potential to be highly transformative in positive ways, we also need to be aware of the ethical implications of the less visible aspects of the experiences we create, and how we communicate those to the user. We need to be especially thoughtful about how we collect user data and who will ultimately have access to it (e.g. who owns the data, where is it stored, and is it anonymized?). In other words, we need to be vigilant when creating and upholding ethical standards. While there are no easy answers, it does make for some interesting philosophical discussions.

Erin: You’re involved in some pretty interesting community and collaborative projects. Can you tell us a bit about your involvement?

Maria: I got involved in the open source hardware movement toward the end of 2014 while writing my thesis, as it was related to the academic research I was doing at the time. Soon after, I began to participate in a couple of collaborative peer-to-peer (P2P) projects, one of which is Breathing Games

Breathing Games is a collaborative project that promotes respiratory health and autonomy by creating freely accessible and collectively managed resources, such as educational and therapeutic games and devices, together with patients, health professionals, designers, programmers, visual artists, musicians and other passionate people.   

As a core contributor, I have multiple roles at the project and product level — both in research and in design. On the product side, this includes organizing game jams, leading design sessions, and planning the product roadmap. On the research side, I am a co-investigator of a CIHR-funded (Canadian Institutes of Health Research) research grant. My tasks include writing sections of the research protocol for the patient studies and presenting research papers at international design conferences.

Erin: What’s your favourite way to unleash your creativity or work through a block?

Maria: I try to look at things from a fresh perspective by going for a walk or hike, reading a book and generally spending some time away from the task at hand. Creative ideas tend to come from the most unusual places. Designers often talk about serendipity and I can attest that this is a very real phenomenon. 

However, sometimes the way to get past a creative block is to let someone else on the team do it. Knowing when to hand over the reins can be one of the hardest things to do as a designer, but these types of challenges are precisely what offer the most opportunities for growth.

We want to thank Maria for taking the time to catch up with us!

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