By Emily Pfiester [6 min read]
Christine Truc Modica is an innovation strategy consultant at Fjord where she heads up the Human Insights practice. Her design work has taken her across the world from Europe to the US, Asia, and Africa. Christine has led creative teams tackling all kinds of research projects utilising a multidisciplinary, human-centered design approach.
Part of the leadership team that started the Sustainable Design School in Nice (FR), teaching is one of Christine’s passions. She has taught courses at the SKEMA Business School in France and the Copenhagen Institute for Interactive Design. She has also collaborated as a visiting professor at the Interaction Design Institute of Ivrea and Domus Academy of Italy.
Beyond design, Christine is deeply connected to nature, spending as much time as possible outdoors climbing mountains, sailing, or tending to her bees and olive trees at home in Provence. She sees sustainability as extrinsically connected to how one lives, designs, and interacts.
I caught up with Christine to ask her about why she became a designer, and what life-changing moments have shaped her career. Admittedly, I also wanted to know how one begins to make their own olive oil! What follows are excerpts from our conversation.
Can you sum up what you do in one sentence?
My job is about creating meaning. It is about focusing on people and life as an ecosystem, to make sure that I create something that is meaningful for people and their community and respectful of the planet.
How did you become a designer?
It’s a beautiful story. I wanted to become an architect, but my parents didn’t want me to. It was difficult as a woman to be an architect when I was a student and since I was good at mathematics and physics, they pushed me to become an engineer in computer science.
I went to engineering school in Paris and after I graduated, started to work in an R&D department. This was at the beginning of the 1990s and I was really interested in human machine interaction, working for a big telecommunications company specialised in the airline community. I was working on very complex systems like air traffic control, telecommunication services and remote aircraft maintenance. As I was travelling around the world and working on these big, complex systems I realised that while technology is one thing, human interaction was something very important.
I was doing some research and found a new program at the Royal College of Art in London which was run by Gillian Crampton Smith. I started working with students from the computer-related design program at the school, which was the first one in Europe. After a few years of working with these designers I realised that I wanted to do this…I wanted to be a designer.
Have you seen the field change quite a bit since then?
What was nice was that at the time we didn’t have all of the different disciplines, and if you were an interaction designer you were doing the research, the ideation, the prototype. You were doing everything which was really fantastic because as a group we were involved in the complete creative process cycle, which is not the case anymore.
In 1997 I got my [design] degree and started working as a designer then moved more to the design research part as this is what was interesting for me: going to the field and meeting people. I realised that this was really my mission.
Why human user insights?
Human insights because we have the tendency today to say that you can get a lot of insight from analytics, from artificial intelligence, and I think that it is really important to keep a focus on people because this is where you can create meaning.
Sometimes people are doing things because they can’t do something else. They go on a website and the way a platform is working is a constraint on itself. So, you will get a lot of information about the ways that they are using a website, but in fact it is based on doing what they can with what you are offering.
That’s why the word human is important because it means that you take the time to speak to humans, to go to the field, to understand the context. You don’t just collect a bunch of data. In the past year we’ve been speaking a lot about big data, which can be very interesting, but we really need to balance technology and humans.
In talking about design research, it is important to open it up a bit. Today we don’t have the time and money that we had before to do a deep, qualitative research and we have more mixed methods and approaches. Design research, which is more about qualitative data, needs to be opened up to quantitative and dynamic data as well.
And the 3 Ps (people, planet, profit)?
For me this is really important as I am close to nature. I live in Provence and my grandfather had a vineyard, so from a very young age I am used to being in nature.
As a designer we have a responsibility for the future for our children, our grandchildren, for the people that we love. It is very important to take care of people and take care of the planet.
We also have to take care of profit because we are not in a paradise kind of world where you can get anything for free. People need money to live, and companies need to make money to pay their employees. So, the profit aspect is important to make sure that what we are creating can be a long-term solution and that there is a perennity in the solutions we are developing.
Profit is as important as planet and as important as people. If we don’t have these three pillars covered, we will not succeed.
Profit doesn’t mean only financial profitability; we can bring value beyond that and it is important to think about it when we create a solution.
What can you tell us about the Sustainable Design School?
The Sustainable Design School was the first school in France to really take on sustainable innovation.
The school was created in 2013 by friends of mine, Patrick Le Quément, Maurille Larivière, and Marc Van Petgehem. When they told me about this project and that I could be a part of the context and strategy I thought that it was fantastic. It was a unique experience in my life, to start a school, and it is not an opportunity that comes up twice in your life! It was so innovative and so important as an idea that now every design school has a program on sustainability innovation. You even start to have management schools with this type of program.
Can you describe an “ah-ha” moment in your career?
One ah-ha moment was when I went to Tanzania and did a big research project for the Maasai, for the Toyota foundation. I went there and lived for fifteen days with the Maasai, and our goal was to find solutions for the rural population in Tanzania. The first night that we arrived, everyone was worried because a three-year old boy was lost in the savannah and since they didn’t have any lights it was impossible to find him. The first solution that we created was thanks to this. It was a solar light that you can put on top of the sticks that the Maasai carry, that can be plugged in so that at you can have a light during the night. This was a real ah-ha moment, and it came from living with these people for fifteen days, doing everything with them like going two hours to a source for water. It was a really incredible experience.
What is your favorite thing about being a designer?
When we are doing research and start to create the actionable insights all in the same room. It is not an easy moment, the analysis, but it is also when you have the magic happening. From the facts you start to develop insights and you start to develop opportunities. When you have the right team and the right mindset it’s really powerful and a really good reward, during this transformation.
Where do you see the world in 2075?
There are two scenarios. One is if we don’t do anything, and life will be very difficult in 2075 because we will have a lot of environmental and social problems. This is the bad scenario.
The other scenario is if we really take the right decisions at the right time and start a completely new life which is focused on frugality. Work will not be the center of life anymore. We will not live to work, but we will work to have enough money to do what we want to do. Life will be more focused on your close community. I think that we will come back to a mixed generation of young and old people. It will be a completely different life, more focused on nature and more focused on social aspects.
Everybody will be a gardener, growing their own potatoes and tomatoes, it will be completely different from what we do now.
How did you get into making your own olive oil?
When I bought my house in Provence in 2003, I had just come back from Boston. I was living in Milano, which is a very business city and on the weekends everyone goes away. So, I bought this house in Provence with olive trees. The first three years I didn’t do anything, just set up a garden, until my father came and said “Christine, you have a treasure on this land, and you should take care of these trees.”
As I started to think about it, I realised that I really like this, it was another ah-ha moment. It became a social event. Every November I have a bunch of friends who come over to help me for a few days. We collect the olives from the trees, I make the oil and then we share it amongst ourselves.
It’s a pleasure to have my own olive oil, it’s a social activity and it’s also a way to be closer to nature.
We do everything by hand, without machines. It is a pleasure to be three up in a tree to harvest together, have discussions.
What are you itching to do once lockdown is over?
The first thing that I will do is to meet with my children. They are studying in Montreal and I haven’t seen my daughter for one year and my son for two years, due to the lockdown.
Who is a person that you admire?
Marc Van Peteghem, who is also a co-founder of the Sustainable Design School. He is a fantastic boat designer, has a vineyard, and created and invested in the Sustainable Design School. He is a fantastic human being, very smart and visionary. He created an association to support people in Bangladesh and is working to create new solutions using wind propulsion for big [ship] cruisers.