I’m sitting with Alexandra Scandolo in a park off the Rue de Babylone near Le Bon Marché. We just finished our cappuccinos at Coutume Café in the seventh arrondissement of Paris.
Alexandra, known to friends as Ally, is an Information Science Master’s student at the University of Toronto with a specialization in User Experience (UX) design. At the time of this interview, she is on vacation and will return to Toronto to a role she recently accepted as a Digital Product Intern at the Four Seasons corporate office.
We talk about the stress that comes from being in the throes of confirming a position. “The self-reflection and awareness that comes with interviews can be pretty heavy,” Ally says. “I think I’m harder on myself than I should be. It's my capricorn rising.”
Not someone to bottle up her emotions, she believes that when you say something out loud, you give it less power. “No one wants me, I'm not wanted … Hearing myself saying that out loud, it seems less realistic,” she says.
So what does Ally want?
“I want to be creating stuff that makes a difference,” affirms Ally, whose past projects include browser plugins, a task management app for ADHD, and an app for Centre Pompidou.
“Would you say the Centre Pompidou is your favourite art museum in Paris?” I inquire.
“Yes,” she nods. “She’s got everything I need.”
The Torontonian did her undergrad in Art History (with minors in English and French). “I studied Modern and Contemporary Art more than anything,” she says. “I really liked the Bay Area figure movement - Paul Wonner. And Picasso, Mondrian, Modigliani, André Derain, the Fauves...”
Earlier in the day, we visited the Computer Grrrls exposition at La Gaité Lyrique, which featured female artists “unearthing the little-known role their predecessors played in the early days of computing.”
“It moved me because it's all of this stuff that I should know about ... but don't,” Ally says. “Not to be like, WHY AREN'T WE TALKING ABOUT THIS MORE -”
“But why aren’t we talking about this more?” I laugh.
“A lot of these things are coming to light because of movies [i.e. Hidden Figures], which is interesting... but you’re getting kind of a half history. So how do we make it more salient for people to obtain cultural knowledge like that?”
Ally is very curious about web and mobile design and expresses disdain for passive aggressive email subscription popups: "I don't want to be informed or I don't want to know what's happening in the world - you see that, and you don't want to click that.’”
She’s very enthusiastic, however, about Behance and Dribble. And Instagram. “You can be reading about educational things and scrolling on Instagram.” Ally refers to her favourite platform as a one stop shop. “I log ten hours on Instagram every week but the only thing it's worse for is my phone battery. People reject it because they think it's frivolous. They’re not conditioned to believe the Internet is something we have a huge difference over. I can see how that would be distressing - realizing that your agency is not really important. We defer to apps a lot.”
We agree that if you choose to only follow accounts that make you feel bad about yourself, you're not giving yourself the power to shape an experience that is going to be interesting to you. Self-awareness and mindfulness is present in Ally’s work at the moment. “Letting thoughts just pass through without addressing them is not learning,” she says. She tries to let thoughts pass through rather than trying to empty her head at once. But there are some things she just can’t let go… especially when it comes to capturing a moment in photography.
“Colour catches my eyes,” she says. “And the sun is really important. Right now the sun is kind of a natural softbox. Sometimes I'm looking around and I think, I need to have what that looked like. Even if it's not the same, I need to have it …”
When I ask Ally her primary mode(s) of expression, she does not hesitate: “Fashion and photography.” She got a DSLR and her first film camera at the same time in the 9th grade. “Film feels like indelible memories,” she says. “My digital and phone cameras are instant gratification of whatever aesthetic i'm trying to create. Whereas when I look at film, I know that there was a lot of intention.”
A self-professed “Gemini living in duality,” the 24 year old isn’t pretentious about her personal style. “I would say I'm my mom meets my boyfriend right now,” she laughs. “I'm at this weird crossroads where i'm trying to be like both of them. Summertime is white t-shirt, winter time is black turtleneck. I like high waisted wide leg pants because I'm short. They elongate my leg and don’t cut me off too much.”
It's taken her “a long time to stop trying to emulate other people and just do what feels right.” “Initially my self-expression was just imitation,” she muses. “And now that I've developed a sense of myself, a lot of it is intuition. I know immediately without input from other people or without cross-referencing, that's me fully expressing myself.”
Ally also isn’t afraid to express how she’s making her style more sustainable. “I can be out here preaching what my personal style is, but that's not going to exist if I fully stop purchasing things,” she acknowledges. “The fashion industry is not going away and it’s a huge issue for the planet. There's a way to live a fulfilling life and have the things that you want by developing a mindful practice and educating yourself.”
Keep reading to learn more. ///
RS: You’re currently building a digital sustainable community. What does that mean?
AS: My friend Charlène and I, we’re generating informational articles and different types of resources for people who want to be a part of this community through Instagram. It’s for people who are interested in finding out more about how to shop sustainably and shop mindfully. There's a big push towards brands claiming they're eco-friendly. There's another call, in turn, to be more conscientious of what that means.
RS: A lot of material is inaccessible?
AS: There are so many research papers out there that are locked off to people who are not in scholarly pursuits. There's a huge amount of misinformation on social media. In terms of digital marketing, you have a lot of people online (influencers) who are able to push brands to you. The claim might be that they're being eco-friendly but these people shouldn't be your informants. We see a space to inform. We're still kind of piloting diary type series ... our experiences trying to shop but doing so mindfully.
RS: That’s really clever.
AS: I think it's possible to build a sustainable life while getting what you want. Could more conscientious consumers change the system? How could we mobilize to have the things that we enjoy?? I think it's totally possible.
RS: What do you find artificial or deceiving?
AS: Anything that says it's natural or looks like it comes of the earth. Like a tunic in cotton with a navajo print that says “all natural ingredients.” Yeah, I hope so. Chemicals are natural too.
RS: What are some of the apps out there for mindful shopping?
AS: One is Yuka - where you scan barcodes. It's good for food, it's good for cosmetics. And Good On You, started by an australian company, gives ratings to different brands in terms of how ecologically friendly they are. It has its flaws but it's a new thing and I think it will make a huge difference in the long run. I think these apps need to be developed. And that's huge for me to admit because even though i'm studying application/mobile web design... I really don't like apps.
RS: Why is that? Too cluttered?
AS: I get stressed out when I have too many things and then I'm worried about losing control. I remember I would just fill up my old iPod Touches with games and then I would have no space and I would be freaking out. I think about applications in moderation.
RS: So you don’t want them stockpiled in the background.
AS: My rejection of applications also stems from my belief that everybody seems to think there's a need for an application for everything. Even in my coursework, a lot of the things we're doing are prompting us to "make an app." And I'm like, Do we need to make another app for this? Why not use what already exists to create friction, which is the idea that you can use pre-existing infrastructures to create change in people's lives?
RS: And that's a huge part of design. Changing the status quo.
AS: From the beginning of my master’s program, my own ignorance was just thinking that design was making things look pretty. It’s important to think about information architecture - how you construct a web page, and what's the most salient information.
RS: How did you decide to go into UX design?
AS: The decision to do that was an interesting one. I wanted to do design, but I wanted to do a hands on and practical program. I wondered how to make that happen other than doing a graphic design college program (which I wasn't necessarily sure i had the chops for). So this is a bit more theory-based. I didn't necessarily want to do digital journalism. I was trying to make all these worlds come together.
RS: What do you enjoy about user experience / human-centered design?
AS: The program is more focused on being able to research and design for people effectively. And that can be extended towards many facets of digital and analog products. Sometimes I feel kind of in between this corporate version of design and my interest in art and art history. I've had the chance to bring some of those things together a little bit.
RS: I’m glad. What's something you can get behind in terms of a positive user experience?
AS: The first thing that comes to mind is all the worst things.
RS: Okay, let’s start with the bad.
AS: They call it dark UX or dark patterns, which is this idea that you can kind of force the hand of customers to do things based on how researched their behaviour is. We know, for example, that if you tell somebody they have a limited amount of time or that they're missing out on something, they're more likely to buy it. Take travel and e-commerce websites, for instance - "you just missed out on buying this thing!" That's a huge example of trying to guilt people into purchases, which is pretty sad.
RS: So what’s an interface you really like?
AS: There's a lot of cool things happening right now. Websites are less about giving you information right away and more about asking you to explore a bit. So when you go on a page and there's a thing in the middle and you scroll and then you get the information, but it kind of leads you in. It functions in a very similar way to a newspaper - "above the fold." Once you have the newspaper folded, whatever catches your eye makes you open it up. I spend a lot of time looking at other designers, persona.co is great for artful exploration.
RS: What are your thoughts on brutalist web design?
AS: I’ve been obsessed with it for the last little while. Things that harken to an earlier Internet, or to office aesthetics. The Bloomberg website has always been fascinating to me and I love the artistry of brutalistwebsites.com. I find the conventions of office spaces fascinating, the idea that everything can be monotonous and evoke a space for everyone. Early interfaces and the Internet were similar - the command line was simple, everything was greyscale online. The actual hardware is very linked to the office look and feel - the light beige PCs. Ever since then, our technology has rejected the one-toned look, same with most office spaces - and now the plain webpage with hyperlinks is nostalgic.
It reminds me of Camille Henrot’s Wednesday room at Palais de Tokyo’s Days are Dogs in 2017 or the style of the Computer Grrls exhibit, as well. I like the reclamation of the monotony by art and design, it’s leveraging monotony to make it unique and evocative.
RS: What are your favourite feelings?
AS: I love waking up with the sun. That sounds really, almost American Psycho-y. something about when i do and i just wake up because the sun is in my room feels so good. The alternative to that is you hear an alarm, that sound that makes you suddenly uncomfortable. A lot of these are going to be sun-related. I like the feeling of being in the sun with a book with no cares in the world. is this the correct way to answer these?
RS: Any way is the correct way.
AS: Well, I love picking up people at the airport. You're with everyone else who's so excited to see someone. That's the thing about me, I love airports. They're so cool, and they're so fun, and they're huge. Everyone's kind of nervous or excited. There's something about this collective feeling, there's so many things happening.
RS: Where do you feel most comfortable?
AS: At my parents' kitchen table.
RS: Your parents are Italian, right? Can you tell me about your upbringing?
AS: I really love where my parents are from, just north of Venice. These tiny towns at the base of the Alps, they're kind of like a fantasy land for me. I didn't go there a lot as a kid so for me it's very magical… but for them, it's normal. I grew up in a very italian community [in Ontario]. Not that there's a ranking of genuine italian-ness but i felt my parents were really Italian. As a kid, I wasn't allowed to have Oreos but I had all these little italian snacks from the grocery store. I listen to a lot of old italo disco which people either make fun of me for or they think it's very cool. The 50/50 divide there…. I win sometimes.
RS: When you travel, what do you find yourself researching?
AS: When i'm trying to zero in, I always go to the office of tourism website first. A lot of cities and countries are pouring money -- not pouring money, let's go, with, funding -- they're funding websites that are way better than before and something that really catches the eye and informs people. The trips that influencers are going on are often sponsored by these tourism boards. I always check CN Traveler and Suitcase Magazine too. The thing is, a lot of these will start to recommend the three to four dollar sign places. But it's a good place to start to get an idea of what streets to look at. Finding out the neighbourhoods where stuff is happening in. Then you can go and explore on your own rather than planning everything out, squaring it out hour by hour. What are people doing who are there right now? It's way more interesting to see what actual people get up to rather than a business telling you what to do.
RS: Can you tell us your favourite Toronto neighbourhoods and some places to go there?
AS: Roncesvalles/Little Portugal/Trinity Bellwoods along Dundas Street West. Even if you go all the way down to Queen Street. Pizzeria Libretto. u can't make a reservation so go there at 5, don't eat lunch—make it a linner. walk along Dundas Street West. There’s invisible city record shop and easy tiger general store. everything is ease clothing store, VSP consignment for vintage perusing. A lot of great artisans are based in Toronto.
RS: What are some differences between Toronto and Paris?
AS: The weather affects everything about Toronto. Particularly being there through the winter. This winter was pretty bad. the city kind of shuts down and so do all your social activities. It's not that you don't do anything, but there's way less stamina… Here in Paris, I feel it's 365 days a year. In the winter, we were like, "Let's do it" and we could walk around. It was open season all the time. ///