New design officer boosts innovative thinking

Posted on Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Chrystia Chudczak

Chrystia Chudczak, uOttawa’s new chief design officer, was the executive director of the federal ISED Innovation Lab, a startup using design thinking to help understand the user experience when interacting with the federal government.

By Linda Scales

“I think universities are places to be able to learn and to play and to make mistakes and to dream and to create and to grow and to fail.” – Chrystia Chudczak

If you haven’t met Chrystia Chudczak yet, just give her a bit of time to find you. As the University’s new (and first) chief design officer, she is seeking “to get under the surface (of uOttawa) to understand what this place is about.”

A Telfer and visual arts alumna on a two-year work exchange from the federal Innovation, Science and Economic Development department (ISED), Chudczak arrived in early May and has begun by scoping out the problems, projects and opportunities that will require her design thinking skills. Never heard of design thinking? It’s a hands-on problem-solving philosophy and technique that some might call “design doing.”  

Personable and curious, Chudzcak is also a writer and documentary photographer (see her photographs of campus below). Here’s what she has to say about her new position.

What is design thinking?

Essentially it’s about helping people solve problems and create solutions that are executable. Typically, with governments and large institutions, problems stay in silos. And often — I’ll be frank — senior people tell the team how to fix the problems, but the reality is that 90% of the time that is not the problem.

There’s all kinds of ways you can use design thinking, like using Lego. Most people wouldn’t think about using Lego, but it’s incredibly powerful if used properly. With a whole range of people of different environments grouped together, it shortens the time needed to unpack the real problem and come up with a potential solution or prototype.

If you spend the time to listen and learn from people and create a psychological safe space, people will share their experiences, knowledge and what they think without retribution. From this, you get a sense of where they see potential opportunities and common problems and challenges. That’s really important because it then allows you to employ design thinking techniques that are, for the most part, empathy based. We don’t solve problems in nice little packages, but create prototypes that we test in the environment to see if they work or not.

What’s your mandate?

It’s to provide advice and support to anyone at uOttawa. Although I report to the president and am situated in Alex Trebek Alumni Hall, my goal is to be everywhere at the University. One thing I’ve been asked to help with is the student experience. I’m trying to figure out if I should take a class. I went to school here years ago, so it would be a different experience! What else? Innovation stuff and some really interesting opportunities with things I worked on in my previous position in the ISED Innovation Lab.

I’d love for people to reach out to me. If anyone wants to know what I’m doing, drop me a line.

Why come to work at uOttawa?

I came here because there’s this energy and this movement, not just for change but for playing a role in this ecosystem — the University as an entity in the National Capital Region and across Canada and globally. There’s this buzz and energy. I lucked out!

Why is authenticity important for organizations?

Organizations are made of people and it’s the people who create the culture and fulfill a mandate for the purpose of an organization. If that culture and the people aren’t true to what they are then the organization won’t succeed and the people who are parts of it won’t feel fulfilled. It’s very easy to take shortcuts when you don’t make an effort, or put your best foot forward, or make an effort to dig and learn and ask. To me that’s part of it seeking excellence.

The University is its faculty, staff and its students too. Everybody has a role to play and if you can enable an environment where people feel they’re performing in an excellent way, then you’ve got an amazing culture.

Chrystia Chudczak documents her return to uOttawa

Alumna Chrystia Chudczak, uOttawa’s new Chief Design Officer and a professional photographer documented her recent return to campus, in early May 2018. “The images were taken sequentially during my first six days at uOttawa,” she says. “I shot where I was, experiencing the social, physical and spiritually sense of uOttawa, as it unfolded.” Essay and photos by Chrystia Chudczak

Woman gestures to her audience from a stage in Tabaret Hall.

“The future is here, but not equitably distributed.” Professor Kate Darling, MIT MediaLab, explores robots and social human interaction at the 2018 Alex Trebek Forum for Dialogue.

Human centric design is always about people – their needs, aspirations, desires, and willingness to explore new frontiers to make the human experience better. Technology should help to make that journey simpler and easier, without stripping humanity from humans.


Dormant vines grow up the side of a stone building at uOttawa.

As seen when walking from a parking lot behind uOttawa’s Alex Trebek Alumni Hall.

Interplay of life, death and rebirth unfolds on the faces of century-old infrastructure across campus. It’s an organic metaphor for human centric design reminding that people, ideas and aspirations change, develop and grow in a natural way.

A colourful mosaic of tiles that includes diamonds and maple leafs at uOttawa.

The outdoor floor mosaic at the entrance of Tabaret Hall.

A quintessentially Canadian natural resource. A visually designed mosaic for maximum impact. I can’t prove it, but each tile looks hand-made. An artisanal expression of culture, identity and place. How appropriate in Canada’s national capital.

The swirl of a Powwow dancer’s shawl as she dances before onlookers.

A Powwow dancer performs at the entrance of Tabaret Hall during the 2018 uOttawa Alumni Awards reception.

Human centric design exudes colour, movement and culture through the sharing of aspirations, desires and reconciliations in safe spaces. I love this image because it’s owned by its creator. Not me, but her.

The upper reach of Tabaret Hall’s rotunda reveals elegant architecture and wrought iron railings with filigree.

The rotunda of Tabaret Hall: looking upwards.

Architectural structure should be flipped on its side, literally. How many levels does it take to get to the top? What does the top mean for the people (or users) who pay to play? Respect for history matters, but so does aspiration for an inventive future.

An artistically photographed view of the bright inside of uOttawa’s Learning Crossroads building with its tall concrete columns, glass features and a stairwell.

Inside uOttawa’s Learning Crossroads building.

Lines can matter. And they can be leveraged, scaled and challenged. Human centric design needs people to live in these spaces to tell us whether it makes sense. Because ideas, inventions and ingenuity demand people using it.

A large global group of men and women happy about their graduation from an entrepreneurship program.

The global graduates of the inaugural Simon Nehme Summer Entrepreneurship School at uOttawa’s Centre for Entrepreneurship and Engineering Design.

Putting the human into design and problem solving. Students from around the world collaborated showcasing entrepreneurial spirit, empathy and ingenuity. The result – a showcase of amazing ideas to change how people build, live, create and steward their planet.

The wooden ceiling made of individual planks of wood are part of a monument celebrating the francophonie, situated near Perez Hall.

Le Monument de la francophonie, near Perez Hall and the Félix Leclerc memorial, at uOttawa's main campus.

I stumbled across this monument. Its design drew me into its space with its natural materials, organic and open shape, and lightness. It feels like a metaphor that celebrates the natural flow and banter of the French and English languages which permeate campus.

Two basement windows of an old stone building and the thick dormant vine growing across the window panes.

The basement windows of uOttawa’s Visual Arts Building at 100 Laurier Avenue East.

In the darkroom at 100 Laurier, I used to stand for hours making large format black and white prints. This place helped me learn to see. And it reminds me of my favorite quote by Dorothea Lange, in 1964: “One should really use the camera as though tomorrow you’d be stricken blind. To live a visual life is an enormous undertaking, practically unattainable. I have only touched it, just touched it.”  

A bride and groom standing on the front steps of the columned Tabaret Hall on an overcast day.

Serendipity at the entrance to Tabaret Hall.

On a grey, rainy late afternoon, I came upon this scene on the stairs of Tabaret Hall. While architecturally imposing (possibly a metaphor for the power and strength of the institution), this simple rite of passage – a marriage – humanized the environment.  

A women experiences 3D virtual reality by using hand controls and wearing an eye mask resembling scuba diving goggles.

Anne McIlroy, uOttawa’s Director of Principal Gifts, experiences 3D Virtual Reality under the watchful eye of Masterpiece VR Vice President Engineering, Jeff Ross, at the Innovation Centre of Ottawa’s Bayview Yards.

In my recent life, part of my role was working with Canadian start-ups and companies to test and break their technologies and making connections to help these companies scale. Masterpiece VR, started by uOttawa engineering graduate Jonathan Gagne, is one of those companies. So a team from uOttawa went on a fieldtrip to Bayview Yards to experience Jon’s world beating collaborative and creative technology – and hopefully bring it to uOttawa’s campus for everyone to experience.

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