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The fantastical world of Lauren Thu and the firefly leech
The 2021 design grad created an incredibly convincing piece of design fiction for her grad project
The Firefly Leech, image courtesy of Lauren Thu.

Lauren Thu (BDes 2021) created a multi-sensory exhibit for her grad project, based on the firefly leech. A work of design fiction, Lauren created an elaborate fantasy for the viewer to read, touch, and interact with. “I have a lengthy, unedited process blog for anyone who’s interested in my rambling research methods,” said Lauren.

The project took a long time to come to fruition. In March 2020, Lauren began contemplating this project and arrived at the concept of a leech in February 2021, nearly a year later. Through writing, Lauren explored the idea what would have been different if Taylorism and Fordism weren’t so readily accepted. “I am a huge fan of critical and speculative design, especially design fiction,” explained Lauren. “Design fiction is a wonderful thing, especially as a student, because it takes you out of the boundaries set by the real-world, while still allowing you to address real-world problems. Once I had given myself the option of resetting where we are currently, the concept of shifting systems to something adjacent but quite different kind of rolled into place.”

Following the ripples from her initial explorations, Lauren landed on the firefly leech. “The leech really became a representative of this story for a few reasons,” explained Lauren. “First, the leech is a metaphor for the many unknown species that may have already existed and perished because of our environmental impact over the past couple hundred years; second, the leech’s ability to read the emotions of its prey is a hyperbolism of the superhuman skills that other real-life species already have, the leech understanding emotions better than humans do really speaks to the heterarchy I’m interested in; and lastly, leeches gross most people out and I felt like I could use that gross fascination to my advantage.”

Lauren’s attention to detail in this fantastical work of fiction allowed it to become as convincing as possible to the audience. Language was one of the major considerations in developing the project. “On one hand, I wanted to speak about the leech in scientific terms that are used today so as to instill that sense of probability,” said Lauren. “I’m fortunate enough to have a friend who works in biology, Rylee Murray, and I spent a lot of time talking with him about evolutionary tangents that might make sense in coming up with this other species.”

The conversations Lauren had with Rylee influenced the way she wrote about the project. Taking the information provided and slightly embellishing it, Lauren was able to give a sense of authenticity to the project while staying true to her goal of exploring a shift in systemic thinking. “I recently read an essay in Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass where she talks about how Indigenous languages refer to plants and animals as persons and people. This, in turn, influences how humans using this language interact with the world – not thanking a plant person or an animal person for it’s gift of food seems quite rude in this sense, doesn’t it?” said Lauren. “I wanted to keep this idea of language affecting societal practices at the forefront of putting the project together, and for this reason I avoided using words such as ‘discovery’ because it places the human in an egotistical position of being ‘first to’ something.”

An early iteration of the leech model, image courtesy of Lauren Thu.

Part of what makes design fiction something the audience can believe is the prop itself. Lauren spent a lot of time doing justice to the anatomy of a leech, creating something that lit up, swum and was rechargeable. “If I had more time, I would’ve loved to refine the shape of the leech, but I believe that the prop within a design fiction is integral to suspending disbelief, so I had to work with what I had at that point to have something for the show,” said Lauren. “I had this freedom through fiction, so it’s size ended up being part of its uniqueness, having an extra segment became a point of intrigue towards it’s abilities. On an aside, I can tell you that the leech that I made is still smaller than some of the larger leech species that actually exist.”

A final element Lauren included in this universe was an Instagram filter. A bit tongue in cheek, Lauren questioned if Instagram would even exist in this alternate world. “What would social media be if it were less concerned about what people look like and more concerned with how people around you are feeling? It ended up being a really interesting part of the project that people could interact with,” explained Lauren.

Tending to the live planted aquarium, image courtesy of Lauren Thu.

Lauren’s creativity caught the attention of the grad jury, earning the designer both the John C. Kerr Award and the DESIS award. “It was a surprise and a huge honor, especially considering the people I graduated with are an incredibly talented and thoughtful group of people,” said Lauren. “It was a marker that I had successfully translated my project to a group of people who knew nothing about my work. The DESIS award was incredibly meaningful to me as the people who inspired me and supported me through my education were recognizing my work as something with merit. I’m incredibly thankful and still a little bit incredulous about the whole thing.”

Since graduation, Lauren has had the chance to talk about her work, specifically on using design fiction as a student to explore complicated questions. “I presented at OCAD’s PIVOT conference in July 2021. Since then, I’ve been reading Emergent Strategy by Adrienne Maree Brown with the Roving Designers book club, thinking about new projects involving sidewalk plants, and I’ve been slowly, very slowly, updating my website and looking for work,” said Lauren. “Actually – Science World, if you’re reading this – call me!”

You can find more of Lauren’s work on Instagram, her website, and her grad project page.

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