Kyoko Yonezawa doesn’t have a typical advertising CV. Although she’s worked as a creative technologist at Dentsu since 2010, she started out with her sights set on the stars. In 1997 she saw the Sojourner rover land on Mars and was instantly captivated. “I want to do that,” she remembers thinking. Years later, after a lot of hard studying, she was at the University of Tokyo working on a bachelor’s degree in aeronautic and astronautic engineering (that is, building things that fly in the sky and in space, respectively).
Her research there is fascinating. She did a lot of work in the field of remote sensors, enabling communication between instruments in space and the surface of the earth. Her graduation thesis was titled ‘Analysis of Glacial Retreat for Satellite Imagery’, or as she puts it in plain English, “taking pictures of glaciers from space [so] we can know at what rate they are disappearing. It was interesting.” The challenge was to engineer solutions to enable that.
While still on her undergraduate degree, Kyoko had a moment of realisation in the Nevada desert. She’d headed there to take part in a student competition with her friends. Called The ARLISS Project, it was a collaborative effort between students from all over the world and rocketry enthusiasts to build, launch, test and recover prototype satellites and rovers in preparation for an Earth orbit or Mars orbit space launch. Kyoko’s team built a rover. Her personal responsibility was aerodynamics.
“I realised that I wasn’t the best engineer in the team. There were so many talented people,” she said. “I was better at presenting the work we’d done to people. I thought that maybe the pure engineering stuff was not what I was good at. I wanted to do something between engineering and humans.”
With that in mind she went on to earn a master’s degree in Human Computer Interaction - “I wanted to look into the connections - the relationship between them,” she says. Her career ever since has been defined by interaction between humans and machines, between humans and other humans… and between humans and cats.
“The professor at university told me to do what I like, to really focus on my interests,” she remembers. “And I love cats. So I decided to do my masters thesis about a cat wearable device - a system that allows us to analyse a cat’s activities and post it to Twitter.”
Incorporating a camera, an accelerometer, GPS and a bluetooth module, ‘Cat@Log’ was a glimpse into a future of wearables that hadn’t yet dawned in 2010. At that time there was no Nike FuelBand or Fitbit, so “people thought it was kind of crazy to do that to cats,” she says. “I was afraid to tell other system engineering companies when I was looking for a job.”
Kyoko hadn’t really considered advertising until she ended up speaking to Dentsu. But they were different from the others. They found her cat project interesting. “They loved the idea,” she says. “I didn’t realise that there were people who would accept my crazy idea!” That was enough to pique her interest.
At that time there were no creative technologists. “I thought Dentsu was a filmmaking company, making commercials,” says Kyoko, “but they were trying to spread the growth of the company.” At the time they were collaborating on research with MIT’s Media Lab. “I found it fascinating,” she remembers. They were on the same page.
Dentsu created the role of creative technologist for her and one of her colleagues was a creative director on a car manufacturer account. Kyoko was working on this project with cats; he was working on a navigation system using GPS for cars. "GPS on cars and GPS on cats - why don’t we collaborate?" he thought.
Soon Kyoko was defining what it means to be a creative technologist, working on a real-time motion infographic website using recorded data from vehicles to calculate traffic. “It was a really amazing collaboration with copywriters and art directors,” she says. “From my side I was like, ‘we have this data. What kind of visual can you make?’ and the art director says, ‘I have this idea for a graphic. How can you visualise this with data?’ The ideas were really interesting and it was a happy relationship. That’s one of the projects that defines, for me, what a creative technologist can do.”
She later went on to work on a project that used traffic data network to make sure rescue workers, aid and supplies could reach those hit by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, saving lives through the quick mobilisation of data.
Other mind-blowing projects Kyoko’s been involved with are for a camera brand, space agencies and a moon exploration project - a job that loops back to her dream of building a space rover.
Kyoko is proud to be part of the vanguard of creative technologists that have expanded the definition of what ad agencies can do. “Before it was more graphic and when something was published, printed or aired you couldn’t change it,” she says. “But with things that are interactive you can change them in real time, or even collect data in real time. For events, we’re not just seeing a film or graphic; it’s more about experiencing a brand.
“Before, maybe, there was one special genius that had a brilliant idea that changed the world. It’s not like this anymore. And I am not that person. But there are ways to create something new and combining talents is, I think, one of the answers.”
That’s why Kyoko’s an advocate of adding creative technologists as part of the traditional art director / copywriter team, but it’s not about crowbar-ing technological solutions into an old brief. “On the projects in which I’m involved there’s less of a traditional brief,” she says. “It’s more about knowing that company, meeting people. With the car manufacturer, the account director introduced me to the client. He talked about the technology and I was so fascinated. He said, ‘let’s do something together.’ It’s that kind of thing. Having the curiosity to talk to people and know the technology and what they’re interested in. That’s the starting point.”
Last month Kyoko came to D&AD Festival in London to make a presentation called ‘Fusion of Design and Engineering’. The blurb for the event read: “Working together with the engineers of a client leads to a deeper understanding of the brand and a better solution.” That’s Kyoko’s particular flavour of creative innovation. As she found back in the Nevada desert, it’s all about communication. “In my work I try to understand the problem, to understand the difference between brands, especially in the technology,” she says. “The engineers at our clients really love their products. I think it’s really important to understand the tech side and translate it to the creative team. Then create a solution that best fits the situation. I’m kind of like an interpreter between the client and creative. I’m not the best engineer but at least I can understand what they’re saying.”