Julie Stanford, Ellen Tauber, Laura Klein
As interaction designers in search of a new experience (not to mention a tax-deductible trip to lovely Vancouver, British Columbia), we found ourselves at the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) National Design Conference. Every two years, the AIGA holds a conference to discuss issues relevant to designers and designing. The 2003 theme was The Power of Design, focusing on the role of design in culture, economy, and the environment.
The Role of the User in Visual Design
There we were, surrounded by hundreds of other designers, talking about our approach to design, when we realized something very important. They had no idea what we were talking about. Our attempts to describe our work were met with blank stares and a sort of bemused tolerance. The fact is, despite our similar titles, interaction and graphic designers do not share a culture. While they knew a tremendous amount about innovative typography and classic letterpress print, the graphic designers we met seemed to know very little about the basic tenets of user-centered design.
Judging by the conference speakers, this trend appears to be changing. Jessica Helfand and William Drentell, partners in Winterhouse design studio, expressed concern about the emphasis of style over substance in the curriculum of top graphic design schools. They talked about the need to research and understand the culture, processes, and needs of the user and the user’s community. Brenda Laurel, Chair of the Graduate Media Design Program at Art Center College of Design, presented research and analysis supporting the use of user-centered design.
Interestingly, this basic tenet of interaction design-a focus on beginning a design project with deep information-gathering and continuing throughout with a user-centered design process-is only now making its way into the graphic design world. Ideas we learned 15 years ago are beginning to migrate from the realm of pure interaction design into the graphic design world. Conference speakers discussed what we had learned years ago: A product has to be functional and meet the unique needs of its audience, as well as be pretty.
The Role of Sustainability in Interaction Design
Not all of the talks were so closely related to interaction design principles. One of the most interesting themes of the conference addressed sustainability, a topic that is integral to graphic design but has been neglected by the interaction design community.
Of course, sustainability is a natural concern for people who design tangible products. Michael Braungart, coauthor of the book Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, called for designers to evaluate the usefulness of the products they create in order to judge their potential environmental impact. Studio eg then presented their line of ecologically smart designs for office cubicles created with recycled materials and low-energy manufacturing processes. In fact, even Studio eg’s company collateral is eco-friendly. Products are shipped to customers wrapped in folded newspaper; business cards are printed on recycled paper; and envelopes received in the mail are saved and reused.
While we are as concerned with the environment as the next design firm, it was originally unclear how any of this could possibly relate to interaction design. After all, our products are digital. They can’t end up in a landfill. They don’t involve wasteful packaging. Most demand nothing more from the environment than the energy it takes to run a computer.
But even though our digital designs do not produce a tangible end-product, we realized that sustainability can be every bit as important to us as it is to someone who builds a better widget. Despite the promise of a paperless office, we produce hundreds of pounds of documentation, design specifications, and usability reports.
Aside from contributing to deforestation, there is also the opportunity cost of designing products that we don’t feel are useful. Some designers are already using their skills to work for the good of humanity. Design for Democracy gave a presentation on the design work they are doing to prevent another butterfly-ballot. Another speaker discussed the importance of visually representing the human genome.
Braungart’s challenge to consider usefulness made us realize that it is our job to look for opportunities that allow us to do more than design a more enjoyable Web shopping environment. Our design work can have a positive influence on the actual environment if we make an effort.
Once the conference was over, we asked ourselves if it was worth it. Sure, Vancouver is lovely and the food is great, but did we actually learn anything? Do the visual designers have anything to teach us?
Absolutely. Whether we are interaction designers or graphic designers, we are all designers. Nobody is really just one or the other. In order to create products that are both attractive and usable, we all have to be a little of both. Combining beauty, usability, usefulness, sustainability, and emotion into one body of work is the real benefit that we can bring to our users and our clients.
We learned a lot from the AIGA, and we would encourage others to do the same. One place to start is the AIGA Experience Design community which serves the interests of interaction designers. The next AIGA National Design Conference is in Boston, September 15-17, 2005. We’ll see you there.
Julie Stanford (firstname.lastname@example.org), Ellen Tauber (email@example.com), and Laura Klein (firstname.lastname@example.org) are from Sliced Bread Design, LLC, a usability and interaction design agency located in Silicon Valley. Established to help people effectively use and enjoy interactive products, Sliced Bread Design provides interface design and user research services to help organizations create compelling online, desktop, voice, and wireless software. Its work appears in a variety of products, ranging from personal finance software to web applications for Fortune 500 companies to interfaces for mobile phones. Additional information is available at www.SlicedBreadDesign.com.
Sidebar: About AIGA
The AIGA is a professional association for communication design that focuses on furthering the excellence of communication design as a discipline, strategic business tool, and cultural force. Founded in 1914 as a small, exclusive club, AIGA now represents more than 16,000 designers. Its national activities and local programs are developed by 48 chapters and more than 150 student groups. The disciplines represented in the profession range from book and type design through the traditional communication design disciplines to the newer disciplines of interaction design, experience design, and motion graphics.
Sidebar: About the Conference
The AIGA National Design conference is a biennial conference that brings together the membership of the AIGA. The 2003 conference took place in Vancouver, Canada on October 23-25 and was themed "The Power of Design." The conference explored the roles that designers play as agents of social change in a complex world and as leading architects of sustainable solutions for a troubled planet.
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