Design: what it is, and how to teach and learn it

XV.2 March + April 2008
Page: 38
Digital Citation

FEATUREThe future of interaction design as an academic program of study

Kevin Conlon

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What is required today to understand the notion of interaction design? Looking at most academic programs, it seems that a loose variety of interdisciplinary study opportunities, vaguely related to each of the facets within the overall discipline, can be thought to provide some sort of cohesive body of knowledge. This is unfortunate, but worse is the common perception that, because of interaction design's breadth, we cannot widen our view in order to synthesize a more cohesive knowledge of the discipline; instead, we rely on this piecemeal approach that serves the parts rather than the whole.

When it comes to interaction design, in general, most colleges and universities think too small. And even more problematic, schools tend to avoid looking at the shifting of the political, economic, environmental, and cultural landscapes. Without necessarily being very intentional or well-informed in their efforts, schools create academic programs without really thinking about what purpose they will ultimately serve. Unintentionally or not, they perpetuate the status quo by not letting their students think very far beyond the margins of current cultural and technological markers.

Schools also tend to buy in to a consumerist model in thinking about how human interactions via technology (like social-networking websites and multifunction devices) shape the experiences and the relationship opportunities between the user and the tool, rather than examining how the user appropriates technology as needed to shape personalized relationships and relationship opportunities with other users. There's a subtle but important distinction in these two points: One humanizes resources and relationships, while the other depletes both.

Ultimately, even if courses and programs designed by conventional standards serve the notion of a future for interaction design by happy accident, they end up being reactive instead of proactive by following trends instead of anticipating them. Schools need to think bigger by reestablishing their dominance as crucibles for change and encouraging students to think creatively about not only the problems of today, but also tomorrow.

back to top  Rejecting the Silo Approach

Because of its newness and breadth, or because of the vested manifold interests from which it draws intellectual resource, or because it requires political skill beyond their comfort level, many academics throw up their hands and give in to the temptation that there is no other way to create a program that moves the discipline of interaction design to a level of prominence that can see a difference in how we think about users, technology, and resources. They tend to fall back on educational models that are familiar because they promise some level of perpetuity and security. While the comfort of the familiar is very reassuring, it is a false promise to a variety of stakeholders, especially the future.

Further, the problem of intellectual domain within typical academic departments defined by subject-matter expertise complicates matters tremendously. In a silo and turf-driven setting, it is not uncommon for the interdisciplinary, piecemeal model to dominate what we are coming to know as interaction design. So it's no surprise that within the typical academic institution, the notion of interaction design is still confused with and within a variety of related academic departments and their subject-matter assignments, depending on which facet of the discipline is being examined.

Some might suspect that this sort of territorial behavior is deliberate; they might be right. Departments controlling academic content realize the inherent value of the portion that they control, but rather than taking the time to understand the holistic nature of what interaction design is capable of by validating its broader need within an increasingly global community and recruiting the intellectual talent to support it, for a variety of political and budgetary reasons departments often petulantly cling to their piece of the academic pie. The net effect is to minimize the true value of an integrated program of study with a philosophical value of its own. This dilutes the intellectual development of students, the structure of the discipline and the necessary self-reflective criticism that will make such a program not only viable but also essential to the understanding of technology and its humane and rational integration into our daily lives.

Beyond these subject-matter silos, the other challenge that goes into designing an educational program of study, especially a newer field like interaction design, lies in defining the discipline itself. This is never more difficult than when it has to be done in advance of, or in the midst of, arguments about the validity of its anticipated need—or for that matter, in advance of changes to the status quo. Unfortunately, due to both internal and external pressures, the current model of curriculum and academic program development in higher education is one that has become highly standardized, requiring everyone to have advance confidence in the process and the outcomes. This so-called consensus model sounds good theoretically, and it is, for those vested in perpetuating it. However something is lost when institutions fail to be inventive because they are placed in defensive mode which allows academic programming to naturally gravitate toward that which satisfies only the minimum standards and won't solve the problem. In fact, minimum standards are actually counterintuitive to the future-oriented discovery method that is central in moving interaction design (or any discipline) forward.

The politics of change are often revolutionary rather than evolutionary for good reason; those who financially and politically benefit from existing models are loath to embrace new models. Those guarding that status quo are often very threatened by change and tend to feel that they have the most to lose from any influence a change agent may have. But here we are, not only at a collision of old versus new technology, but also old versus new thinking about the notions of finite resources, sustainability, and even social engineering and personal and community responsibility. Of course, this crossroads argument could be used to talk about revisions to many programs of study, not just interaction design. Indeed, the future of man is increasingly in need of more forward-looking curricula within all disciplines to begin to move our societies beyond current models. Given the potentially tectonic shifts that are coming, by failing to do anything new we are simply rearranging deck chairs on the ship when we should be looking toward the horizon to set a new course.

back to top  Interactions: Cultural, Social, and Environmental

How do we move beyond this stasis point? The course we set should be directed away from the current dichotomy between what we want (continued consumption) and what we need (continued survival). That dichotomy has never been greater. Because maintaining the current consumerist binge cannot be sustained, we need to create academic programs that are focused on helping students see what can be, instead of leading them to be dependent on what has been.

In order to move forward it is time to clearly communicate and leverage the imperatives facing humankind and to frame solutions to these problems through a new way of thinking about designed interactions. Some may offer that technology will provide the answers needed to buy ourselves out of this situation. But to those who look to (or hope for) technology that evolves out of our continued exploitation to solve the problems inherent in our current consumerist model, I'd offer that our most serious environmental challenges are the direct result of the technologies that created the model in the first place. As only one example, new technology in the form of biofuels has been proposed to maintain the continued use of the internal combustion engine. But in so doing, there are troublesome issues surrounding availability of other resources, including land, food, and most concerning, water.

Technologies that create new problems that displace the old problems should not be considered. We should not be robbing Peter to pay Paul. Furthermore, technology as a panacea for every problem also ignores our own need for humanity as a component of the solution. Heidegger's post-World War II observations about technology being a means to an end were never more timely than now. His essay "On the Question of Technology" and his prescient observations on the threat of consumerism resonate even more powerfully today than they did more than 50 years ago, especially as we give up on the idea that technology should serve only as a means to an end. We've instead embraced the notion of technology as an end in itself by grossly accelerating both obsolescence and depreciation in exchange for instant gratification.

As Heidegger put it, in "our sheer preoccupation with technology we do not yet experience the coming to presence of technology." Such a thought does not bode well and warns us of the risk that technology for its own sake will consume us before we know it has happened. Indeed, the current path is without end until there is nothing left to consume but ourselves. There are those who might argue that it's already happened. If so, we will need to back ourselves out of a very deep hole.

Without sounding apocalyptic, the sooner we can push away from the notion that happiness or peace of mind can be bought in the objects that we consume and surround ourselves with, the less painful the transition will be to a more sustainable model. We need to be much more brutally honest with each other about how we, as members of a global community, must shape our future and our lives at all levels, including those most intimate—those that shape our most human and humane interactions.

back to top  New Interaction Imperatives

What can be done to transition interaction design to the academic model we need for the future? In order to be deliberate about how we do such a thing, we need to clearly communicate the aforementioned environmental a priori imperatives. Certainly with increasing focus on the problem it will become evident that new models are needed quickly. To that end, those interested in finding solutions must find venues to collaborate for the purpose of fomenting a consistent dialogue that reaches a broad constituency of stakeholders. Providing the places for collaboration and leadership has always been the responsibility of the world's educational systems; having long abdicated that responsibility to the very interests that have perpetuated the current dying model, collaboration and leadership are a responsibility that education needs to take up again.

In order to progress, academics need to further insist on the right to establish new curricular and assessment paradigms rather than blindly follow existing ones. And institutions need to allow these new models the opportunity to develop assessment schema in an independent fashion that encourages innovation and ideation, not dutiful subscription to predetermined outcomes that will only constrain the process. With interaction design, as with most programs that touch on issues associated with old consumer models, the conversation is one that should purposely develop a more thoughtful and strategic use of curriculum to support programs whose students will be able to synthesize solutions in ways that can be measured not only academically and professionally, but also in globally responsible ways.

So what should these new, unconstrained outcomes be? That can't be answered here, but perhaps to find an answer it's easier to start by defining what those outcomes should not be. Hearing these criticisms will be difficult to those familiar with or invested in the status quo. To those skeptical that such an awareness of social consciousness is possible within the minds of the next generation, it may be necessary to remind them periodically that it is far less painful to hear and proactively engage new ideas, even if they are occasionally naive, than to be forced to reactively engage the plethora of new threats that are certainly forthcoming.

back to top  Wide-Eyed Ideology

A final point: It's time to actively engage students in the conversation. They know that the current didactic structure is, at best, deficient in terms of what it can provide, not just toward their individual futures, but their collective ones as well. At worst, the model is completely self-serving to the generation that created it and perpetuates it. In the field of interaction design, if such a remaking of thinking can be done, it is not, nor will it ever be, done with the extrinsic objects and things that we make. It is not about more object-making; rather, it will be in how we think about our interactions with each other to better support life and its intrinsic qualities.

On a micro level, as those keenly interested in personal interactions and as consumers of technology, many students are painfully aware of the gap between the curriculum on the printed catalog page and the interactions they enjoy in everyday life. On a macro level, students are also painfully aware of the gap between technology and its service to their own lifestyles as they see them extended into the future. Students are very cognizant that thinking needs to turn away from reliance on old consumerist models based on, for one thing, ideas of plentiful energy. Their level of sensitivity to environmental issues is a priority, but other considerations should address the problems with creating new objects for the sake of being new alone. Being technology-centric in design for no reason other than serving the egos of creators and/or users undermines the importance of seeking humane connections with technology so as to have it serve us, rather than the other way around.

Those old dogs in academia should try to look back to their own idealism and optimism about changing the world, even in the face of what will certainly be some difficult decision making and, indeed difficult times. Making a honest commitment to educational change will not only allow for a change in values through the dissemination of new knowledge, but will also produce a generation of students prepared to lead the world in solving the crisis facing, and built by, humanity.

In other words, we need to embrace students' implicit and sometimes anecdotal understandings of the problems we've created, rather than denying that these problems exist or pretending that a technological miracle is waiting just around the next corner. Our encouragement of students' rejection of the status quo, along with their ignorance of the "rules," and what they should not do, may provide them with the motivation to create new solutions and perhaps do what we've long assumed impossible.

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Kevin Conlon
Savannah College of Art and Design

About the Author

Kevin Conlon earned his Bachelor of Fine Arts from the University of South Alabama and his Master of Fine Arts from The Ohio State University. He has been a faculty member at the Savannah College of Art and Design since 1996, teaching design, drawing and sculpture, and has served as the college's dean of undergraduate studies since 2004. In addition to his work at the college, Conlon has also served as a professional consultant in the field of architectural restoration, historic foundry work, and new media applications in foundation studies; he has presented workshops and papers at the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the College Art Association. Working as a professional artist for almost 25 years, Conlon has recently completed several commissions. More information about Conlon and his work can be found at

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©2008 ACM  1072-5220/08/0300  $5.00

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