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VII.2 March-April 2000
Page: 54
Digital Citation

Design brief: Royal College of Art

Gillian Smith

back to top  About The Royal College of Art:

The Royal College of Art is Europe's only purely graduate school of art and design. It has 800 students from countries all round the world, studying over 20 disciplines. It was founded in the nineteenth century to "bring arts to manufacture"—what we would call design. And indeed, today 70% of the College's activity is in design. The CRD department takes 16 students a year for a two-year masters program and has a research studio of over a dozen externally-funded research fellows and assistants.

back to top  Philosophy of Education, Design

The focus of CRD is interaction design—the design of interactive systems, products, and experiences. It encompasses user interface design but its focus is broader. The program seeks to explore ways the traditional skills and knowledge of traditional art and design disciplines can be applied to the design of new technology artifacts and systems. It looks at designing interactive media, intelligent objects, and responsive environments, and considers both function—what should be designed and how it fits its social and cultural context; and form—how it should look, feel and sound.

The teaching is project-based and concentrates strongly on developing the imagination of students in designing for new technology, encouraging them to be skeptical about the advantages of these technologies and to consider the social effects of what they are designing. To do this well they need to be knowledgeable about technology but not in love with it; and they need to develop conceptual skills as well as craft skills.

CRD's philosophy of interaction design is firstly that technology should be led by the needs and desires of people rather than the other way round; and secondly, now that computer technology is no longer a tool for professionals but part of everyday life, the cultural and aesthetic aspects of the design of new technology are as important as the practical. New technology artifacts need to be designed to play a rich part in everyday life and culture. This means that for some applications the design needs to be cool, transparent, easy to understand and learn; in other applications this is just plain boring. The job of the designer is to understand the context of what they are designing and provide a solution that is appropriate and satisfying to the people who will use it.

We are preparing students to be designers rather than researchers. Although some do become researchers, I do not want to give the impression that this is more important. My view is that the most important thing is to prepare designers who are skilled, thoughtful and courageous who will go and make a difference in the industry (and thereby a difference in countless people's everyday lives). The reason they need to be skilled and thoughtful is obvious; they need to be courageous because it is still an uphill struggle to get the desires and needs of customers put first.

CRD started ten years ago because I was convinced designers had a contribution to make to the design of software and hardware. At that time only a few people in a few companies agreed: Joy Mountford at Apple, David Liddle at Interval, Bill Moggridge at IDEO were all early supporters. Our research studio, started six years ago with a generous grant from the Silicon Valley company, Interval Research, is an important part of our relationship with industry. We now have a variety of collaborations with industrial and organizational partners in Europe and the US.

Our research is about methods—developing new ways of designing interactive products; and about culture—what kinds of new products might people want in the future and how will these products enrich their everyday lives? As Anthony Dunne, one of our research fellows says, we are interested more in value-fictions than science-fictions. In order to open up a space of new and feasible product ideas and design approaches, we need to explore the envelope of possible designs far beyond the practical and realistic. So we do two types of projects: theoretical projects, to explore what it means to design in this medium for ourselves; and experimental projects, usually with industrial partners, to take the ideas we have developed and use them in a real context. An example of the latter is a project to develop ideas for new services for location-aware mobile phones (being field-tested by the Helsinki Telephone Corporation as I write).

The program is undoubtedly a product of the British Art School tradition, in which designers and artists have always studied together. It grew out of the nineteenth century Arts and Crafts movement (led by people such as William Morris and John Ruskin) fused with ideas from the Bauhaus in the 1920s and 30s. Both movements emphasized the importance of aesthetic quality in the lives of ordinary people and battled against the impoverishment of life resulting from the industrialization of craft processes—both the dehumanization of the factory workers and the woeful quality of mass-produced artifacts.

back to top  Preparing students for interface design careers

Students start with a series of short projects covering the languages of interaction design: graphics, 3D form, sound, animation, film narrative, typographics, and interactivity. Then we offer studios (half-term projects) covering areas of interaction design, including:

  • Real and Virtual: looking at what you can do with physical interfaces that you can't with virtual and vice versa.
  • Tools for Thought: the representation and manipulation of information.
  • Ubiquitous Computing: interaction with intelligent spaces.
  • Intimate Computing: the design of personal networked devices.
  • Online Communities: for fun and work.
  • In-human Factors: exploring the potential for richer, more interesting experiences with interactive products.

Students also take skills workshops in topics like basic electronics and the Stamp chip, programming concepts, Director programming, Web technologies, and sound. The program is flexible and changes as the field changes.

In the summer vacation all students are expected to do an internship which gives them a valuable industrial perspective. Many go abroad and our industrial collaborators and affiliates are very helpful here.

In the second year, students choose a theme around which they organize the 4 projects that make up their final body of work. This encourages them to look at their projects in a broader way and to generalize some of their findings.

As the industry is changing so fast, we are not only looking to fit people for work today, but to prepare the wide-ranging design leaders of tomorrow. We insist that students gain team experience, and we expect their final project to demonstrate skills in problem-solving, user-communication, and real-world applicability, as well as be beautifully crafted.

We teach a design process as a structure for thinking about designing, rather than as a prescriptive method. We think about the interactive design process as a series of iterative loops through distinct elements of the process:


  1. observe, empathize, research
  2. focus, abstract, structure

explore and generate

  1. alternative concepts (metaphors, products, functions)
  2. scenarios (people, activities),represent
  1. alternative metaphors / user conceptual models of the system
  2. alternative representations of the model—visual/auditory/physical


  1. perception—what people see, hear, feel
  2. experience—how this unfolds over time


  1. ideas to colleagues, clients, users
  2. designs in a form that can be evaluated by users

I cannot say that one thing we teach is the most important. Good designers need conceptual skills as well as craft skills; they need a position—a view of their work in its wider context; and they need passion—to keep doing the best work they can.

back to top  Design Project Example

Projects we set, or students set for themselves, vary greatly from the highly conceptual to short pressure projects looking at designing a particular aspect of interaction. Heather Martin and Mina Hagedorn's project, Information Bodies combines working with users, generation of a series of alternatives mocked up in video, and an elegant physical model that uses projections to demonstrate the way the final system would work. It also shows a speciality of CRD: the integration of the real and the virtual. Below is the project description written by Mina Hagedorn:

The project deals with remote presence in a work environment. We decided to take the CRD students and researchers as our user group. This gave us the chance for regular feedback on the viability of our ideas. Until last year the researchers were on the same floor, but now have moved to a different building. We aimed at establishing a link between the two spaces, with the main goal of reinstating peripheral awareness of each other. We wanted to incorporate subtleties of social interaction into remote communication. We were interested in coming to a solution that is not screen based but rather incorporated into the environment as a physical presence.

back to top  Process

We showed our initial concepts in five videoscenarios:, which proved very effective in communicating the ideas and being a trigger for discussion. Initially we also addressed ideas of direct-line communication but decided against it. Due to the proximity (i.e. chats in the canteen, researchers coming up to the studio) and existence of the phone system as well as email we felt that was not necessary. Instead, we focused on giving peripheral awareness of other space's activity level, something we used to have, but is now lost due to the separate locations. We were inspired by physical clues to someone's presence such as a switched-on monitor or chink of light through an open door.

back to top  Solution

In our proposal we presented a model of our studio as well as the research studio, showing our proposal and the activity of the spaces. We found this the best way to communicate the simultaneous actions in both spaces. The proposal consists of shapes suspended from the ceiling in each space which would via projection and controllable lights convey a feeling for the live activity level of the other space.

Our proposal was very well received. Initial doubts, such as there not being enough value in only getting a "rough impression" of each other's activity were suspended. There was very positive feedback to the idea of reinstating peripheral awareness in a non-obtrusive way. This is still the fine line the project walks on: creating something evocative and marrying it to a function. I believe a sense of connectedness is the main achievement of this proposal.

Please look at the CRD web site for a flavor of the range of projects in the department:, which contains project pages for the project briefs, and students' pages for solutions. Mina and Heather graduated in 1998.

back to top  Author

Professor Gillian Crampton Smith
Chair, Computer Related Design Department
Royal College of Art, London

back to top  Figures

F1Figure 1. Student project: Information Bodies

F2Figure 2. Student project: Information Bodies

UF1Figure. Professor Gillian Crampton Smith, Chair, Computer Related Design Department, Royal College of Art, London

back to top  Sidebar: Departmental Snapshot:

Departments/Programs Offering Degrees/Certificates
Computer Related Design, offering MA, MPhil, PhD programs

Number of Students
MA: 16 per year

Sample Career Paths
They work as designers in electronics and computer companies (often in research), in design companies, Web companies.

Age of Program
10 years

back to top  Sidebar: Practitioner's Workbench

Favorite Publications
Jean Baudrillard: The System of Objects; translation Verso, London 1998
Edward Brannigan: Narrative Comprehension and Film, Routledge, London 1992
Georges Jean: Signs, Symbols and Ciphers, English Trans., Thames and Hudson, London 1998
George Lakoff and Mark Johnson: Metaphors We Live By, Chicago University Press 1980
Brenda Laurel: Computers as Theatre, Addison Wesley, Reading, Mass. 1991
The Art of Human Computer Interface Design, Addison Wesley, Reading, Mass. 1990
Don Norman: The Design of Everyday Things, Basic Books 1988, MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1998
Lucy A Suchman: Plans and Situated Actions, Cambridge University Press Cambridge 1987
Edward Tufte: The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, Graphics Press, Cheshire, Connecticut, 1983

Macromind Director, Photoshop, Premiere, Dreamweaver, video

Source of Inspiration
Mary Douglas, the anthropologist who has written on the social construction of reality in such books as Purity and Danger, Natural Symbols, Rules and Meanings, and Terry Winograd who, in Computers and Cognition showed how computers are more than just a technology, they make us think again about what it is to be human.

back to top 

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