Borrowing, heavily, from outside disciplines

XVI.6 November + December 2009
Page: 64
Digital Citation

FEATURELearning from architecture

Brett Ingram

back to top 

If you are reading this article, you probably work or study in a field that can generally be referred to as interaction design. No matter the specific role, we are all working toward producing an end product even as we work on different aspects of it. This product typically involves a digital experience and a form of communication, and it increasingly includes an embodiment in the physical world. That impact on and connection with the physical world is becoming ever more important, and it begs reflection upon the holistic thinking and oversight that goes into developing physical artifacts and environments.

There is a field that similarly combines a wide variety of skills, which include engineering, production, art, design, business—even a kind of interaction design—among other disciplines. It is a field that literally involves getting down in the dirt to actualize projects, and yet must exist at the highest cultural levels of society. The practitioners of this field are highly pragmatic, limited by budgets and business needs, yet obsessed with the impact that their work will have on the larger society. In fact, society as a whole has an understanding of what these practitioners do (even if it has been mythologized). This field has an all-encompassing term that is often expressed with a capital "A" the way "art" can sometimes be expressed. The field I am referring to is architecture.

There is much we can learn from examining architecture and how it is practiced. It has grown out of a practical need that has existed for thousands of years, while the modern profession dates back to the 19th century. Architects have had a long time to learn by experience, create an end product, bring together many disciplines, and develop their profession.

A look at some of the differences between interaction design and architecture helps to explain some of our plight. As interaction designers we are applying our skills to a rapidly changing technological landscape. We don't have thousands of years of experience on which to base our design decisions. What we create is often fleeting and evanescent. It can be changed rapidly and is written not in stone, but often in light.

This ability for rapid change and the newness of the field means we often take the negative impacts of our work far more lightly than architects do. We don't have to worry about our work collapsing on top of our users—and there is an upside to that. It allows us to experiment freely. It allows for new ideas to constantly crop up. It allows for many people with different academic and professional backgrounds to participate in the process. It allows for a democratic approach. Anyone can become an interaction designer.

The downside is our lack of common ground within the discipline. There is no consistency in our educational framework across interaction design disciplines and academic institutions. Consistency provided by similarly structured programs allows other professions (such as architecture) to operate using a common language and a similar, practical foundation. Since many people working in interaction design come to the profession through areas of study that are very different from a focused HCI program, there are many opportunities for miscommunication and wasted professional time, energy, and, most of all, creative vision. By consciously agreeing to be more cohesive in interaction design education (and by learning how to do so from other fields who do it successfully), we have the opportunity to create a common language while maintaining a spirit of experimentation.

back to top  A Deep Historical Precedence

Architecture is a profession that enjoys tremendous respect. We have architects who are cultural superstars either historically, like Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier, or currently, such as Zaha Hadid, Frank Gehry, and Santiago Calatrava. I bring up some of these names intentionally. Wright may be a household name; his buildings changed culture. Yet while many people have visited his buildings, relatively few have had the privilege of living or working in a Frank Lloyd Wright structure. This is a big distinction from interaction design—we work on projects that can be used by millions. That being said, interaction designers remain nearly anonymous to the larger society in which we exist. Our work impacts many people every day, yet often we are overlooked and remain largely anonymous due to the omnipresence and perceived transparency of our medium. This often causes our profession to go unnoticed, or to be grouped with more tangible and easily understood disciplines such as Web design, graphic design, or programming.

There is much we can learn from examining architecture and how it is practiced. It has grown out of a practical need that has existed for thousands of years, while the modern profession dates back to the 19th century.

back to top  Connections to the Interface

Architecture is similar to interaction design in that it melds art and engineering. Modern buildings have many parts—aesthetic, practical, and usable. Engineering is considered in the form of structural systems, electrical systems for communication and lighting, plumbing, HVAC systems, and now even digital interfaces. Architecture is a design exercise. A building is usually designed for a specific purpose, and the layout often revolves around the human and system needs of that purpose. Interior space must be designed to meet these needs, and the building must also relate to its exterior context—its position in a particular urban or cultural context—and designing how it relates to this context is a fundamental part of the process. Because buildings last, architects must also be concerned about the impact on society. People must use and live with these constructions for long periods; therefore, designers of modern buildings must consider how they will adapt over time.

There is a nebulous quality to anything digital, and a digital product can sometimes float just out of physical reach. We can see it and sometimes touch it. And there are times when we can put it in our pocket and turn it off. This is one very important distinction from architecture. You can touch a building yet it remains unchanged. Instead, a building's presence tangibly changes its surrounding environment in a way that makes the architect's responsibilities readily apparent to most people. As interaction designers, we are involved in projects that change the environment, but in ways that are not as apparent to the average person. The importance of what we do may even be lost on many interaction designers. Perhaps this is just part of our learning process in a relatively nascent field. However, we must become more conscious of the impact that our work has on society. Those of us who have been involved longer need to pay closer attention—learning about the impact, communicating the importance of it, and passing on our knowledge.

back to top  Deep Meaning to the Cultural Landscape

The architect weaves together the technical and aesthetic in a way that adds meaning to the built environment. Interaction designers must learn to incorporate more of the same ideas in our work, and to more readily bring meaning into work and not merely react to technological advancements. This incorporation is an ongoing process that appears to already be happening to a large extent. At any moment a person can go online to find thousands of how-to articles on any particular technique involved in the design and production of an interaction designed object, yet very little is written and available to them about the meaning of these processes. We as interaction designers need to challenge ourselves to think more critically about the meaning of our projects, communicate that meaning to our peers, and maintain a dialogue about the impact of our work. We have to be more inclined to readily talk about it among ourselves. Those of us who are not as technically savvy should challenge ourselves to learn more about technology, while those of us who are drawn to engineering should spend some time learning about aesthetics and cultural relevance. Whatever the 21st-century equivalent of the newspaper art, music, or architecture critic turns out to be, we need an interaction design critic. We need professors of interaction design at one university teaching in a way that would be understandable to a professor at a different university (even if they disagree in theory or approach).

back to top  Specialization

Within the architecture profession there are many ways in which individuals can specialize, just as there many ways that within interaction design an individual can specialize. There are design architects, whom you might say are somewhat analogous to an art director or graphic designer—they are concerned with aesthetics. There are people who act as project managers. There may be interior architects who can sometimes play a kind of usability role with space planning. While engineers often come into the process from a different direction—structural engineering is a well-developed field of its own—the architect has to understand the theory despite not being a structural engineer.

In training, an architect must be exposed to and have a fluent understanding of the many different aspects of a building. There is a common educational framework for architects—a grounding in engineering and physics, understanding the history of the field that establishes architects within the larger cultural landscape, learning visual aesthetics, and recognizing how architecture impacts the urban environment.

Architects are also licensed; this is a process that takes years to fulfill and that in the end creates confidence and trust among clients. You know that you are getting someone who knows what they are doing, even if you don't know exactly what it is they do on a day-to-day basis. An architectural license protects the public. It assures us that buildings will be safe and usable. It is proof that the architect has learned what needs to be learned and experienced what needs to be experienced in order to complete the job competently.

For example, architects must be sure that the buildings they design will not fall down and can be evacuated in case of a fire. As interaction designers, we increasingly take on work that puts lives at risk. Medical equipment now has very important interaction design components, as do automobiles and other transportation devices. Inevitably, the public will become concerned enough about safety that interactions designers may be required to have some type of proof, licensing or otherwise, that instills confidence in our work. As interaction designers we should take it upon ourselves to shape what this might mean and what/whom should compose these rules.

back to top  Experience and Expertise

Experience finally matters. How do we begin to recognize the experience of interaction designers who have been in the field? What are other options besides licensure? Many interaction design professional have been involved in this field for years and are now reaching an end point in their careers. They can either continue doing the same techniques over and over or move on to another career, in which case we risk losing their valuable experience. There is a need to create a forward-looking path for seasoned interaction design professionals who find themselves at a point in which it seems there are few ways left to grow. This is something we have to do ourselves: create an opportunity for holistic leadership in the projects we execute, which encompasses engineering, aesthetics, usability, and cultural relevance. Creating a consistent language and framework for our profession and an overarching macro role may even allow for larger recognition of our respective Zaha Hadids and Frank Lloyd Wrights.

The architect Daniel Burnham famously said, "Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men's blood." These words have gone on to fuel the creation of an entire American metropolis. Let's see if we can do something equally as inspiring.

back to top  Author

Brett Ingram is a senior information architect at Critical Mass in Chicago and enjoys every minute of his interaction design work for a variety of client projects. For the past 12 years he has worked as an interface designer, information architect, and usability specialist at companies such as Pandora, Nationwide Insurance, and MarchFirst. Prior to working in interaction design, he worked in several architecture firms involved in the design of restaurants, apartment buildings, and hospitals. Ingram has a B.A. in architecture and an M.A. in industrial design from Ohio State University.

back to top  Footnotes


back to top  Figures

UF1Figure. Fallingwater, the acclaimed Pennsylvania-based house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, organically incorporates nature and architecture.

back to top 

©2009 ACM  1072-5220/09/1100  $10.00

Permission to make digital or hard copies of all or part of this work for personal or classroom use is granted without fee provided that copies are not made or distributed for profit or commercial advantage and that copies bear this notice and the full citation on the first page. To copy otherwise, to republish, to post on servers or to redistribute to lists, requires prior specific permission and/or a fee.

The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2009 ACM, Inc.

Post Comment

No Comments Found