Exploring the future

XVI.5 September + October 2009
Page: 76
Digital Citation

(P)REVIEWOld school, new school

Alex Wright

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New York City has long ranked as one of the world's design capitals, but the city's interaction design community has been slow to find its feet here. Historically, user interface designers first flourished in the cubicle farms of the Bay Area, while many industrial designers plied their trade in the product foundries of the Midwest. Meanwhile, Manhattan designers traditionally worked in the city's dominant media and advertising industries, with their inevitable bias toward print and motion graphics.

As many agencies and in-house Web teams find themselves tackling increasingly complex websites and applications, designers and their employers are starting to recognize the need for more formal training in the principles of interaction design. So it should come as no surprise that New York's design schools are tailoring their curricula in response to the shifting demands of the market.

This fall, the School of Visual Arts (SVA) will open the doors on its MFA in interaction design, the first program of its kind in New York and one of the first in the country. Elsewhere around the city, aspiring digital designers can also find a growing range of programs with an interaction design component, including NYU's vaunted Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP), the Parsons Communication Design and Technology Program, and a new dual master's degree program in digital arts and library science at Pratt Institute.

The rising popularity of these programs suggests that interaction design is gaining professional credibility in the New York City's design community, but their differing approaches also raise useful questions about the role of formal education for interaction designers. What subjects should be taught? What is the right mix of "hard" and "soft" skills? And perhaps most important, where is the right balance between professional training and creative freedom? While each of these programs tries to juggle these sometimes conflicting priorities, each has a particular educational philosophy that shapes its approach.

The new SVA program tilts toward an applied model of education. Founded by designer and author Steven Heller, the program has been taking shape for the past year under the guidance of incoming program chair Liz Danzico. "The idea came because I felt there was a gap between print and Web design and designers," says Heller. "I knew that the paradigms of print would not translate verbatim to interaction, but I wanted to have some kind of level field to start."

In a first step befitting a program founded on user-centered principles, Heller and Danzico started by interviewing the school's prospective "users": creative directors, principals, recruiters and other user experience professionals likely to hire SVA graduates. For Heller, the interviews helped him understand the cultural divide between visual designers and interaction designers. "Frankly, the biggest surprise was how little graphic design was even considered in the hiring of interaction 'people,'" he says. "I learned that it is important to build consciousness for a new kind of design process and aesthetic."

In an effort to bridge that gap, the SVA curriculum tries to give students a grounding in design fundamentals, while helping them cultivate the soft skills so often required in the modern workplace: strategic thinking, entrepreneurship, ethics, and communicating with clients. "Designers need to be rhetoricians, able to articulate the value of their work," says Danzico. They must also be "improvisers" who can work with emerging paradigms like gesture, physical computing, and other still-emerging forms.

After sketching out the initial contours of a curriculum, Danzico began recruiting a team of faculty members drawn from the New York interaction design community. (Full disclosure: I will be teaching a research workshop there in Spring 2010.) Relying on practitioners rather than full-time academics fits squarely within the modus operandi at SVA, where all 900 of the school's faculty are working professionals. "SVA by design has always blurred the line between the school and the industry," says Danzico. "It's all about being relevant, practical, and focused."

After opening its initial call for applications in early 2007, the school received 72 applications—a record for a new program at SVA. Of these, the admissions committee ultimately chose to accept 15 first-year students.

The admissions team assessed each application in terms of process, communication, craft, empathy, and concept—with a special emphasis on empathy. The committee looked for evidence of a student's ability to empathize with users, with clients, and even with the admissions committee itself (by assessing the relative usability of the students' admissions packages). For Danzico, empathy is the interaction designer's fundamental trait. "The rest," she explains, "can be taught."

A few blocks downtown in the heart of Greenwich Village, an entirely different approach to interaction design education has taken root at NYU's 30-year-old Interactive Telecommunications Program, where the approach could be characterized as: (almost) anything goes.

Founded in 1979 by Professor Red Burns, the program has evolved over the years from its early roots in experimental video projects to embrace succeeding waves of technology: personal computers, CD-ROMs, virtual reality, and eventually the Web. Today the program's 220 students pursue projects ranging from physical computing and mobile devices to human-animal communications to solar xylophones. It's difficult to say what exactly the program is "about," other than giving its students ample leeway to pursue creative uses of technology.

"In the tech field, what you need to know is going to quickly change," says program administrator Dan O'Sullivan. For this reason, the program has always encouraged free-form exploration and tried to create an environment that prizes creativity over all else. "The students are better off learning how to learn and discovering how they have ideas."

ITP has succeeded in large part by avoiding any explicitly professional agenda. "We've resisted the careerist impulse in the simplest way possible," says faculty member Clay Shirky, "which is that we were founded before you could have a careerist impulse." When the program first started in 1979, few imagined the possibility of a career in the digital arts. So from the start, the program put individual creativity at the center of its mission. "That concern for 'interestingness' over commercial potential has been embedded in our culture for 30 years," says Shirky.

Despite ITP's reluctance to position itself as a professional development program, the school consistently turns out sought-after graduates, who often go on to assume design leadership roles in the interactive industry. "Considering that many students feel like it is two years of play, a lot of very practical employers find them very useful," says O'Sullivan. "The truth is that to execute their projects, students have to pick up a lot of easily marketable skills even if they are not found directly in the curriculum."

And for all the focus on personal creativity, interaction design principles have nonetheless wound their way into the ITP curriculum. "Thinking about interaction design is in the water because we mostly make interactive stuff," says O'Sullivan. The first-semester foundation class in physical computing emphasizes interaction design explicitly, as do a number of elective classes like Design and Redesign, Designing Experience, and Designing for the Five Senses. The program also affords students the opportunity to focus intently on designing for specific constituencies through classes on game design, designing for children, assistive technology, and designing services for public spaces.

At the recent spring show, the school's penchant for "interestingness" was on full display, with student projects as diverse as a wooden automaton playing the role of a grouchy clown, a faux-historical traveling sound museum in which users can listen to sounds "captured" in glass mason jars, and a pair of "root boots" shaped like tree trunks designed to keep the user's feet squarely on the ground.

Amid such a display of polymorphous technological perversity, one might well ask what any of this has to do with preparing graduates for the job market. "These economic times apply a pressure to become more vocational," O'Sullivan acknowledges. But ITP is holding firm to its philosophy of preserving creative freedom in a technology world often fixated on producing measurable outcomes. The school's philosophy evokes a more Arcadian school of thought, one in which the pursuit of creative expression trumps the demands of industry. No doubt many of these students, after they go to work in the industry, will one day look back fondly on the freedom they enjoyed in ITP's digital sandbox.

A few blocks away on 13th Street, Parsons Design School offers an MFA in communication design and technology. In contrast to ITP's loosely structured curriculum, Parsons requires students to take a foundational course in interface design, then choose from one of three concentrations: interactive, narrative, or computation. Within each concentration, the program emphasizes a traditional approach to design education with lots of studio time and opportunities for critique.

Like ITP, Parsons offers plenty of room for personal creativity, encouraging students to explore social and artistic themes in addition to more applied projects. Recent student thesis projects have ranged from a mobile application to support outpatient health services in the developing world to an experimental video installation that draws parallels between Little Red Riding Hood and an oppressed Muslim woman.

Together, ITP and Parsons constitute the closest thing to an educational establishment for interaction design in the city-long-running programs with substantial enrollment and a track record of turning out highly employable graduates. And while each school differs slightly in approach, they share a common purpose in trying to create a supportive environment for students to follow their creative instincts while developing marketable skills.

At the northern tip of Greenwich Village on 14th Street, Pratt Institute is exploring an altogether different approach to design education, by crosspollinating two once disparate disciplines: library science and graphic design.

As library science programs across the country struggle to reinvent themselves in the Internet age, many are closing down or recasting themselves as "iSchools" in the mode of UC-Berkeley. While Pratt has committed to preserving its foundations in traditional librarianship, many of its recent graduates have found themselves leaving the library field after graduation to take on roles as information architects or, in some cases, interaction designers.

Recognizing this trend toward nontraditional career paths for library school graduates, Pratt's library school dean, Tula Giannini, spotted an opportunity. Situated within a school best known for its design programs, Pratt seemed uniquely positioned to experiment with its curriculum at the intersections between the information sciences and design.

"There's going to be a need for high-level digital skills that go beyond navigation and usability," explains Giannini, "to the creative side of illuminating meaning: revealing content and relationships in an interactive, participatory, conversational environment." In other words, librarians need to learn to think like designers.

Starting this year, Pratt students will be able to pursue a combined degree in library science and digital arts, drawing on the school's deep well of graphic design training in addition to the library school's growing emphasis on topics like usability and information architecture.

How will the traditional, left-brained library curriculum converge with the design school's more right-brained, experiential approach? No one knows quite yet. The first dual master's degree student will enroll this fall.

All three of these schools have embarked on uncertain paths, trying to prepare tomorrow's digital designers for a world of constantly evolving forms. How all of this will play out is anyone's guess. But if there's one thing interaction designers ought to be good at, it's living with uncertainty. "Everything here is a prototype," says Danzico. "This is version 0.1."

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Alex Wright is the author of Glut: Mastering Information Through the Ages. He has led user experience design initiatives for the New York Times, Yahoo!, Microsoft, IBM, Harvard University, and the Long Now Foundation, among others. His writing has appeared in Salon.com, the Christian Science Monitor, Harvard Magazine, and other publications. He writes regularly about technology and design at http://www.alexwright.org.

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DOI: http://doi.acm.org/10.1145/1572626.1572643

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UF1Figure. Higgins Hall Center at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, NY.

UF2Figure. The Arnold and Shelia Aronson Galleries building on the Parsons The New School for Design campus.

UF3Figure. An interior view of the Library at NYU in Manhattan.

UF4Figure. SVA's main building on 23rd Street and 3rd Avenue in Manhattan.

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