The future of design education with Haig Armen and Dave Malouf
January 7, 2013
In the January, 2013 episode of The Digital Life, we tackle the topic of interaction design education with special guests Haig Armen and Dave Malouf. Design education — whether formal or informal — can be difficult to properly frame. Young designers require both an understanding fundamental principals coupled with real life project experience that involve ever-changing technologies. The cross-pollination of these areas, the search for a stable curriculum, and a host of other related subjects form the core of our discussion on the evolution and future of design education.
I think the reason why they’re the strong candidates is less about the program they’re coming from and more a product of the talent that they had in the first place, that got them into that school. I think the issue is one around practice. I think design schools, schools with programs around design, they should be teaching theory, and they can very effectively teach theory and things that are less about actually creating, but they have to leave the creating part to the market, because they are just simply not doing a very effective job with it. Even the best people who we get — when they’re fresh out of school — their notions of what a project looks like, what the requirements completed are, really everything about it, are totally out of whack. Even the cool school projects that they have done, that nominally look on a portfolio like something that would be appropriate to qualify them to do work for us. As it turns out the process that got them there, I don’t know what it was but it wasn’t one that is consistent with and conducive to succeeding in the marketplace, either from my experiences on the agency side of doing work for clients or on the internal side of being part of a successful product development team. If I were envisioning a next generation approach to design education I would have schools focus on theory, really teach theory deeply and well and I would have them focus on tools. I’m going from the most strategic and theoretical all the way down to the most tactical. Literally, things like Photoshop skills or Illustrator skills or whatever the modern toolset is being used in the sub-disciplines of design that are relevant to that person.
Those are things that schools can teach, and teach well, and teach in a way that prepares students for success, but the project work should be kept with businesses. I’d like to see design programs have relationships with companies where their students are, from the first year going out, have planned deep internships working with teams on real things. Initially following the old traditional process, initially more as spectators, more as being part of a studio, or part of a team but not doing mission critical work. Getting a sense for the pace, getting a sense for the rhythm, getting a sense for the professionalism, getting a sense for what’s really needed and then over the course of their time in design school, whether it be two years or three years or four years. Increasingly doing more of the hands on work in this internship type of relationship until at the end they are doing real work and when they get out in the real world, they’ve been there. They have spent time, significant time in the kind of environment that they will end up working in and they have in fact created and made things using a good process, having correct expectations and working in the right ways. The only way to get that, and in my experience, is in free enterprise. Even the better education programs, the projects that they take the students through, and the way that the students come out of that are just horribly ill prepared.
From my standpoint, design education, from a formal perspective in terms of what a college or university or other program is providing should be very much based on theory and tools. Get the theory in a very broad way. It should be fun, it should be enlightening, it should be mind bending, and helping people really explore the boundaries of what design has been and what it can be, but then get the tools. Help the students to just do the most mundane, the most basic tool learning activities so that they can apply those when they’re in the right situation. That should be maybe half of it and the other half in parallel at the same time should be deeply embedded in real projects, in real work.
“Real projects,” coming out of design school but real projects with a top agency or with a product or service company that is known for having an effective product development process. It should just be basic. It should be the beginning point of any design education in my experience and I’m using the phrase design education a lot but it goes for other aspects of user experience. You can apply the same thing to research; you can apply the same thing to more of the engineering side of things. To really build and get right it’s just not happening in schools. It’s not. Even the best most well-meaning people participating in those ways who are wonderful educators, and are contributing well to the development of students you’re not getting the full growth, the full exploration of potential until you are right in the middle of it.
Hopefully, there’s a move more in that direction. I’m not optimistic, it would certainly fly in the face of what academia is as an institution, and the way the programs have been structured in general up to this point, certainly a lot of it is financial. If you are teaching less classes and more of it is being turned over to things that are happening out in the marketplace. In terms of the actual core curriculum there are potential negative financial incentives for schools as well but what are here for, what are we doing? It should be to train the best possible people to give them the most expert education to succeed and thrive in the real world and the way to do that is a hybrid, and hopefully we will see more of that.I look forward to hearing everyone else’s comments on the show and I wish you a Happy New Year.
One thing we want to make very clear to people is this is not just about formal education, so that’s why we didn’t have apprenticeships and continuing education in there and it’s not just the responsibility of educators, so that’s why we have the portion about industry in there.
Besides Haig and myself, who will be running a couple of the topics, we brought in some assistance from others, Kristian Simsarian, most recently from California College of Arts, running their undergraduate program and interaction design. He comes from IDEO. He’s an IDEO fellow so he really bridges that gap between industry and education really well and that’s going to be his topic.
We’re bringing in Andrea Resmini who is a research academic out of Sweden, but he’s also the current president of the Information Architecture Institute, and he brings in his very broad perspective around research and the importance of research in education. Kendra Shimmell, former IxDA board member, currently the Director of Education at Cooper, one of the definite leaders of interaction design education coming at it from the continuing education perspective, so professional education if you will, and she’ll be talking on that topic. Haig is going to be talking about curriculum and I’m going to be talking about apprenticeships.
Those are all going to be separate workshops that people have to bring back to the summit, to the group, and discuss some kind of visual on how the future of interaction design should be from that perspective of that topic. Then after the summit, so that’s on Sunday, on Thursday there’s going to be a panel where each of the leaders will then present again what came out of the summit so that we can have a broader conversation with the entire community who is interested who are at the conference. People who couldn’t make the summit will be able to be part of the plenary, be part of the panel at that time.
I’m wondering if you can open up a few of the conversations and talk about why is this so important. Why is this coming to a head now in terms of interaction design education? What are some of the current issues that really need to be addressed outside of just these topics, but some of the issues within some of these topics that you’re hoping to discuss and come to terms with during the workshop?
For example, if you were to take industrial design in say France, it would not differ that much from industrial design in Canada or in America, but interaction design would vary quite a lot, even from state to state or province to province. I want to at least understand what those differences are, so that’s why I’d like to know how people are teaching their curriculum. I’d like to know what people consider the cannon of books that we should be looking at or be providing to students. Things like that, I think it’s still quite … it ranges too much for there to be a clear path for students.
That’s my area, but as Dave pointed out we wanted to make sure that this is clearly both for academia, as well as for industry, and so there’s a lot of industry involvement and both Dave and I have our own personal involvement in industry as well and feel it’s really important that there not be this huge divide between schools and companies.
For example, industry is very much focused on the web and mobile technology right now, but what happens as our interface has changed over the next few years. Are we going to have students that will be able to handle that?
I think it’s one of my points of view is there’s too much reliance by industry on formal education being the solution as opposed to it being part of a larger solution, which is why there’s continuing education and a focus on apprenticeship as well in terms of the summit that there needs to be a realization that there’s foundation and that’s what formal education should focus on, and then we need apprenticeships and continuing education to allow people to move towards specializations as professionals. I think that’s the other part of the head that’s rising at this point.
I’m curious how you see some of these conflicts between teaching for the future and future looking but also making sure that you have the current skill sets and a balance between those. I think that’s also wrapped up in a conversation, Dave that you’re bringing in which is this idea of are we training generalists versus specialists? Even within our interaction design I think you can’t know everything. Is it better to sort of pick a specialty or to really train generalists? Obviously, I have my own opinions on that, but I’m curious to hear what both of you have to say on those issues.
I’m teaching an undergraduate program in interaction design and I feel that challenge every day, but I feel that it can be done. It teaches people to think in a multidisciplinary way first rather than come at interaction design from, say, communication design standpoint or an industrial design standpoint. That’s interesting to me.
There’s also the point about teaching technology and teaching things like coding to interaction designers. Is that something that’s important? I believe it is, but I’m always met with some opposition there, which I think there needs to be a balance and we need to teach people why they have to learn about coding. People that tend to be opposed to teaching coding for interaction design usually their argument is that, “We don’t want to create developers. In the design program, we want to create designers.” I believe that every little bit of code that I’ve learned has helped me as a designer in a huge way, and it also speaks to this idea of “How do future proof a designer?” One way to future proof them is to get them to start thinking about the new technologies that are coming up and to getting them to understand it by actually coding.
Teaching students about what we know, for example, gives them a sense of what products might look like or feel like in the future.
One thing that I got was that having that primary medium really helped them develop their understanding of the complexity because they were able to understand where the complexity was coming from and how it was integrating into what they were working on. It seemed to make a difference. The thing that I got from this was … and it’s not just about any single medium. In the graduate work that I was doing, I would be getting thesis students mostly from architecture and graphic design coming to me because they needed interaction design as much if not more than the interactive designers did who were doing new media and web and game and stuff like that.
The things that we traditionally think of are the per-view of interaction design. When we look at where technology has impacted, it impacts everything. The number one place of computer chips in our lives is our automobile. How can we not have transportation designers understand interaction design? I’ve often tried to frame interaction design instead of being its own discipline as really a horizontal requirement for other disciplines so that people have to sort of pick their form that they’re most interested in, especially young designers and develop their skill sets around that and then pick solutions that are bred from the complexity of technology on top of it. Because they have that base of form building, they’re able to truly create the prototypes that allow them to envision and push their projects further.
It’s a slightly different, sort of tipping on its side perspective, and I’m not sure there’s a single approach that’s required but just putting an alternative approach out there.
We’ve been talking a lot about formal education. I want to look at industry because I know that’s part of what you guys will be covering as well, and one of the things that I’ve seen both at conferences that I’ve been to, at the interaction conference, as well as other industry conferences, and then looking at companies like Cooper and like some of the others that are teaching and educating.
A lot of the content seems to be focused at bringing people into the field, sort of introductions to interaction design or not really a deep exploration of advanced topics in interaction design, whether it’s at the conference or companies pushing out educational programs. I think that there’s a growing need for this kind of advanced programming. I’m wondering what your thoughts are on about that or where you see that going, or maybe there’s something that you guys are aware of that I’m missing.
I think the immersive thing that UIE is doing that. I actually think we need a lot more of the introduction stuff. I know Haig and I were just talking about our experiences out there where … there are people on the front lines where usability is the problem. Forget about aesthetics of interaction or what big highfaluting cognitive psychology problems or anything like that. It’s really just the basics. We need to get this tool of interaction designer, this collection of skill sets into the hands of a lot more people if we’re really going to have deep impactful improvements in so much of our lives.
We all complain about how bad our insurance companies are, for example. Few of them are good because they just don’t hire the people with the right skill sets because they don’t know. We need to educate those people so that they even know who they should be hiring and what education they need, but first they need to be educated. I think that’s a really important part of the industry problem as well as their continuing education problem.
I wouldn’t necessarily dismiss the requirement of that, but I do agree with you that there is sort of this way where there’s no structured, for a lack of a different term than formal, way of advancing the depth of your knowledge and experience other than through practice today. There’s grad school, but that’s a financial and time commitment, not really useful for people and families and stuff like that.
There are no true online opportunities within interaction design, within a lot of design to really get the level of depth that a studio education would give us. There definitely is a problem of how do we bring more depth other than through practice. Where are our CEUs, like other continuing education units that other professions often require? We don’t have that per se.
Haig, like you’re talking about. I definitely see it. This becomes the design, usability and user-experience and sort of gets pushed in to the infrastructure of business. I think there’s going to be just a growing need to broaden that base of general education. Obviously, that’s still going to be important and more important moving forward.
I just find that a little funny that they’re not that integrated. I think that’s partly education is that they have a specific language that they speak. The creative people are over there, and the coders are over there. One of my goals is to really bridge that gap.
Because of the way education is set up right now, I think it’s hard for us to be able to deliver curriculums in ways that are not more specific. I know some schools are really trying to make education a little bit broader and meet those expectations. The other thought that I had about the future of education is that it’s becoming really clear that kind of hierarchic, “I’m the expert in the field and you’re the students; you’re the beginners.” That approach no longer works. The students come to the classroom, it’s not even a classroom anymore, it’s usually just this open space that they come to it with their own expertise and to allow students to … the instructor becomes more of a moderator of ideas.
That’s one of the perspectives that I would love to see more schools being forward thinking about. Right now the closest I’ve seen are like trans-disciplinary design programs where they are still next to existing discipline programs. There’s a host of economic and other accreditation reasons why all that still exists. It’s a big house to have to reorder on the magnitude of healthcare change. We all are familiar with how big that house is to change.
There’s the other thing that I want to see is the future is I want to see more experiments from schools. I want to see more bravery. I love how CIID has … it’s so small. It’s on a cliff, basically, financially in terms of their support and how they work and they’re a tiny little program completely unaccredited, yet they make enough notoriety in the U.S. to make the top 10 list in Business Insider. Not that the list in itself was so important. What was important is that a single-program school like that one made that list. It was the only school like that one. I want to see more experiments like that. I think Jon Kolko’s Austin Center for Design is another example like that. I think we need to see more of those. I hear a grumbling that something is happening in New England soon, but I don’t want to give anything away.
We need to see more of those differences coming to the fore that break the model, not because the model is right, but they’re design prototypes of their own. We need to start prototyping alternatives for formal education to see what can happen and what works and doesn’t work within the structures and institutions that they have to work in. I would like the future to see more of that.
Any final thoughts? It’s been a pleasure talking with both of you.
Beforehand we’ve set up a Google Plus community. If you search for interaction design education under communities, it’s a publicly available. You can subscribe to it. We are going to come January start leading some conversations in that group, in that community, and hopefully we’ll get some good lead up into the summit itself, and then obviously will be reporting back into that. Maybe we’ll even keep the hangouts open and have people join virtually. We haven’t really given it much thought, but people have been requesting who can’t attend in person if there will be a way to Skype in or remote in or something. I don’t see any reason we can’t at different points do that, so we’ll see what happens.