There are many interaction designers like myself whose growth into the field was a feat of organic if not chaotic chance. Our community of practice was born out of the convergence of people who did not have the option to be formerly trained in interaction design in almost any way what-so-ever. So we educated ourselves – sometimes alone and sometimes with the support of peers and mentors. It is a common presumption that because we did it this way we have to somehow hold out a universe where that path continues to not just be an option, but to be a viable one; and one that we even laud over other more formal ones.
I believe that there has been a huge paradigm shift in the very nature of design practice and a growing shift in its education. If we do not acknowledge this shift at the core of education and career development we are doing a disservice to those who are interested in coming up the ranks as young interaction designers today. At the core of these issues is the belief in the separation between form and interaction. This myth can no longer be maintained – definitely not in education.
We can look at a definition of Interaction Design like this one by Robert Reimann: “a design discipline dedicated to defining the behavior of artifacts, environments, and systems (i.e., products)”. Therefore it is concerned with “anticipating how use of products will mediate human relationships and affect human understanding”. It is easy for us to stop there. But what is also true is that all interaction design is embedded in form (even those areas of IxD like gesture). And it is my belief that interaction design lives in these areas of communicating possibilities for action and responses to actions, surrounded by forms.
I have often held the ground that our discipline has a place next to other design disciplines like graphic design and industrial design in the area of practice. We have done well as an emerging user experience culture and community to do just that along with usability testing, design research and information architecture (to name the most prominent). Due to the ways they built up UX teams this model seems to be working for many organizations. However, I would challenge that to have “design” separate from “user experience” – as many creative agencies have done; or having “user experience” be the name or structure of your “design organization” – does neither scenario any long term use and this is the basis of this article.
one of the core understandings behind IxD and even UX as a whole is to design from the point of view of the human being(s) who’s lives we want to impact through our designs
If we are to understand that one of the core understandings behind IxD and even UX as a whole is to design from the point of view of the human being(s) whose lives we want to impact through our designs, then we must also agree that it is the tone of our voice – the expression of our products & services through the various mediums that make that up – that is our ultimate tool. Thus, any true practice of design with a human focus has to be built on a foundation of traditional design that focuses on the the craft & design of perceptual mediums using methods & practices of design from the root of art over science.
As a professor of interaction design at the undergraduate level, I truly believe that an education in human-centeredness is a requirement of EVERY designer, regardless of medium of interest. Each medium would have its own distinct way of looking at how to integrate the philosophy and methods of practice to work from a human-centered perspective. As I look at my courses in interaction design that I teach for our undergraduate minor, I am always stuck on either of two sides of a problem: I either need students who already know the rules and tools of interactivity; and/or I need students who are experienced in prototyping 3D forms & functions.
Since a minor is supposed to be open to all students throughout my college (SCAD.edu), it is hard for me to really cross departments effectively and efficiently. Despite this problem – which I’m working on fixing in future iterations of the curriculum coming soon – I think that the addition of an interaction design concentration is the right direction for undergraduate level education. This allows enough lower level support courses to be available to primary form-giving design programs whilst giving the opportunity to those students who wish greater depth of understanding of the particulars of interaction design. But what is ultimately true is that it is impossible to teach IxD without virtual interactivity, which means that there is always an addition to every non-graphical medium. All designers need to learn 2D interactive prototyping.
I truly believe that an education in human-centeredness is a requirement of EVERY designer regardless of medium of interest.
This issue isn’t just related to undergraduate education, but also about early professional practice. Here is where the real controversy kicker is going to come in. Anyone with less than five years experience under their belt should not be working in a purely UX capacity. By “purely” I mean doing structural and behavioral design without also directly owning the forms within which they are embedded. What’s worse is that many organizations will not even hire entry-level designers, thus sidestepping this part of the growth path.
If I were starting out today here is what I would do:
- Find out which design medium I like the most: interactive, industrial, architectural, graphic, interior, fashion, etc.;
- Find a school that teaches courses in the medium I like and has either separate UX support (electives) minimally, but ideally has concentrations in UX generally & IxD specifically;
- Intern at trans- or converged design organizations (hard to find but they exist);
- Find a job at the same type of organization, but different.
But it doesn’t end there, right? What happens then? What happens after my fifth year? Where do I go? What do I become?
Paths to take
To be honest, there are so many variables that the options are infinite in their paths and combination. Along the way create a relationship with good mentors (don’t just ask for one, build one). However, there is a path I could recommend.
The path I’m speaking of is within Interaction Design or the similar path of Service Design (no one has still convinced me these are different and I’m looking forward to two talks at Interaction 10 to see if they can do the job). In other design disciplines there are often specializations that pop up. The clearest examples for me come out of graphic design. Not every graphic designer becomes a typographer or iconographer, but there are a few people who specialize in those areas. I see interaction design the same way. Only a few people will ever need to have this level of specification in their careers, or become educators who need the depth of understanding to teach at any level or to produce new bodies of knowledge.
Most people will continue their careers and learn enough depth in interaction design or any UX discipline through practice and professional education opportunities. Only a select few will make the leap to thought and practice leaders that requires the level of mastery and creation of “new thought” that a good Masters program should provide.
The reality is that an interaction designer without chops in form, is at best a strategist or manager.
There are other options, though, in this continuing “decade of transition” as I see the previous five years and the next five years. Certificate programs like that at Boulder Design Works could be (depending on the results, which we haven’t seen yet) one type of path for those needing some graduate level depth; transition skills education; and who are interested in media and messaging. Other programs could be similarly developed around other markets or practice types.
The reality is that an interaction designer without chops in form, is at best a strategist or manager and really doesn’t design (i.e. build) anything that anyone will ever understand as tangible enough to hold long term value through an ever collapsing economy. The cerebral nature of our tasks with lack of tactical results are not just merely easy targets for redaction, but also hold less value empirically: unless they are bound within forms. Yes, we can collaborate with form givers, but the tasks are not as separable as say writer and illustrator for either comics or children books. Both produce tangible outcomes that fit mental models of business and consumers. Our role does not. So we need to reach out not for collaboration, but for skills and practice with the areas in which we want to work.