Interaction Design’s Early Formal Education & Beyond

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.

Core understandings

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.

Human-centered education

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 (, 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.

Growth path

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:

  1. Find out which design medium I like the most: interactive, industrial, architectural, graphic, interior, fashion, etc.;
  2. 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;
  3. Intern at trans- or converged design organizations (hard to find but they exist);
  4. 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.

Reaching out

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.

David Malouf

Professor of Interaction Design at the Savannah College of Art and Design

26 comments on this article

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  3. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Dave.

    With regard to the difference between service design and interaction design, basically, service design is often a subset of interaction design, but can also include service training, which teaches how to optimize offline interactions between service providers and their clients/customers.

    But this assumes your definition of IxD is broad enough to encompass offline, real-life experiences. I know many service-design folks who couldn’t do web work to save their lives. And the IxD community still doesn’t know much about service design as defined back in the 80s by the likes of John Tschohl, Karl Albrecht, Rom Zemke, Ray Considine, et al.

    And as you know, many in the user-experience community think that UX is strictly an on-line environment – a notion I find absurd; UX is ALL interaction, wherever it may take place.
    I’m delighted to hear that you’re reaching out to break down professional and educational silos. This is a major problem in the UX community as our auto-didactic approach means we re-invent the wheel regularly. Service design and marketing/advertising are just two of the many fields that have thus far been ignored by most of the online specialists.

    Again, thanks for continuing this important discussion.

  4. For folks there is one statement I’d like to clarify or actually correct above (I can’t correct the typos myself, Jereon?)

    I wrote the core of this piece a few months ago and at that time I did not have the articulation in my own mind clear. It was fuzzy.

    Recently through conversations with peers it has been clearing. A core part of my thesis above is the differentiation between form-based design disciplines and non-form, which IxD is. What has become clear to me is that service design’s focus on its process & methods which so mirror those of interaction design has been obscuring my attention from the differentiating fact. Service IS a form. It has materiality to it that IxD does not and thus a program in Service Design Education serves all the design communities well because it offers students and practitioners focus on an emerging understanding of these forms. How to shape them, bend them and make them beautiful.

    Thank you to some who unwilling have been part of this conversation the last 2 weeks or so and helped me to understand this.

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  9. John Labriola on

    Hey Dave,

    Great piece. I think it is an amazing time to be in the field, especially people, like you, who are trying to build a educational curriculum around it. It is still so young compared to many other crafts, so it intrigues me to be a part of it as it matures.

    One favor, I know what you mean by forms and agree. However I was talking to some people fresh to or on the fridges of the field and they read this and were a bit confused by the term. Do you think you can elaborate what you mean by forms.

  10. Form is anything that you perceive with your senses. You don’t perceive behaviors. Behaviors (the core element of interaction) are at the level of combining all senses and thoughts and brought through actions.

    We perceive with our eyes visually, graphics, solids, negative space, color, shape, etc. We perceive sounds. But we do not perceive behaviors. They are embodied inside he forms but they are not constrained to them only.

    So when I talk about form I’m talking about the usual suspects of traditional design: graphic, industrial/product, architecture, fashion, interior, etc.

  11. Jan on


    thanks for a great post. I’m currently looking for a way into interaction design myself – not as a college graduate though, but as a young professional with a master’s in CS and five years of corporate research experience. Your insights are particularly helpful for me in figuring out my next steps, although it seems to be more difficult to change fields once you have joined the workforce.
    Concerning step 3 of your list above (“intern at trans- or converged design organizations”), what do you mean by “trans-design” or “converged-design” organizations, and what makes them the ideal starting point for interaction design careers? Could you give an example or two of such an organization?

  12. kem kramer on

    Dave I enjoyed your article. Underscoring this is an institutionlisation of core left brain thinking, teaching and promotion in our overall eduaction system at the expense of not developing the more creative faculties that breeds design thinking. We should not confine this early education only to our respective field but across the board as are subjects like Math and Science. But the reality is it may never get better so how can we focus on remedying this within our field as a start?

  13. Jan, sometimes ppl just catch me making this up as I got. 😉

    Seriously though, the type of organization I’m thinking of are design studios like IDEO, frog, RKS, Ziba, Smart, Lunar (consultancies) and Whirlpool, P&G, Motorola Enterprise Mobility, BMW Designworks, Pixar that understand that there are different crafts people, but all the design disciplines offer leadership in different ways based on their roots. they converge these different disciplines instead of silo’ing them so that they can transverse design instead of creating sockets that integrate. The difference might seem subtle to some but the results are quite disparate when you look at the awards being given out in the design world.

    — dave

  14. Kem,
    Are you suggesting that my piece is in some way folding back on itself by creating a different type of isolation? if so, that is not my intent, instead quite the opposite. I’m just having trouble understanding what it is you want to say.

    – -dave

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  16. Matt Smtih on

    Excuse me, I have a question…Why is formal education so important anyway? It seems to me that plenty of people get by without it. Im not 100% sure about it but if some of you people can help me out and give me your opinions I would appreciate that

  17. There are many ways to answer this question.
    1. The dialog between education and industry is one that has proven invaluable within design and other sectors. To have a space to explore w/o market constraints is where new ideas flurish best. Some of the best companies in the world sprung from educational institutions. Google & Yahoo from Stanford jump to mind and there are a host of others.

    2. but for you the individual, the answer is more complex and filled with “it depends” type statements. What I will refuse to debate is the reactionary response to bad experiences with institutionalized educational systems. We’ve all had bad experiences and we can do better. What I do know is that the rigor and intensity of a good solid foundation of design education does things to behavioral modification and craftsmanship that only a few very disciplined people can capture outside the formal institution.

    On the flip side, I would say that formal does not have to mean “college” or even “school”, but it should mean guided. The Bauhaus for example was an amazing institution that turned into a school, but wasn’t accredited in the sense that we think of schools today. CIID and Ivrea before it are other examples directly in the IxD community as well.

    But to your point, can someone learn and experience all they need to in the same time frame as a formal (even school-based) educational system as they can “on their own” just opening blogs and and whatever else? I think in the bell curve frame of things, the #’s are really low. Maybe the top 1% can do it adequately.

    I think there is a recent upswell of hubris that is taking place with all these open systems that makes us think that the old is totally outdated and thus can be replaced in whole through completely egalitarian and non-institutionalized systems. I personal don’t agree w/ that notion at all. Is change required in institutional formal education: HELL YES! but that is change, not removal.

    I challenge anyone out of high school 4 years in industry to have the same level of creative stamina and thinking skills and production quality that my students have. Are there experiences they are missing? Nothing that forcing coops or internships and great professors tied to industry can’t assuage.

    — dave

  18. Matt Smith on

    Thanks Dave,you are a helpful guy. I appreciate your thoughts and hope to find some more information. If you have any good websites/blogs pleeease let me know. Thanks again and I hope to talk to you soon.

  19. Ian on

    “You don’t perceive behaviors.” -DM

    …but…how do we perceive them?

  20. you don’t perceive behaviors. Behaviors are interpretations of a host of perceptual information that exist through a gestalt lens at the cognitive level. Forms are what you perceive. I.e. language itself is not perceived, but is cognitive in nature. Sound &/or vision combine perceptually and then get interpreted through cognition to create understanding and meaning.

  21. Ian on

    What, do you feel, qualifies something as existing at the “cognitive level” opposed to the level of “perceptual information”?

  22. Reception is non-processed. It is related to the direct sensing & our biology’s ability to do that sensing giving its limitations. Cognition is interpretive.

    I.e. (getting to behavior) Depending on your context, culture, etc. there are many ways to interpret the sign of bouncing your hand w/ your finger tips closed and pointing upward. Everyone can see it exactly the same way, but “meaning” is interpretive.

    When it comes to behavior, it is purely an interpretive balancing act of implications and inferences. When they match we have communication.

    Is it a continuum? maybe. I haven’t really thought about it that way, but I’m always open to that possibility.

  23. Ian on

    Thanks for answering my questions Dave. At the heart of this inquiry is an interest in the gulf between what you describe as “perceptual” and “interpreted” qualities.

    One statement in particular confused me (paraphrased)
    “…interpretations of perceptual information that exist through a gestalt lens at the cognitive level. ”

    A Gestalt is, by definition, an entity _perceived_ as a whole and not as a collection of parts. As such, any “interpretation” of “perceptual information” that results in a “gestalt” is done so unconsciously (hence my question as to what you mean by “cognitive level”). While we can certainly undergo an intentional perceptual shift that reorganizes the constituent into a new whole, the gestalts themselves are still formed at a “perceptual level” (see Jastrow’s duck/rabbit). “Is it a continum?” Absolutely. The split between sensing and thinking is far more artificial than you might imagine. Don’t take my word for it though. Rudolf Arnheim wrote a whole book on it. The introduction I include here:

    “Reasoning, says Schopenhauer, is of feminine nature: it can give only after it has received. Without information on what is going on in time and space the brain cannot work. However, if the purely sensory reflections of the things and events of the outer world occupied the mind in their raw state the information would be of little help. The endless spectacle of ever new particulars might stimulate but would not instruct us. Nothing we can learn about an individual thing is of use unless we find generality in the particular.” -Visual Thinking

    This is why my initial response ( “might be taking my statements too far” as you say. While I apologize if I conflated your article, my position is that the designing of “interaction” as per IxD is equivalent to designing in larger context than traditional design studies. I feel this position is both important and useful if any split between the two (perhaps like the one at SCAD) is to be bridged.

  24. jamesd on

    Excellent Opportunity to Study

    Creativity is a blessing from nature but we can develop it by careful planning through education. This is all the more important in a country like USA where we accept even the mediocre to contribute their best and create something new.
    Hence, it is necessary that parents and teachers provide healthy conditions at home and the school. This would enable children to express themselves and contribute something new for the society, which may be termed as creativity……….

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