What is interaction design?
Katie Koch: Interaction design is a holistic process of thinking about an unmet need. The process includes observing and defining a problem, imagining possibilities for how we might fix it, and implementing and testing our ideas in the form of prototyping. The problems we address range from the ways you use your cell phone, to how you get money out of an ATM, to how you order and receive your Netflix DVDs.
Carmen Dukes: It’s important for interaction designers to understand the people who experience the products and services we build. It’s our responsibility to evolve our ideas to accommodate the needs of the people who interact with them.
How did Project: Interaction come to be?
Katie: Carmen and I met in the MFA in Interaction Design program at the School of Visual Arts (SVA). I started my career in graphic design and have been a long-time design evangelist. My practice as a designer helped me have a greater understanding of the world around me and fueled my interest in studying the people and things in my environment. So last year I decided to return to graduate school.
Carmen: My background is in film and television and currently I work in web and mobile production. In my spare time, I’ve spent hours studying game design and how successful games create meaningful experiences. The overlap of these personal passions led me to the field of interaction design.
Katie: During the first week of classes at SVA, we both attended a lecture by accomplished interaction designer Kim Goodwin. She issued a call to action for designers to educate and train people to employ creative thinking to solve day-to-day tough problems. Carmen and I walked away with the same thought: why isn’t anyone teaching these skills to kids?
Why did you decide to work with high school students?
Katie: If you ask any designer where she first learned about design she will likely be able to recall a specific moment that opened her eyes to this world. In high school I was very much into math and science classes and engaged with art in my free time, for fun. I didn’t know about design as a way to use my logical left brain and my creative right brain together to create artifacts and experiences that make people’s lives clearer, easier, and more fulfilling. High school students are often investigating broad sets of interests, figuring out what their personal passions are while beginning to understand and establish their place in the bigger picture beyond school. They are at a crossroads in many ways and I imagine many would be delighted by the discovery of design just as I was.
Carmen: A knowledge of design methods is a transferable skill set. Giving students a toolkit that they can use to explore and solve problems that matter to them will be powerful no matter where their future careers lead them.
Before the semester begins, you are asking the students to complete a survey about their existing knowledge of design. What will you ask them and how do you hope to use their answers?
Katie: We will start by asking the students to draw a picture of their favorite place in New York City. Then, to answer questions about their favorite school subjects, what kinds of activities they like, and why they want to be in the program. We want to find out what knowledge the students already have so we can leverage and build upon their existing interests.
Carmen: This exercise is also a simple way for us to begin to get a sense of our students’ personalities. The more we can get to know our class, the better learning experience we can provide.
Tell us a little about the curriculum and planned program for your first semester of Project: Interaction.
Katie: The first few weeks will be spent covering design basics, talking about what design is, how to observe the people and places around us, and how to develop new ideas. We’ll take a field trip to a working design studio, R/GA, so students can see how designers work together in the context of a business. Then we’ll spend a couple of weeks on more intensive topics like the increased availability of mobile devices as a way to connect to other people and communities. The class will end with a three-week project that the students can share with parents, teachers and their schoolmates.
Carmen: The goal of our curriculum is to expose our students to design in a relatable and tangible way. It is critical that we engage them by using all the senses, so in-class activities and assignments will be hands-on — rapid sketching sessions, prototyping with Legos and letting them act out their ideas.
Katie: Our students might be surprised when they come to our first class. We want to show them that you don’t need a fancy computer to start designing; anyone can start by sketching with only a pencil and paper. We expect that the students will want to start using a computer or other device to help them solve the problems we present to them but we think it’s important to learn first how to approach issues using their brains before relying on a machine to support their thinking.
Your curriculum overview shows that you plan on staying very NYC-specific. Why did you choose such a place-based approach to the subject?
Katie: A lot of the concepts we’re presenting are fairly abstract. We wanted to ground the program in something the students are already familiar with. New York is a city made up of communities, and that’s a theme that the students will already understand.
Carmen: We want the students to rethink parts of New York City they see everyday; for example, offsetting the experience of a crowded subway commute with better bike lanes or creating green spaces for enjoyment, collaboration or recreation.
We received a lot of advice from educators about the importance of making each lesson in our program meaningful for student retention and engagement, so it was critical to us that we create connections between the city and our students. The curriculum we’ve designed will help them explore the city and the final project will give them an opportunity to apply their new-found design skills to a project that impacts their immediate community. We’re excited to be working with folks from Transportation Alternatives for the final project. They will work with the kids to observe and document city life on the street outside their school and envision ways to better utilize the space for the people who use it each day.
Katie: Ultimately, we hope our students will walk away from the class with the understanding that practically everything around them is designed, and that they, too, can participate in shaping their world.
How are you balancing the curriculum to reflect both the more consumer-driven side of design practice and the potential for design to effect social change?
Katie: Because of the way they think, designers are in a unique position to incite changes in the practice of design and in the business of the clients with whom they work. There are plenty of design studios that are focused on sustainable practices or are incorporating design for good into their services. Designers think through problems by reframing how they see them, and they often act as change makers because of their unique perspective. We’d like to reinforce that idea with our students.
Carmen: We will talk about both commercial and social design, depending on the lesson, so that students will have a comprehensive understanding of what role design has in an organization. The similarity between design firms focused on designing products for consumers and those focused on design for social change is their process for defining a problem or unmet need and arriving at the right solution. These are the methods that we are teaching.
Carmen Dukes is a digital producer at Hit Entertainment where she is responsible for creating games and websites for global kids brands including Barney and Friends and Bob the Builder. Previously, she worked at VH1.com where she developed interactive content in support of VH1’s popular Celebreality shows. Her professional interests include video game mechanics for interaction, sustainable product design, data visualization, and educational technology.
Katie Koch is a web designer from the Midwest, by way of Brooklyn. She has designed and developed interactive projects ranging from corporate and nonprofit websites, online communities, mobile applications, and user interface designs. A typographer at heart, Katie is a details and information enthusiast whose passion for simplicity drives every aspect of her work in design and user experience.