“Innovation has nothing to do with how many R&D dollars you have. When Apple came up with the Mac, IBM was spending at least 100 times more on R&D. It's not about money. It's about the people you have, how you're led, and how much you get it.” - Steve Jobs

Can we have a real discussion about IxD EDU?

I first saw that there was a new issue of interactions (the magazine of ACM/SIGCHI) when @jkolko announced it. Right away I clicked on over to the site enticed by the mention of a piece about Education in NYC. Ya see I know big things are happening in NYC with the new SVA MFA in Interaction Design (@svaixd) chaired by @bobulate with co-leadership by an amazing designer, thinker and educator Stephen Heller.

When I arrived at the site, I was dismayed to find that a large portion of the articles were held for ransom by ACM, including the one I wanted to read. “Oh well!” I thought. I guess I’ll try to hit up a friend who is an ACM member or drag my ass down to the Jen Library (“Oh! I work for a university that buys magazines!!!”) here at SCAD (@scaddotedu) [Yes, it is sad that someone got @scad. Poaching Twitter IDs seems to be the new big game.]

In the meantime I was saddled with reading the abstract. I’m going to quote it here:

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.
From “Old School, New School: Teaching Interaction Design In Manhattan” by Alex Wright in interactions XVI.5 – September / October, 2009

I have to admit that that abstract set me off already, and so I knew I wasn’t going to make it the Library I queried every other day or so a Tweeter friend of mine or another person urgently wanting to read this piece. But what got my underwear so tightly pulled up my butt in a wedgie anyway?

  1. IxDA NYC has been around for 1/2 a decade and now represents a few hundred practitioners in NYC. So to say that IxD has been slow to find its feet feels really off to me. I will say that we are a pittance of the AIGA and IDSA community in NYC. But the way this piece comes across it really isn’t fair. To compare any digital profession to critical mass of Silicon Valley is sorta absurd.
  2. His history of NYC new media and UI Design is WAY off. It is totally biased in his experience and not representative of a whole swath of designers who have been working in and about NYC as UI Designers, IAs, and UX Designers for the better part of 15yrs. I could go on and on here about the amazing startup culture of NYC, the financial industry tech sector spurned on by our famous now mayor, the Silicon Alley community that rose in the late 90’s.
  3. Oy! I just hate when people change terms just so they aren’t being redundant, just to further confuse people. No UI Design is not the same as Interaction Design.

So, I persevered until I could get my hands on the article itself. Didn’t want to judge the book by the cover. Finally from 3000 miles away (depending on where my well-traveled friend @steveportigal is this week) I got it via scan of the physical copy in my inbox on my iPhone. I read it right away. I mean its only 4 pages so it didn’t take that long.

Some 3-5 hours later, this poured from my twitter stream (be sure to start from the bottom):

My twitter stream using Tweetie on my Mac

My twitter stream using Tweetie on my Mac

So about an hour later, I am here writing this for you all. I feel like there are a lot of holes in my short pokes and so it does neither myself nor Alex any good to just leave that lying there. So here is what I’m trying to get at. …

Since most won’t be able to read the piece, here is my very biased summary.

  • really bad description of Interaction & UI Design in NYC (as seen above)
  • A short bit about how design education has to juggle several sometimes conflicting priorities.
  • Then jumping in to the SVA program he explains how they ere on the side of pragmatism while being SVA respecting creative freedom. He also mentions that all of SVA’s professors are industry peeps and explains the advantage to that as having a deep connection to reality (I can’t disagree) but he doesn’t then describe the criticism to that, and how most respected design schools try to maintain a mix of lifer educators and adjunct industry professionals. (No space here to explain why being a lifer is important.)
  • Contrasts the SVA program to the long standing NYU ITP program, which is renounce for its creative explorations in areas of interactive telecommunications since well forever. And rightly explains that despite their ardent stance to maintain this philosophy their students end up in positions of leadership all over the world in digital environments of all types.
  • Then there is a brief bit about Parsons
  • Finally a piece about Pratt’s merging of visual design & library science.

And now that we are all caught up … here we go.

I’m actually going to start at the end, because it is the ending with the Pratt program that probably still has me so fired up. A visual design + LS program is not the same as an IxD program. It’s not. Yes, there will be some overlap classes, but beyond philosphy the goals, methods and overall practice is like saying that becoming a chiropractor is like going to med school. “Well they both learn anatomy, right?”

And this is the start of my problem with this piece. (and my problem with much of the UX community in general). Alex, whom I know is very well educated in IA and IxD and has a tremendous vitae to show he knows how to do it all, isn’t being careful. At best we can forgive the lack of fidelity or accuracy because the User Experience community has been too lenient and given us all way too much space to do the equivalent of saying a tree is the same as the forest it lives in (or visa versa).

I was a bit bummed about this b/c a) he didn’t acknowledge that Pratt’s been in the LS game for quite some time; b) the HUGE real missed opportunity at Pratt which is to have an ID/IxD program; c) calling that LS/VD program even slightly the same as ITP, Parsons or SVA a HUGE stretch. iSchool is NOT IxD School. Overlap is not the same as equation. If that is the case then NYU has another program in multimedia and another in HCI. Then there is Columbia’s HCI program, and actually SVA has had a computer arts program for the longest time. And FIT has an interactive design program as well.

But let’s go back to my rant on Twitter. In it I compare NYU/ITP to the Royal College of Art (in London) Designing Interactions program. I claim that here is a meaty comparison to explore. Both are very committed to allowing for creative freedom. However, every canvas has some implied boundary, and every institution has more than in implied philosophy.

NYU/ITP is an amazing program. I am not here to dismiss or discredit the amazing education and I’d even say research in the area of digital art & design that has and continues to take place there. But I know too many who have taken my previous attempts at defining out of “my” sandbox to mean that they don’t have my respect and that is just not true. If I correct you and say that your puppy is a lab instead of a golden retriever, it doesn’t mean there is a change in value or appreciation. Just an understanding of its properties in relationship to other puppies. Same here.

Now, ITP and RCA as noted are both what I would called schools that promote expression and exploration over pragmaticism and direct business practice. But they also differ greatly on what it is they explore. ITP’s focus (not exclusion, but focus) is on the medium. What is “interactivity”; how do we create it; what in the form makes something interactive? It is a class in art & expressionist design; Truly a fine art degree. RCA’s focus is on interactions. These for one are not limited to the digital (and thus interactive) but can include human to human interactions. When we talk about interactions vs. interactivity, what we are distinguishing is which side of the relationship are we going to look at. Study and exploration in interactions is a study in humanities and social science (the other one in art & engineering).

It is THIS dichotomy and by which I mean continuum, that is so much more important than expression vs. practicality. The latter is the personal pre-disposition of the teacher & student. The former is a philosophical debate on where “the answer” lies and what is the meaning and definition of interaction design.

This is why I am upset with Alex’s piece, b/c it so wildly and broadly paints the IxD stroke of paint, that it falls apart due to its lack of inclusion of the many other programs that would have to fit in that same stroke. Further in a magazine like interactions I would have expected something better, stronger and more targeted. Alex’s piece belonged in his own publication the New York Times or Crains (the local business weekly), but not in interactions.

Of course, it begs further the question, why in a magazine who’s chief subscriber based is NOT in the design & art school arena would someone write an article that solely focuses on that arena? Further, how can we talk about these institutions as being educators of IxD and not compare them to more academic and pure HCI programs who also claim to teach this? Lastly, why NYC in an international magazine? Talking about IxD education “styles” so to speak, and not talk about Europe (RCA, CIID, Umea, Malmo, Delft, Einhoven, Utrecht, Pottsdamn, Domus, etc.[and there are many many more]) is to not understand the real depth of IxD EDU.

So yes, as someone deeply engaged in IxD EDU here at SCAD (undergrad only), but with an Interactive Design program that is quite different (but amazing in its own right) just across the street I found this piece to be more an excuse to mention a new program in NYC but to find a way to fairly place it in a greater context, than to really explore the dynamics of IxD EDU.

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  • http://www.alexwright.org/ Alex Wright


    Since you obviously spent some time thinking about my article, I thought I would offer a response:

    – First, you’re right that I’m probably overgeneralizing a bit about the history of interaction design in NYC, although I stand by my broader contention that the practice is not “native” to NYC in the same way it is in Silicon Valley. Not mentioning the history of HCI types in the financial industry is certainly an oversight, though. The point I was really trying to make here is that a dedicated academic program for interaction design is long overdue in NYC (I assume you’d agree?) Certainly didn’t mean to slight the contributions of the local IxDA chapter.

    – As to your broader criticism about looking at the worldwide state of interaction design education, this seems like an unfair criticism given the intended scope of the article (i.e., an overview of interaction design programs in NYC). Criticism of any written work should generally do two things: 1) consider what the author was trying to accomplish, and 2) assess how well he or she accomplished it. In this case, you are taking me to task for an article that I never set out to write.

    – The original idea for this piece was actually to preview the SVA program (this is the “(P)reviews” column, whose raison d’etre is to look at new or forthcoming books, events or other developments of interest to Interaction Design professionals). But in this case we thought it would make sense to widen the context a bit for the benefit of anyone who might be thinking about applying to SVA, to consider the other major NYC programs out there. Yes, there are other programs that might have deserved mention in a longer piece, but it seems pretty clear that right now there are three major NYC schools competing for the same pool of prospective students: ITP, Parsons and (now) SVA. I would agree, however, that including Pratt’s LIS program may have been a bit of a stretch in this context – and I also agree that there’s an opportunity for Pratt to make a stronger push into this space.

    – Finally, it’s worth mentioning that Interactions did indeed run a much broader cover story on the state of professional design education a few months back (http://portal.acm.org/citation.cfm?doid=1390085.1390091) If you were a subscriber, of course, you’d already know this ;)

    Anyway, thanks for taking the time to write up your reactions. Thoughtful criticism is always welcome.

    – Alex

  • dave

    Hi Alex, sorry to let this go so long.
    Thanx for the background info. The little snark about not subscribing though could be returned to ACM … why in this day and age is anything not free. When I can read Core77, UXMatters, Boxes & Arrows, JohnnyHolland.org, etc. all for free, why in the world would I ever waste my $50 on ACM interactions, no?

    But I don’t want our back and forth to loose the important content of my post, which is less a criticism of the article, and more a call to action to create a real language for critiquing various grad programs. I think the simplistic divide that you put forth on practice vs. exploratory misses so much of the nuances of design education generally, and more specifically interaction design education. For example, the roots of a program is very important to look at. Royal College of Art’s program in Designing Interactions could be seen much in the same light as NYU’s ITP program as mentioned in the article. However, they are also completely different and at the same time both have produced amazingly successful alumni. They have very different purposes, philosophies and even missions. Their roots and their ability to intersect different design disciplines also greatly affects how it is their students can or are guided to express, explore and experiment.

    At the same time, the SVA program could be compared most directly to the CMU program in style and type of students who make up their alumni, but looking at your dichotomy there is also the Copenhagen Institute of Interaction Design, which also strikes a more balanced approach to design education, but has a very different less academic structure. Again all 3 programs have very different philosophies, missions and styles of pedagogy. I myself don’t have the exact language to describe these differences so clearly, but it is clear to me that when discussing design education we need to have a much more robust and emotionally intensive language to discuss our options for education and more importantly for industry to understand what it is they are hiring (the meat that comes out of these grinders). It is also important for industry to be able to give proper guidance to educational institutions.

    Basically, I’m just using your piece as hopefully a way to start the BIG conversation about IxD EDU. Personally, I’m torn about the whole thing and often believe that a general design degree that includes IxD in it is a lot more important and valuable than an IxD intensive education. However, I do think that we need places of higher learning that focus on exploring, experimenting, and pushing the definitions and boundaries of the material of interactivity, interaction, human behavior, and technology and this cannot and should not be driven by “market need” at all.


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