“At .net magazine, we get a lot of emails from web design students expressing dissatisfaction with their courses. That may be the nature of the beast – people don’t often contact the press to tell them how content they are – but the number of complaints is striking. And when I mention this to Liz Danzico, chair and co-founder of the MFA in Interaction Design program at New York’s School of Visual Arts, there’s no surprise in her reaction: she’s heard a lot of similar comments herself. Danzico’s course, though, takes a different approach. Although many of those who enroll are interested in pursuing web design, the syllabus is less about coding and specific web technologies and more about a wider design philosophy. Interaction Design is about observing and designing for the relationship between people over time”, [Liz] explains. “That could be how it feels to swipe between screens on an iPad or iPhone, or something as simple as the way a door communicates to you that it’s push or pull.” Rather than just building homepages, her students get to do things such as experiment with prototyping products, using everything from woodworking to 3D printers. Even when they do tackle coding, it’s not what you’d expect. “The coding class doesn’t actually touch a screen or any kind of device for three or four weeks,” Danzico explains. “So they learn about variables and loops and the logic of code programming in paper format. Among humans. That way, they learn about decision making. And so when they go to actually design for a mobile device or a website, that foundational knowledge they have about how the things work give them a much richer sense in terms of larger system.” It’s a radical approach that offers wide horizons and rewards an open mind. “It’s not a vocational course,” stresses Danzico. “My students are more interested in the way that interaction design can influence their thinking such that they can apply that to other areas. That may be someone who ultimately wants to go into web design, or someone who’s already a web designer who wants to move into other areas.” It’s not a unique concept, but it is a rarity. “There are a couple of universities in the States that teach interaction design and a handful in Europe, in Scandinavia,” Danzico explains. “Even for a small narrow field they’re all quite different.” One thing that marks out her course is that all the faculty members work in the industry. What’s truly fascinating to Danzico is the crosspollination of disciplines that takes place. “You have to consider how this person, who’s studied neuroscience and fine arts, but who now wants to be an interaction designer, is going to work with the industrial designer, who’s always been a practitioner. It’s the mingling of completely different cultures. They all have the same kind of ideas but such different reference points.”
Continue reading in the December 2011 issue of .net Magazine.