Better life through design

What happens when design meets users expectations? Delight? Or a car wreck? Digit spoke to one man who wants to see more of the former and less of the latter.

Jon Kolko, author of a forthcoming book on Mac guru and interface design Jef Raskin, is a professor of interaction design and industrial design at Savannah College of Art and Design in the United States.

The following is an email interview with Kolko.

Digit: What is interaction design?

Jon Kolko: Interaction Design is the creation of a dialogue between a person and a product, service or system. This dialogue is usually found in the world of behavior, and deals with issues such as experience, time, complexity and emotion. While the term has been widely attributed to Bill Moggridge, it was most likely first used in a context of dialogue by John Rheinfrank of Carnegie Mellon University. His usage and definition encompassed notions of empathy, of behavior, and of simplicity - and all three of these words help to shape what Interaction Design is about when applied to problems in business and in culture. 

Simply, interaction designers manage complexity. They make things that are difficult seem easy, and things that are overwhelming seem fluid, and they create structures for cohesive, enjoyable, and even poetic experiences of use. 

The profession has been recently associated with design for the internet, as the internet represents a certain degree of complexity in the sheer quantity of data being chunked and considered at any given time. However, the profession has little to do with technology at all; if you think about it, simple artifacts like doorknobs or lamps require cohesive interaction design, too. A website is conceptually larger and arguably more complicated than a lamp, but both require attention to usability, and to utility, and to happiness. 

Do you consider websites to be significantly more complex than other forms of media such as books, newspapers and television? Is it even correct to think of the web in those terms, or is it inherently more complex?

I think there are two things that makes interaction design more complicated than the design of static two or three dimensional items (but keep in mind that my idea of interaction design certainly can include books, newspapers or television - I don't think interaction design and "the internet" are synonymous by any means).

The first is that interaction occurs in the fourth dimension. Nearly all of our design tools assist in the third dimension. Software, such as Photoshop, Indesign, or Illustrator, all place an emphasis on a concrete and static deliverable. Analog tools, such as clay or even paper and pencil are frequently used to create a single instance of an artifact. We need to develop new tools to support thinking about the fourth dimension of time; scenarios and storyboarding are a start, but there must be a digital way to support the extended use of a product.

The second reason I feel interaction design is more complicated than the design of static items is that interaction design deals with behavior. This means that the designer needs to have some tacit understanding of cognitive psychology, perception, memory, attention, and other more "scientific" issues. Design education typically doesn't attend to these issues, although that is starting to change a bit.

Digit: Do you think that graphic designers could improve their practice by taking greater consideration of ''the behaviors or interactions of an object or system over time with its user population'?

JK:Yes, I certainly do. However, what is more interesting to me is that the modern day definition of Designer is changing, and changing rapidly. While Designers have always considered themselves Renaissance types, I see a very obvious convergence between the Graphic Designer, Industrial Designer, and the aforementioned Interaction Designer. The tools, methods and techniques are the same between these disciplines; the historic difference has been in the dimensionality of the design solution. But Industrial Designers are no longer happy to work only on the plastics, and Graphic Designers have found worth working on web sites, and Interaction Designers are happy to work without regard for medium. I strongly believe that most traditional Graphic and Industrial design work has reached a level of commoditization, and most practicing Designers will soon find themselves adapting as necessary to the offshoring that has occurred, and will continue to occur, in their professions. Part of this adaptation is a shift towards Designer as generalist, or one who can provide value regardless of the medium in which they are required to work. 

Digit: You mean offshoring design work? How common is this in the US? In Europe it seems relatively uncommon at present, thought I have hinted at it darkly in the past as I do see it as a very real possibility.

JK: Certainly; I simply assumed that the status-quo in America was the status-quo in Europe. I can speak only to Industrial Design, but I assume Graphic Design is in the same boat. A friend of mine, the former head of experience design at a major consultancy in the US, used to talk about how they were offshoring their *sketch models* because it was cheaper than maintaining a shop, they could overnight them each way, and the quality was simply amazing. At IDSA in 2005, Lorraine Justice (Head of the School of Design at Hong Kong Polytech) talked about her Industrial Design program; she has - hold on to your hat - one hundred faculty members and one thousand students in her program. And according to Lorraine, the students are really, really good.

I've heard anecdotal evidence of manufacturing and assembly situations in China that throw in design work for free if you go to tooling with them; even the Taiwanese are starting to "offshore" to mainland China, because it simply makes financial sense. has an excellent article about the nature of Design and China. I feel that interaction design, as described above, is one thing that will stay in the US for a bit longer (although that too may ultimately be sent offshore).

Digit: How do you see the function of a designer in society today?

JK: This is an interesting question to me. The importance of Design has never been higher; the attitude Designers have about themselves and of their work has never been stronger, and the media has begun to use the word "Design" rather haphazardly. Unfortunately, the public's perception of Design and of Designers has never been more. blank. The public - society - has no idea what Design is. They don't know how Designers can help them, and they don't understand the process through which Designed solutions come to fruition, and the fault lies squarely on the shoulders of the Designers themselves. 

For all the organizations that exist to professionalize these fields - IDSA, AIGA, ICSID - we still haven't educated the people as to what we do. As a result, Designers are relegated to menial jobs and positions in companies, and we bemoan our lack of responsibility on important projects, and we are paid as a result of our execution rather than our intelligence. Design is the only professional field that I can think of that accepts being paid as a result of what we make, rather than how we think. In a discipline destined, under the present trend, to commoditization, it seems like we have pushed ourselves into a rather dismal corner. 

Digit: How so? Though designers must surely shoulder some responsibility, there seems little space in the media and in education for anyone to explain what design is. Most just people don't care.

JK: Many designers that I know function as Mac monkeys. This is not to say they're not talented and skilful people, just that their work, especially when directly employed by non-design related companies and the media, does not afford much opportunity for creativity.

I think, if people really understood the value of Design - the real value, not the shallow and superficial styling-only layer that has become the norm - they would care. People care about things like health care and business and government and the environment and human rights. These are things that Design can and should affect, but because design (as stylist or pixel pusher) has become a bit of a commodity, designers are seen as a disposable tool. I can't believe that, professionally, we still put up with being paid based on the quality of our execution rather than the quality of our ideas. At least AIGA has made an attempt to create a set of professional ethics for designers regarding pay and compensation, but I would love to see the professional organizations of AIGA and IDSA make some kind of stance about what is and isn't work worth doing at all. This notion of "take any job to survive" will certainly help a small consultancy stay in business, but it's just awful for the long term sustenance of our field. Can you imagine Charles Eames doing the plastics on a Dell monitor?

Note: We may earn a commission when you buy through links on our site, at no extra cost to you. This doesn't affect our editorial independence. Learn more.

Read Next...