Title: Interactive Design: A Profession in Search of Professional Education.
Authors: Murray, Janet H.
Source: Chronicle of Higher Education; 4/23/99, Vol. 45 Issue 33, pB4, 2p, 1c
Document Type: Article
Subject Terms: *COMPUTER science
*INTERACTIVE computer systems
*TECHNICAL education
NAICS/Industry Codes: 61151 Technical and Trade Schools
Abstract: Focuses on interactive design and the role it will play in shaping the future of education. How interactive design differs from computer programming and visual design; How interactive design has grown since the 1980s; What must be done to design a curriculum for educating students in interactive design that will work well at a large numbers of colleges and universities.
Full Text Word Count: 2556
ISSN: 0009-5982
Accession Number: 1791036
Persistent link to this record: http://0-search.epnet.com.library.winthrop.edu:80/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&an=1791036
Database: Academic Search Premier
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INTERACTIVE DESIGN is a new field that will play a crucial role in shaping the future of education, communication, commerce, and the arts in the 21st century. Yet astonishingly, only a handful of people are being educated in the field.

Interactive design is distinct from computer programming and from visual design--fields with which it is often confused. An interactive designer conceptualizes an application, whether it is meant for learning Greek, telling a story, selling products on the Internet, or delivering the news. The designer determines the appearance of the information we seek on the World-Wide Web and the process by which we reach it; determines how a CO-ROM behaves, and how a user must behave to use it. Whether a new digital product comes to us on the Web, on digital video disk, or over the emerging medium of digital television, it has been shaped by an interactive designer--more than likely, one who has never trained for the profession.

Just as new buildings require architects and new films require directors, new software applications require interactive designers. These people are the architects of cyberspace--not the electronic architects who design the hardware and orchestrate the flow of bits, but the information architects who design the way people navigate cyberspace and who orchestrate users' ability to gain access to and manipulate content. Electrical engineers are inventing cyberspace as a medium for transmitting data. Interactive designers are inventing cyberspace as a medium of communication.

Just as an architect might also be a builder (or a director might be a screenwriter), an interactive designer might be a programmer. Computer scientists have become increasingly aware of the need for "bringing design to software" (as the title of the groundbreaking anthology edited by Terry Winograd identifies the task), but interactive design is not merely an extension of software engineering. It requires visual and verbal skills, and an understanding of cognitive processes. Most of all, it requires the ability to think beyond the current environment, to invent the new conventions of interaction that will transform the exponential increase in available information into a corresponding advance in human knowledge.

In the early days of computer development, just a few decades ago, it was possible to practice interactive design only in sophisticated research environments, like Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center, where the desktop interface was invented in the 1970s. In the 1980s, as the personal computer was introduced, the practice of "interface design" grew, building on the traditions of industrial design. The enlightened and imaginative graphics standards set by Apple Computer, and the work of pioneering practitioner-theorists like Ben Shneiderman and Brenda Laurel, drew attention to the new field as both a science and an art.

Now the rapid growth of the World-Wide Web has set off an explosion of computer-based communication. Information in all formats--including text, still images, moving images, and interactive simulations--is migrating into digital form more rapidly than we can absorb it. Teachers, journalists, hackers, hobbyists, mom-and pop entrepreneurs, technical writers, filmmakers, television producers, advertisers, and especially self-trained young people have been designing as they go, improvising the frameworks in which they offer and retrieve information across the global network. They are less interested in engineering or aesthetic principles than they are in getting the job done before the platform changes underneath them.

The result is a wonderful proliferation of digital content, but a confused sense of form. The more we demand of software programs, the more impossible they become to learn. The more information we seek on line, the less likely we are to find what we are looking for. The faster we propel ourselves into the digital future, the more likely we are to reproduce ,the cumbersome conventions of legacy media. We are still recreating the instrument panel, the card catalogue, the lecture, and the page, when we should be exploiting the potential of the computer to organize, segment, contain, retrieve, display, and juxtapose information in more-coherent and powerful formats.

To the extent that the digital medium is becoming more responsive to our needs, it is the work of a near-phantom profession--the interactive designers, often practicing under other professional titles, who are slowly establishing the conventions of the new medium, the genres of information transmission that will extend the ways in which we think about the world. Those conventions can be as small as a blinking cursor or as large as a global indexing system. They can be as specific as a navigation structure for a single Web site or as general as a controlled vocabulary for tagging educational material. Every new invention makes the computer environment more coherent, turning it into one of the "things that make us smarter," as the cognitive scientist Donald Norman aptly describes the effect of the well-designed tool. Such innovations build on expert practices, but they are successful largely because their creators have gone beyond their professional training, drawing on a sense of what is newly possible.

But though there may be no established tradition of interactive design, there is an increasingly urgent demand for designers. The job market for "Web designers" or "CD-ROM/DVD-ROM producers" or "enhanced TV" gurus may fluctuate wildly over the coming years, but the need for interactive designers will steadily increase. In the past year, since the publication of my book, Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace, I have met or heard from hundreds of young practitioners looking for better professional training. I have also become acquainted with excellent university programs around the country, but I have been struck by how little they have in common with one another.

Currently, people preparing for a career as an interactive designer can choose to train in a range of wildly disparate fields, including computer science, graphic design, communications, media studies, educational theory, psychology, and library science. Each of these disciplines has a different model of what a computer is. The best-organized approach by far is the multidisciplinary field of human-computer interaction. It is rooted in the industrial-design model of the computer as an "information appliance," a tool for doing familiar tasks, and which--like an oven or a typewriter--can be assessed according to its "usability." Graphic designers, on the other hand, are trained to see the computer screen as just another billboard or magazine cover to be judged by visual criteria. Put those two kinds of professionals together on a design team, and they won't be able to decide if they are making a toaster or a poster.

The situation only gets worse as more experts are drawn in. To programmers, the computer is shaped like whichever software architecture they have been trained in, which means that what may seem to a layman like a technical decision is often just a statement of allegiance, like loyalty to a baseball team. Communications departments see the Internet as a global telephone wire, while information scientists view it as one huge data base. Librarians may look upon the computer as the mother of all card catalogues, but psychologists tell us that it plays a role more like Mother herself, as another "social actor" on the stage of human society. On the East Coast, postmodern literary critics tend to see the computer as a fragmented book, while on the West Coast, cinema scholars often view it as a morphing movie. Meanwhile, business schools are preparing their graduates to operate in a vast virtual shopping center.

Each of those models of the computer is accurate in its way, and each of those disciplines has something important to contribute to the training of interactive designers. As a result, students often finish one prestigious master's program only to enroll immediately in a second one. Or they may opt out of the degree system altogether, investing in a short-term certificate program in "new media," though the software tools they learn there may be out of date in a year or two.

Even if prospective design professionals were to master all of the relevant disciplines and all of the latest software tools in a reasonable amount of time, they would still find themselves ill-trained for the open-ended tasks that confront us as we struggle to reinvent the university, the library, and the daily newspaper for the digital age. What we need is a conceptual framework, a shared design vocabulary that draws on various fields and enables interactive-media professionals to talk with one another across specialties.

UNIVERSITIES should be offering standardized professional training grounded in principles that do not change, even though the software and hardware environments may continue to morph in the decades ahead. Although a few institutions--such as Berkeley, Carnegie Mellon, DePaul, Georgia Tech, Maryland, N.Y.U., Rensselaer, and Stanford--are gallantly moving in that direction, often driven by a single visionary or a fortuitous assortment of muitidisciplinary specialists, we are still very far from defining a curriculum that will work well at large numbers of institutions.

To do so, we will have to shift our perception, to see interactive design as separate from the many fields that have claimed it--as an independent discipline with its own goals, methods, and competencies.

A crucial step in that direction will be a shift to understanding the computer as a representational medium in its own right. Significantly, we now refer to Web sites and CD-ROMS as "multimedia," just as, in the early days of filmmaking, we referred to narrative films as "photoplays"--the result of aiming a stationary camera at a theatrical stage. Movies became movies when we learned to move the camera, adjust the lighting, and splice the film. More recently, film schools have enhanced the understanding and practice of film art by codifying and disseminating knowledge of those techniques. What is needed now is a similar effort for interactive design, a new standard of practice reinforced by an integrated conception of the medium.

A design curriculum based on the representational properties of the computer--such as its ability to display simulations, to invite participation, to retrieve information in multiple configurations, to model navigable space--would allow us to make the designer's tasks and goals concrete without confining them to any single predigital disciplinary tradition or theoretical model.

For example, a curriculum aimed at teaching designers how to shape the behavior of the interacter might draw on the formulaic traditions of ritual, epic song, folk choreography, and commedia dell'arte, as well as on the standards of user-interface development. A curriculum aimed at developing expertise in spatial navigation could draw on the mythology of the labyrinth, the history of imaginary spaces as memory aids, the "pattern languages" of architectural theory and urban design, and the geographer's understanding of human spatial behavior, as well as on the history of video-game design. A curriculum aimed at teaching students how to segment information for coherent retrieval might draw on controlled vocabularies like the Library of Congress's subject index, temporal segmentation in Eisenstein's film montage, Vladimir Propp's narrative segmentation of the Russian folktale, and Edward Tufte's analysis of visual economy, as well as on the principles of data-base design.

Engineers need a broader cultural context for the work of "interaction design" (as they are increasingly calling it); so, too, non-engineers need a more concrete understanding of software. Concepts like recursion, abstraction, modularity, primitiveness, encapsulation, and emergence can be taught without demanding mastery of mathematical notation or any particular programming syntax. Students with verbal and visual skills should not be excluded from learning to think procedurally, as they often are in team-based programs. A live-action role-playing game set in the French Revolution can be as valuable a demonstration of simulation design as a C++ model of the stock market.

Just as artists are trained with figure drawing and engineers are trained with problem sets, interactive designers should be trained with hands-on interactive projects. That is often not the case, and even when it is, the projects are not part of a structured curriculum with clearly focused design goals. As a result, students have few guidelines to evaluate their work, and sometimes they leave an educational program with a confused sense of what makes one solution better than another. More often than not, in both educational and commercial environments, the term "intuitive" is used to cover up the fact that design values are too ill-defined to state directly. Or students may be offered reliable but narrow criteria that apply to a part of a project but not to its overall conception.

WE DO NOT NEED DESIGNERS who can produce more-attractive interfaces with the same formats of communication. We need designers who can re-think the processes of communication, exploiting the capacity of the digital environment to be more responsive to human needs. Such people must be exposed to many genres of interactive applications, so that they can develop a repertoire of design strategies.

A curriculum that combined enduring principles with hands-on practice would offer several advantages. First, it would overcome existing disciplinary barriers, eliminating the need for students to earn more than one degree. Second, the process of developing the curriculum would foster useful collaboration among faculty members across departments that historically have been quite separate, refreshing practice and (one hopes) eliminating jargon all around. Third, a principle-based curriculum would accommodate changes in software and hardware platforms and would provide students with durable underpinnings for a professional career. Fourth, a curriculum oriented toward making things would be less susceptible to fads in media theory than would one limited to analyzing things already made. Fifth, professionalizing the field would provide a common design vocabulary for practitioners from different institutions and different subspecialties. Finally, such changes would result in a significant advance in professional practice, which would speed the process of innovation.

How do we get there from here? The solutions emerging so far are tied to particular innovators who are working to create new courses or whole new academic programs. They need the advocacy of colleagues or administrators, and they need the financial support of industry partners, who stand to benefit from their work. Although computer-science and social-science departments have more experience with research programs financed by industry, the humanities and arts are also promising venues worthy of support. They offer new areas of application that can enhance the expressiveness of the medium, as well as an expanded conceptual repertoire. The healthiest programs will be those that draw equally on the empirical bent of engineers and social scientists and on the cultural knowledge and expressiveness of humanists and artists.

A network of professional interactive-design programs, well-grounded in both the humanist and scientific traditions, could bring us digital art that would capture the human condition in ways we could not even express before, and digital libraries that would place human knowledge literally at the fingertips of every child on earth. Of course, a powerful representational medium could also be put to destructive uses, fostering isolation and empty consumerism, and turning education itself into an impersonal global commodity. Both the promises and the perils make it all the more compelling that we address the task of educating the professionals who will shape the digital landscape in our collective human image.


By Janet H. Murray

Janet H. Murray is a senior research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She is the author of Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace (The Free Press, 1997).

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