Dilution of a field

Not sure how I feel about this latest announcement of the RCA‘s new Head of Department Tony Dunne. The Interaction design department (which apart from IDII and Umea was the only other school teaching a less Xerox park approach to the field is renaming itself “Design Interactions”.

“The focus of the department is shifting, and although electronics and computing will remain at the heart of the course, we will begin to explore how design can connect with other technologies, such as biotechnology and nanotechnology. The course has been restructured to reflect this shift and was validated in March 2006.

Design Interactions is a small change, but we think it is significant. It reflects our emphasis on designing interactions of all kinds – not just between people and digital technologies, or even other emerging technologies, but also between people and possible futures, and between design and other fields of art and science.

At the last summer show, we characterised the thrust of the department as follows: ‘Design Interactions explores new roles, contexts and approaches for design in relation to the social, cultural and ethical impact of existing and emerging technologies. Projects, which are often speculative and critical, aim to inspire debate about the human consequences of different technological futures – both positive and negative. Students work closely with people outside the College, designing for the complex, troubled people we are, rather than the easily satisfied consumers and users we are supposed to be. Project outcomes are expressed through a variety of media including prototypes, simulations, video and photography. The students have backgrounds in art and design, computer science, engineering and psychology.” from Regine’s wmmna.

I think there is something very sad here which is the loss of a focus on making technology more usable and more human in every form. Physical computing is one of the ways in which that can present itself. And a field which turn inwardly toward catering to less and less consumer-relevant ideas, quickly slips into the realm of art. If the disappearance of IDII and this shift in the RCA are to indicate a trend in my field, then i wish everyone would support CIID‘s growth even more.

In Europe and the UK, there needs to be a space for professionals to learn to understand people, their needs, the business opportunities that design can bring, that fosters the growth of user-centered design in meaningful and playful ways, instead of veering towards the edges of the Bell curve and become design “comments” like the world of product design has become.

By designswarm

Blogging since 2005.


  1. One could argue that a lot of projects from the RCA’s program already lean towards art. Which is why I decided to go to Ivrea instead of the RCA program.

  2. Agreed, however this program was born out of HCI after all, and yes most projects were always more “artsy” but there were others (the ones that didnt make it on we-make-money-not-art) that were always very pragmatic and interesting. Now they are definitely positioning themselves in a very specific way that will influence who applies and why they apply. Will they end up with more art students applying and less product designers? It would be interesting to see.

    Yes i did apply to them as well…: )

  3. I have to disagree with you slightly here…cause not all art pieces are so called “artsy.” Some have still explored social context via products (on the top of my head, I can only think of Alice Wang’s Peer Pressure project, a camera project and perhaps the tapes, but I remember there were a few more.)

    RCA tends to try and be different, to be the lead, so perhaps they are just slightly ahead of the others courses and exploring issues we’re not used to seeing?

  4. i remember reading ars electronica’s programme in 2005. there was this piece called Bondage by atau tanaka. i thought “what is ars electronica thinking? that’s not an interaction art piece i’d expect from them? how dissapointing!” Bondage turned out to be the most mesmerizing piece i’ve ever seen. one shouldn’t judge and decide that something is good or wrong (especially anything called “interactive”) before actually seeing and engaging with it.
    Besides, Diane is right, there was plenty of “old style” interaction design pieces at the show. why some people want to ignore it and point the finger to fungi and biotech projects only is a mystery to me. Some people will need time to see that all that can actually co-exist and feed each other. i could go on and on, about business oportunities and biotech, about broadening a field (instead of diluting it), about broadening your mind (instead of diluting it) but i’ve got better thing to do right now

  5. I find it interesting that you are thinking that RCA would be the only course that would be forward- thinking… explorations of issues we’re not used to seeing is the role of any innovative endeavor academic or not. I guess that what i am doubtful about here is the ability to inspire changes in a shorter timeframe. I don’t mean to say that art and technologies like biotechnologies and nanotechnologies are uninteresting, but for example if we look at the opportunities that technologies that are available now present, to design poetic, playful, sustainable and inspiring services, products, interactions is already a tremendous challenge for academic circles. With the current massive changes we’re experiencing, it might be more forward-thinking to get people to think about next generations of communications without airplanes or fossil fuels :) As for “old style” interaction design, I’m not sure what that term means, as an industrial designer,and the last of a generation of interaction design students, i strongly believe interaction design is in it’s infancy.

  6. “one shouldn’t judge and decide that something is good or wrong (especially anything called “interactive”) before actually seeing and engaging with it.”

    I think that the quote above, illustrates the problem. No matter in which order you put design and interactions its about experiencing the projects. Me and others that visited the exhibit did not feel invited to experience much, maybe we are getting dull.

    I personally felt that i saw a lot of manifests for very wide topics. Manifests that did not feel zoomed in enough to a context manageable in a thesis. I’m looking forward to seeing how it all comes together in the final exhibit.

  7. Matt: well i am teaching a service design class this week :)

    I’m actually quite glad that this is bringing up conversations over what we should or are expected to produce in academic environments and where interactions start and stop. I was chatting with Chris O’Shea and Andy Huntington about the exhibition and I’m actually finding it funny that this conversation is happening around a post that’s more than 3 months old now.

    This conversation never gets old.

  8. Hi Mathias, I’m interested in your comment about experience and interactivity. If we must limit ourselves to projects others can experience isn’t there a danger that designers are limiting the scope of their involvement in bigger issues? Some projects cannot not be experienced first hand. I think we should be careful not to be dogmatic about interactivity and experience. Sometimes projects can be experienced and sometimes they can’t. If we only accept projects that provide instant gratification and quick hits, then we are missing a whole world of possibilities that lie beyond prototyping and first hand experience. I think there is a difference between projects where interactivity is the medium and ones where it is either the subject or an element in the overall design. Exploring interactivity as a medium in itself is fine, but it is not the only way of doing interaction design. Does ‘experiencing’ a work not include our minds and imaginations as well as our bodies?

  9. Sam: What’s interesting here is to think of the rules under which prototyping works or is just a one-liner. I think the entire world of “interactive art” has made that difference very clear. If it’s done properly it’s not only providing “instant gratification” but actually demonstrating the quality of the human interaction and the feasibility of such an interaction. If I look at some of the past projects from friends of mine, their execution not only demonstrated the concept but made it real, embedded it in people’s lives now with the social, cultural and economic contexts that surround them.

  10. Sam: If you cant experience it, why exhibiting it? With that said, in the above text i did not define experience as a hands on experience or one liner projects. Maybe I am just trying to say that design usual has an desired effect by its designer, which would be a experience (tactile and/or intellectual), unless we have stumbled into the grim border zone between modern art and design and leave it up to our audience :)
    I tried to point out that I expect a designer to invite us more to their ideas, a setting, props, a video. I can ready manifests anywhere but i expect a exhibit to complement that with something else.
    I have been down that road of being to bound to text as a medium, in the end it was a frustrating experience.

  11. mathias: “if you can’t experience it, why exhibit it?”. to get a discussion going, to see what people think, to engage people before something is actually realised… i think if we were only allowed to exhibit things we can experience then it would simply reflect life as it already exists and what can be easily built or prototyped. you could never experience a building before it is built but sometimes exhibiting (models, drawings, fly throughs, 1:1 bits) it is still good so that people can see what is on the way, challenge it or look forward to it.

    and now for the controversial bit: i don’t think people who exhibit have a responsibility to the audience, they are not entertainers. people can choose for themselves to engage or not. just as the exhibitor can choose to try and woo the audience or limit the rwork to people who look for it and seek it out.

    personally i don’t recognise a border betwen design and art, it is a contiuum where you can find hardcore design and harcore art, designerly art and art design, and i am very glad of this confusion, it makes me think and feel alive when i am confronted with something i don’t quite get.

    basically, i believe there is room for many approaches, catchy, esoteric, popularist and obscure. we should be wary of rules and dogma and celebrate diversity and difference.

  12. Hmm, i have to disagree with you on these last points Sam. I think “au contraire” that the designer has an audience and a responsability towards it. Design is all about intention and intention towards the use of something by people. Architecture has always been recognized as not being particularly user friendly in the design process but even that is changing. I think that if the audience does not matter it is art. Design comes from the idea of solving a problem that is speaking to an audience whichever one it might be.

  13. If we are to embrace diversity and diffrent approches, why do we need to define experience to a hands on experience of object or interface?I am happy to see plans, drawings, challenges. They are all experiences.

    Personally I do believe that if you claim to be exhibiting designed object, it has notion of planning, process and goal. Now that process can be quit different from each other.

    If we are to remove the accountability of the object, that is to say we have no responsibility for the design or its outcome. Do we actually need design anymore?

    A few years back at a lets say interaction design exhibit a guy stood up and asked “Why does good music always have to be depressing. Where is the joy?” I think that summarizes my feelings of the exhibit some days later. Where was that joy?

    In retrospect, maybe all i am saying is… We have sin killing pillows, we have electrocuted us at the table, beaten each other with fight suits. is that all new technology does?

  14. Alexandra: I think design definitely has a responsibility to people and society, absolutely! but I don’t think exhibitions always do. They are just one format or way of showing work. Interactive exhibits in a place like a science museum do of course need to engage. But a student work in progress show is an opportunity to glimpse work before it has reached a conclusion, to see things taking shape and for students to experiment. Some work will enage, some won’t. Students have very diffgerent aims. And not all of it needs to engage everyone. If we go down the pluralist route then it is ineviatble that some owrk will appeal to smaller niches, but ideally, in a much deeper way.

    Matthias: I agree with you. There should be more joy in design! But we live in such troubled and terrible times. It is difficult for some designers to turn their backs on the realities of the world we live in while at the same time feeling powerless to do anything significant. Maybe satire is one way of dealing with this.

  15. “But we live in such troubled and terrible times. It is difficult for some designers to turn their backs on the realities of the world we live in while at the same time feeling powerless to do anything significant.”

    I wonder how many times Negroponte has heard this in his life esp. now that he has developed the “One laptop per child” project. The Eames significantly changed the design culture in India, and I wont even talk about the number of design innovations in the medical world. You can choose satire or you can choose to face the problems and design.

  16. I Think the key work here is ‘choose’, as long as people can choose which path they wish to pusrsue then things will be ok.

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