Reflections On Teaching Design History, Year Two

I teach a class covering Design History at the SVA MFA Interaction Design Program. This is my second year teaching it, and I thought I’d try to recap what I learned and put down some ideas for next year.

This is a survey course, and it covers mainly the period between the Arts and Craft Movement until the early 2000’s. I use a mix of lecture, readings, class participation, and a final paper/presentation to get the students through a decent amount of material over a long period of time. The syllabus is here, and we use the Meggs design history as the baseline text, although I supplement with several readings. There are several challenges that I am grappling with that I think I can only attempt to minimize:

  • The class has only six sessions over seven weeks. Yes, you read that correctly. The sessions are nearly three hours, but that presents an issue of fatigue on everyone’s part.
  • About half the students from non-design backgrounds, so a lot of remediation is required. The other half often come from deep design backgrounds and some of this is too general for them.
  • The student body is incredibly diverse, coming from multiple countries, so the European/North American focus of much of what most materials covers may not be familiar to them, especially the cultural references.

What Worked
Based on last year’s class outcomes, I changed up the research assignment from something more speculative (you can see last year’s project here) to a more straightforward paper/presentation, with the topic up to the students. I also tried to break up the class sessions with more participation, and that worked better, but still not quite enough. I think the scope of material is appropriate, but could use some tightening up along thematic lines.

What Didn’t Work
Two main takeaways from this year were in the negative column: I still lecture too much, and the material is too dry. The scope of the class is overly broad, covering multiple design fields and movements over a long period. I need to communicate a lot of material to even establish a baseline, I feel, but it ends up sucking the life out of what already can be dry material. I also need to make the materials more inclusive from a gender and cultural perspective, since an acknowledged deficit is that the field suffers from the kinds of biases prevalent in other academic fields.

Next Year
I’m going to restructure the class along broad thematic lines and align materials and lectures to those. It should look something more like this:

  • Communications – graphic and communication design, including movements from late 1800’s to later 1900’s. This might take two classes
  • Objects – industrial design and industrialization
  • Interactions – the impact of computation and networks. This also might take two classes.
  • Systems and Environments – origins of usability, user research, service design, design thinking.
  • I am looking into switching the baseline text to Victor Margolin’s new World History of Design.
  • I want to work on providing better reading prompts for the students, and then involve them more deeply in in-class discussions of the work. Hopefully this means I can lecture less, or at least break things up more.

The Limits Of A Data-Driven Approach

Because we lack the conventional metrics to define and measure, for example, the hardships of walking, we don’t design and enforce solutions or adopt targeted public policies.

Designers in almost all fields make critical decisions based on their domain knowledge, observable conditions, and of course data. More and more, incredible amounts of finely grained and immediately available (and updated) data is required to be incorporated into product decisions. Given the quantitative nature of some of this data, it is often judged to be unbiased, truthful, and complete. Few people take the time to question the data – not the accuracy per se, but what is (and is not) being measured.

This article highlights the assumptions and challenges urban planners encounter when considering the health of our cities. It also shows how qualitative data can be used to make clear problems that purely quantitative approaches often fail at capturing. Indeed, its hard to imagine the level of instrumentation required to provide the nuance captured in a stroll down a city street.


2015 Reading List

Regrettably another year goes by in which I’ve read more books than I’ve posted posts to this site. That said, some awesome fiction, non-fiction and biographies.


The Wright Brothers
By David McCullough – great read for anyone interested in product development. The cool intensity with which these men worked to kickstart manned flight is inspiring. Also worth noting the backdrop within which they worked.

Between The World And Me
Ta-Nehisi Coates – a critical and heart-rending letter from a father to his son, I found this very moving. I hope to see this as required reading in schools.

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End
Gawande, Atul – thoughtful and sobering look at end of life and how our society (mis)manages it.

Independence Lost: Lives on the Edge of the American Revolution
DuVal, Kathleen – only got about 1/3 through this, but intend to keep at it.

Understanding Iraq: The Whole Sweep of Iraqi History, from Genghis Khan’s Mongols to the Ottoman Turks to the British Mandate to the American Occupation.
Polk, William R. – I read this along with my daughter for her class, and found it really engrossing. American and Western foreign policy can be deeply shameful.

One Summer: America, 1927
Bryson, Bill – I couldn’t finish this. Interesting, but highly repetitive and loaded with random trivia that ended up occluding the main theme.

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind
Harari, Yuval Noah – I absolutely was riveted for the first 2/3 of this unusual history of mankind. The last 1/3 really let me down, though.


The Girl in the Spider’s Web: A Lisbeth Salander novel, continuing Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Series
Lagercrantz, David – more tightly written than anything Stieg Larsson wrote.

H Is For Hawk
Macdonald, Helen – deeply interesting and funny at times.

Fortune Smiles: Stories
Johnson, Adam – intense and disturbing stories.

The Water Knife: A novel
Bacigalupi, Paolo

The Narrow Road to the Deep North: A novel
Flanagan, Richard – Intense novel of POWS captured by Japan in WW2. Beautifully written, with a love story to boot.

I Am Pilgrim: A Thriller
Hayes, Terry – perfect for the beach with a beer in hand.

Area X: The Southern Reach Trilogy: Annihilation; Authority; Acceptance
VanderMeer, Jeff

The Martian
Weir, Andy – Super fast and fun read, but definitely not a great work of fiction.


Notable Articles

The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration
Ta-Nehisi Coates was on fire this year. Very important read.

Design Thinking Comes of Age

Paradigms Lost
Excellent essay on how to properly look at science.

It’s Not Climate Change — It’s Everything Change — Matter — Medium

The end of capitalism has begun
Quick overview of what the post-captalist era is looking like.

Moving Beyond Design Thinking

This has to be one of the clearest articulations of Design Thinking I’ve come across in a while. In the course of talking about moving beyond Design Thinking to something the authors call “intervention”, they do an excellent job of embedding an explanation in the context of how it should be used and built upon.

The principles of this approach are clear and consistent. Intervention is a multistep process—consisting of many small steps, not a few big ones. Along the entire journey interactions with the users of a complex artifact are essential to weeding out bad designs and building confidence in the success of good ones.

Slipped Crown

Stephen Johnson zeroes in on some of the challenges using the Apple Watch, and specifically the Digital Crown (the main controller for the device, which sits on the side like an analog watch). I don’t own one, nor have I had an opportunity to use one.

Johnson seems to have nailed the problem by observing that there’s no safe place for a user to navigate to and “reset”. For a lot of users, and especially those who are just learning, memorable linear pathways from a consistent starting point are what they want. Like learning a city subway stop by subway stop, once those pathways have been learned, users can branch out and discover new features.

I’m always fascinated by how product decisions get made, and in this case, how Apple may have compromised their usual clarity when it came to defining the behavior of a critical interface element. I don’t know if this anything more than a stumble for Apple, a sign of them letting technological complexity get out of hand and dictate the user experience. It is certainly intentional and on the other hand may reflect a new outlook for how Apple approaches user experiences.

Interaction Design and Sci-Fi

I recently had the pleasure of speaking to Prof. Robert Thomas’ Collaborative Design For Innovation class at Georgetown University. The curriculum is fantastic – something I could keep studying for a long time – and Robert and his class were welcoming and attentive. Afterwards, one of the students I was speaking with noted that I had listed a number of fiction – science fiction in particular  – works in my annual reading list, and asked why.

At the very core of their practice, designers are clearly tasked with imagining the future state of a product or service. Herb Simon said that “The process of design is a continual cycle of generating alternatives and testing to evaluate them.” I’ve always had a fondness for speculative fiction, and it informs my ability to create and iterate solutions by training my mind to think beyond present realities and imagine different ways of doing things, big and small. When I was in graduate school at Carnegie Mellon’s School of Design, Neal Stephenson’s Diamond Age was required reading. One of the greatest science fiction authors, Arthur C. Clarke, was also credited with inventing a number of significant scientific breakthroughs. In much the same way, I enjoy traveling to different countries where I can experience a significant culture shock.

I highly recommend that designers read science fiction periodically. It doesn’t need to be stereotypical rockets-and-lasers stuff, either: there’s quite a bit of work being produced today that is excellent. I came across a few readings related to this that might be worth digging into for more inspiration:

Why Todays Inventors Need To Read More Science Fiction and mentioned in there is Sophia Bruekner’s class on scifi 

Make It So: Interaction Design Lessons from Science Fiction