Brian Boyl is a professor at ArtCenter College of Design, and an expert on designing for health/wellness/fitness and the quantified self, the Internet of Things, digital systems, design for sustainability, design for kids and play.
Meagan Goold: You’ve been working on a book over the last three years. Can you tell us about that?
Brian Boyl: So, the name of the book is Interaction for Designers: How to Make Things People Love and it comes out in late April, early May of this year. I’ve got to say, it’s placed me into a whole new mindset of how to address teaching. The book is designed in such a way so that students can read it and do their assignments outside of the classroom. And then when we are back in the classroom setting, we focus specifically on their designs and their content. It’s a concept that’s called ‘flipping the classroom’. It allows us to really focus on their specific problems. Addressing the issues that they’re looking at. I’ve been testing the book in my classes and we’ve had just amazing projects coming out because of it.
MG: Is it strictly a textbook?
BB: Absolutely not. Certainly it’s for educators who want to teach their students the process of designing interactive systems, but it’s also for professionals and anyone who had an idea of an app or interactive system they want to create. For example, a lot of my students have graduated and gone on to work at various companies; Apple, Google, Facebook. If they’re heading up a project, they can hand the book to their team and it will guide them from concept to finished design, and my former students, the design leader, can focus their time on the things that make their design problem unique or special. The book will take them from absolute nothing to a well-considered and beautiful something. It’s a roadmap for designing interactive systems.
MG: Where do you as an educator, as someone who has built these roadmaps for interactive design, see the future of design going?
BB: That’s a great question. Design always evolves. The tools evolve. When I’m talking to my students, I look at the future in two ways. There are things that are evolutionary and there are things that are revolutionary. We as designers especially in the university system, we’re training people to deal with the future. I have to live in the future. I have to teach about the future not only to be relevant to the students that are in my classroom right now, but to be relevant for them when they graduate three to five years out.
I think there are two fundamental things that are going to face us that are more revolutionary than evolutionary, and those are the things that I really like to look at.
The first one is the idea of experience design. This is nothing new. But really, what it is, is looking at someone’s experience with a designed object or system and you design for that experience. At the core, you have to have really good storytelling skills. You almost have to put yourself in the shoes of someone and try to understand the experience of that individual and how they’re going through their emotional life.
Here at this school, we are organized by different disciplines; graphic design, environmental design, interaction design, product design, transportation design. Those are all about the artifact. Those are all about the things that are created. This made a lot of sense back in the 20th century when most of our design disciplines and the skills that we were teaching people were about creating those artifacts and the methodology of coming up with the surface on a car was totally different than the methodology that you might use when you’re doing a 3D motion project. They would use completely different skill sets.
But now with computer technology getting more and more robust and easier to use, it’s almost like designers are sharing a lot of the same skill sets. There’s going to be a lot of cross pollination between the different disciplines, just because these systems are going to be easier and easier to use.
MG: What does that mean?
BB: I think what it means is people are going to demand more about the experience. It is no longer just the beautiful artifact, that sculpted product if you will.
MG: And so what does that mean for the future of designers? In light of this cross pollination that you are describing?
BB: It is that cross pollination. Design programs need their classwork and coursework, what we call Transdisciplinary Studies here at ArtCenter, to talk to each other. I’ve got to say, there are some people in the administration that are totally on board with it, and some who see it as a threat. Unfortunately, this is the tidal wave that’s coming, that is here already. If students don’t know how to address the experience of someone with some sort of interface or product or designed object, they’re not going to be as successful. I really think it comes down to understanding storytelling. Understanding how someone experiences the product through their life.
MG: Is that part of the education that design students get today?
BB: Sometimes, but not always. I think it’s kind of stunning. Because academics is very well grounded in the past. You have to go through a lot of different hoops in order to get new curriculum up and going, which makes complete sense if your teaching English. It makes no sense if you’re trying to be cutting edge with design and design disciplines.
In fact, the industry knows this very well by doing things like lean startups where you fail early, you fail often. Through that failure, you learn how to adapt the system to get to a better place. I’ve got to say, that’s something that we do very well at ArtCenter. Not necessarily failure all the time, but we don’t have a lot of hoops that we have to jump through. We can test out different types of curriculum and see if it works. If it doesn’t, then we’ll shift gears.
But in a lot of institutions, university systems, they’re extremely ossified. I don’t know if they’re going to come along with this type of resolution revolution. It’s going to be a major change.
MG: What challenges do you see as an educator?
BB: I think the challenge will be that some people, some institutions are going to realize they have to adapt and some are not. This is what happens when you’re looking at a revolution as opposed to an evolution. Some are going to be dinosaurs that don’t survive and they’re not going to be around.
I think it’s a fascinating problem. I hope that ArtCenter really understands that issue, that no one should own experience design. It’s something that’s fundamental to all designers. All designers need to understand how to do that. They will need to have that language of experience so they can communicate together.
MG: With emerging technologies, it would seem you just naturally lose a little bit of the human experience. How do designers today hold onto that?
BB: Actually, I think the human experience is going to become the most important thing, because if you cannot tap into the human experience, you cannot do good experience design. We are going to have to be more humanistic in our design. Architecture for example. You might make that beautiful building, but can it house people? I’ve got to say, our 950 building, a former wind tunnel to test aeronautical designs, is a really wonderful experience to walk through. But its main function is to serve as a classroom, a lecture hall. It has this open classroom without ceilings and it looks really beautiful and psychologically you think it’s great, but when you start to teach in that classroom, you can’t hear yourself.
So, experience, you have to become empathetic. Designers need to become way more empathetic.
MG: You mentioned earlier that there were two fundamental things that we will face. The first was this idea of experience design. What is the second thing?
BB: The second one is AI, Artificial Intelligence. We might think AI is off in the distance, it’s not anything that we really have to worry about. AI and robotics that have been used quite effectively to replace blue collar workers in automobile manufacturing, product manufacturing, manufacturing in general. So, I’m training white collar workers, people who do design. But they also should be concerned about AI. Not necessarily like, “Oh my gosh, there’s this robot that’s going to take over the world.” What they should be concerned about is this: their competition for their next job is not only going to be the designer sitting next to them in that studio class, but it’s going to be a computer. It’s going to be AI.
I say this because of a past student of mine, he used to work for a design firm doing identity design and rebrands for various companies.
He realized that what he was doing in his job day in and day out was very rules based. He developed a rules-based system in order to do his job. But as he started to develop these rules, being the analytical mind that he was, he started saying, “Well, gosh, a computer system could do this.”
And then he said, “If I’m spending my time every day, doing this rules-based process, could I write a piece of software to do this?” He did.
That should send shivers down your spine if you’re a designer and especially if you’re in the job of trying to train future designers. Design can be done by AI. So, what am I going to do about this? How am I going to deal with this in my classroom? How am I going to train these students that are going to be facing this reality later on in their lives?
There are aspects that a computer will not be able to touch, at least not in my lifetime. Those are the things future designers need to focus on, because AI can’t get there. Maybe a computer could figure it out to some degree, but I don’t think they’re going to get as advanced as the deeply associative mind of your cutting-edge designer.
MG: So what is the answer? How do designers prepare to deal with AI?
BB: Focus on the intensely creative things that digital devices have a hard time doing. But to be really successful, be the one to create this stuff.
MG: What do you hope the future of design holds?
BB: I hope it does get more empathetic, and I see that happening. I think all of these things; experience design, the threat of AI, all of this points in the direction of being more human and understanding people. People are going to understand people better than machines are going to understand people. For designers, understanding people and their experiences is becoming much more important than understanding how to create certain artifacts. So, we need to train designers to observe people, to be really sensitive to issues or problems that people might be having, to tap into those little speed bumps or pain points in people’s lives that can be smoothed out, even in a little way. Experience, not artifact, that’s what’s becoming really important.
It’s those little nuances, those little nudges, that are going to help people out. The discipline of design is changing so rapidly that designers need to live in the future to some degree. They need to know what’s coming and how to leverage that in their designs.
These are the things we need to train our emerging designers to do: Live in the future. Focus on experience. Be humanistic.
Author: Form Magazine
FORM: pioneering design, a publication that celebrates Southern California’s contribution to architecture, design, and the visual arts.