Like a Little Design With Your Design?


So, I wrote Jeff an email mentioning that I was really curious about the design orientation of the program. The more I’m here, I told him, the more I appreciate the interdisciplinary approach to informatics that the program embodies. So many different perspectives, so much emphasis on social and aesthetic aspects – it’s all very, very cool. As I’m sure you will agree.

And yet, after arriving here, I was surprised by the paucity of attention paid to the theories, canons, practice, history or even existence of “traditional design” (e.g. the “core” design disciplines of graphic, industrial, fashion design, etc.). Few of the students, little in the curriculum and practically none of the faculty come from that world.

Mind you, this isn’t something that I’m having a problem with, I told Jeff, but I still can’t help but be a little surprised by it. After all, the program is broad enough in its scope to embrace ethnology, musicology, philosophy and all matter of other Ologies, yet in a field that clearly has so tremendous a visual and tactile basis as Informatics can in application, why not pay at least some attention to the formalisms of (non-computational) Design?

Jeff’s answer, clever weasel that he can be, was that it was a good question – good enough, in fact, that it should become a blog conversation.

Which it now, officially, is. 😉

Please feel free to run with this. But just to get things started, here’s a question: if there were a class offered in the curriculum that introduced you to the pracitcal use of the Elements and Principals of Design, would you take it?


  1. Tyler Pace

    Based on my experience, many of the M.S. HCId students seek out more formal Design training in the fine arts department. The beauty of informatics is the inter-trans-disciplinary approach to education, so making a Design fundamentals course required (not that you proposed such a thing) would be a very significant decision.

    Personally, I don’t know if I’d take the class. Like picking any other class, it’s a combination of faculty, syllabus, time, current interests, etc.

  2. thismarty

    Yup, I agree, Tyler – I’m not a big fan of making anything required in Informatics.

    I’m not even sure that a traditional “Design Foundations” course would be appropriate here, since those things tend to be very visual in orientation.

    But an Informatics-savvy introduction to the basic principals of design could be pretty cool stuff. You know, stuff like composition, color, form, type – all squarely in the context of things designed to be experienced digitally. It would not only be potentially beneficial to your creative process, but it would also provide you with a more capable and universal footing for critiquing and defending designed things – a valuable skill for someone calling themselves a “designer”.

    What think?

  3. tdbowman

    I agree Marty, as we’ve discussed before… The same situation exists in SLIS. There are no true programming courses offered on a consistent basis and definitely no design courses offered through the program. As Tyler states, many of us in SLIS also went outside the program and took programming/art classes. However, I have discussed this with several of the SLIS professors and graduates. It is something lacking. When you go out into the ‘real world’ and try to get a job, most of the time the employer has no idea what an ‘interface designer’, ‘usability specialist’, ‘information architect’, etc. is and what types of skills should be expected.

    I’ve personally found that when hiring specifically web specialist, of which I had to do, many knew programming but had no idea about design, usability, writing, etc. IMHO this is not only an informatics or SLIS problem, it’s a problem within the expectations of the community.

    But if you teach the class Marty, I’m NOT taking it! 🙂

  4. davidroyer

    I think that the elements and principles of design are examining design from a very narrow, mostly visual, point of view. Erik, Eli, and probably the rest of the faculty believe that design is something much broader. (

    I agree with ‘elements and principles of design’ not being taught in informatics. Because most of us traditionally associate design with making pretty things, we often focus on this ‘decoration’ and miss the ‘big picture’ of the design. If you look at 1st year interaction design students’ projects you will see this is a big problem. Sure, it’s beautiful, but it does not fill a human need or take in to account the social and environmental impact.

    I personally enjoy visual design, but I think a class in the program focused on just these things would further promote people’s narrow vision of design.

  5. jeffreybardzell

    Your reasoning focalizes on an opposition between superficial and deep value, and it juxtaposes it onto another opposition: visual (visual language) versus non-visual (social value, sustainability). Further, “beauty” wound up on the side of the superficial: “Sure, it’s beautiful, but it does not fill a human need or take in to account the social and environmental impact.” I disagree with just about every part of that! 🙂

    First, beauty is a human need, and for Kant, beauty was one of the three branches of philosophy (the other two being reason and ethics). Plato goes so far as to equate beauty with truth and the good. Beauty has seldom been seriously equated with the visual, and certainly not the visual understood in a superficial sense.

    Second, I don’t think “traditional designers” (whatever that means, exactly) would take kindly to being treated as people who make “pretty things” (understood to be “pretty shallow things”). Rather, they would argue that through visual languages that talk about color, line, etc., designers are able to create artifacts that not only look nice in the superficial sense, but also communicate deeply in valuable ways (e.g., everything from the nuance of brand identity to visual cues about how to use an artifact of industrial design). And, to get even more specific, the recycling symbols on plastics (the triangle arrow icon with a number in the middle) are visually appealing and socially useful (except when they are printed so small that people can’t read them and don’t recycle them!).

    Thus, a class such as the one Marty is proposing presumably would not be about superficial design, even if it covers visual design, because the visual is not superficial! As Oscar Wilde says, “Only a fool does NOT judge a book by its cover.”

  6. jeffreybardzell

    @thismarty: Give your posts titles that the blog recognizes, or I’ll make you listen to a podcast of Tim Bowman singing Air Supply for 30 minutes per infraction!

  7. davidroyer

    Ok, Jeff, you have some very good points. And when I said beautiful, I think what I meant was visually appealing. Beauty is apparently a loaded word. And I also agree that visual is not superficial.

    In my undergraduate courses in visual communications design and my work at 2 advertising agencies I worked with tons of designers who were focused on the visual alone (and I was one of them). We rarely discussed the non-visual (social value, sustainability) and I would bet most of them would not even consider these things the designer’s responsibility.

    And I don’t think my colleagues and I were unique. I guess I am biased against the visual because of a large part of the interactive design community focuses so heavily on it, while often ignoring the non-visual aspects of beauty.

  8. jeffreybardzell

    This raises another opposition–the one between academic and corporate contexts. I suspect that design in academia is more aligned with the vision I am characterizing, while design in corporate (and government, non-profit, etc.) practice might be more along the lines you describe. (Well, evidently they are, at least in your experience.) I would assume that Marty’s proposal was more in the academic vein.

    But I’m still going to push back. Even if much of the *rhetoric* (i.e., the way people talk about what they are doing) in your professional practice and undergraduate courses was on “making it pretty,” there is still in implicit argument that runs deeper. Because if it really is “merely making it pretty” then why do it? Even the very superficial reason that “because pretty communicates professionalism” whereas “ugly connotes sloppiness” goes beyond the superficial and the visible and brings one right back to issues of identity and so on.

    So, I guess my point is that the deeper notions of the full significance of visual language may be latent in professional rhetorics about the practice, they are nonetheless there. I mean, nevermind designerly firms like Apple–even United Airlines provides me invariably with nicely presented, clearly branded napkins. Those neat little white napkins may not be sustainable in many senses, but they not only communicate United’s professionalism in its service (the actuality of which I will not comment on here), but also communicate “sanitary,” that is, that it is safe to eat my tiny mini-bag of flavorless yet surprisingly high calorie pretzels on this (but perhaps not so much on my tray table). Embedded in this simple napkin are cultural norms about the practices of eating, and aspects of the napkin’s visual language express and construct all of this, even as they encourage me to eat. I pick such a trivial example deliberately, because it shows that “making it pretty” is never merely about “making it pretty,” even if designers are not explicitly conscious of and talking about it.

  9. davidroyer

    @ Jeff

    I agree completely that making it pretty is never merely about making it pretty.

    In the napkin example: Imagine if the designers of the napkin were more knowledgeable about the non-visual aspects of design and the full significance of the visual language. Then they would fully understand the communication and embedded notions in a napkin design, as well as the non-visual aspects of design (social value, sustainability, ect.). I think this would lead to a more thoughtful design.

    The design could communicate the same things (or better) about the eating practices while taking in to account social, business, and environmental ramifications. Perhaps the solution would no longer be a napkin, or an entirely new type of napkin.

    So, I guess I agree, visual design is important. It would be important that the course focuses on the “deeper notions of the full significance of visual language,” and not just the elements form, scale, ect. as I have experienced in my previous visual design courses.

  10. thismarty


    I agree that some visual designers have an arrogant and myopic sort of notion of “visual primacy” in design. I also agree that such an attitude would not be a good thing to have here. Thus, my suggesting a course in the Elements and Principles of Design instead of, say, How to Be An Arrogant, Myopic Designer. 😉 My point being that this program is the kind of environment where the good formalisms of design could be studied without the bad baggage of some design cultures.

    And believe it or not, the so-called elements and principles of design inform much more than the visual aspects of a design. Which is inevitable, since they are themselves based on various social, psychological and other weighty scientific principles. Thus their daily and invaluable use by designers of various ilks not primarily concerned with the visual layer, such as Industrial Designers, Fashion Designers, Furniture Designers, etc.

    And in fairness, not all designerly preoccupation with the visual (or any other aspect) is due to snobbery. For instance, much of the visual preoccupation that you observed while working at those ad firms you mention in your commetns could be a manifestation of the fact that you were working in a commercial setting. Presumably, those firms had been hired by their clients to create specific products, such as branded airplane napkins. Most of my designer colleagues are actually very concerned with issues such as social value and sustainability, and it does thoughtfully inform their work, when it can. But an undeniable part of design is its interdependence with commerce. Successful design firms have to deliver the goods for their clients or they can’t afford to stay in business and hire talented interns. To compare them to or hold them to standards from the world of academic discourse isn’t entirely fiar and can lead to some bad generalizations.

  11. tdbowman

    Let me also add that as a former Web Director for a small, Catholic university in San Antonio, design spoke volumes about our university. We were held to very strict, in the box, designs. We were private, catholic and 150+ years old. As you can imagine, certain ideas were not accepted well… mostly just anything to do with CHANGE! 🙂 At times it was very hard to incorporate a new technology like a FLASH movie player or AJAX into a design that was very rigid and unmoving.

    I think it is very important for students to understand all the aspects of design -and- business processes. I was NOT prepared for many of the hurtles I faced after receiving my MIS and getting this job. It was a steep learning curve, not because SLIS didn’t provide a great education, but because I wasn’t taught simple principles of design. By this I mean that I came with preset notions of HCI, info architecture, etc.. and my knowledge set was not complemented with an understanding of design principles that would have allowed me to not have so many d4mn arguments with colleagues about what was do-able and what was actually feasible within the university’s predefined set of criteria for web-based development.

    I was very lucky that I worked in the PR/Communications office and set next to the designer. We had a great relationship and I learned many things from him and he learned many things from me. Being able to successfully translate print publication to the web takes a skill set that was hard learned for me and I think that a design course would have helped me quite a bit! This goes for application development as well…. Not to mention consistency and integrated marketing techniques.

    But alas that is my life-world and other people have their life-worlds…

  12. yenning

    For the discussion that if making things pretty is part of the design process, I think it is an interesting topic.

    I don’t know how many of you have experienced that. When I told other people I am in Human- Computer Interaction Design program, it often confuses them. “What is that ?!” For them, the part “human-computer interaction” sounds like a science-oriented study, but “design” is all about art. Even I, before entering the program, keep questioning if I am creative and talented enough to be an “artist”. I mean, a “designer.”

    For now, I think I know design is more than that: making things pretty. Designers understand the world, communicate and make a judgment to make us live a better life. I still cannot help to make design sketches or prototypes looks neater and prettier, although I know it is not necessary and it is wrong. I still cannot help to stay my eye on a design with beautiful appearance. I still cannot only focus on usability without caring beauty at the same time.

    I agree with Dave and Jeff that making things pretty is not merely about that. It is about emotion and more psychological things people keep pursuing.

    Sometimes, I ask myself if interaction designers should be invisible because they serve others. Can they have their own style just like furniture designers? Interaction designers need to design other people’s experience, rather than make the design have individual style. (although it is inevitable, more or less.) If they can be visible, how interaction designers let users know “It is my design, my style.” Is it only in visual elements of a design? maybe there is something more.

  13. houssian

    @marty & Jeff
    C’mon, air supply is classic! Now if you had to watch the videos of those songs then that WOULD be torture!

  14. thismarty

    @yenning: the “beauty” topic in design could easily be its own course. In fact, in most design schools, it actually is one or more complete courses. It is a fascinating aspect of what we do, which springs from the artistic underpinnings of design.

    Since designers do work artistically at some levels, and yet do so for clients who will eventually subsume what they create, the anonymity question looms. I think good designers always leave their mark in their work. Not so much by intention as unavoidably. Once you find your “voice” as a designer and use it to inform the personality of your work, it is inevitable that your work will be so unique. Which is a good thing.

    I do think nonetheless that interaction designers might be at risk of disappearing in the final product because interaction design is incorporated so broadly in finished products, intertwinning the visual, form and even functional aspects of a final deliverable. You can, after all, actually point to the outter case or the graphical layer of many designed objects, but it’s harder to point to the interaction design.

  15. jimmypierce

    @Jeff – I would definitely sit in on a course on How to Be An Arrogant, Myopic Designer. @Marty – A course on the Elements and Principles of Design would be interesting to sit in on, too.

  16. thismarty

    @jimmypierce – That “Arrogant” course would indeed rock. Finding an arrogant designer to teach it though, that might be kinda tough … 😛


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