This image is featured on Sheridan’s Interaction Design page, but no one from the program worked on it. Huh.

Surviving Interaction Design at Sheridan College

… and how to prepare yourself for the industry

If you’re reading this you’re either interested, starting, or in the middle of studying Interaction Design at Sheridan. This article talks about what’s helped me, and others I know, make it through the program. If you’re not sure what Interaction Design is, great! That’s the first thing we’ll go over.

Know what this field is, and what it is not

In order to a) answer the question “what do you study?” and it’s follow up question “so … what does that mean?” and b) reduce the ambiguity surrounding your future, it’s best to know what Interaction Design is and what it is not.

At it’s core, the world will expect you to understand how humans interact with the technology around them. It sounds vague, because it is. Anything from interactive installations to creating interfaces for sites, apps, etc. Keep in mind, both of the examples I’ve linked to cover a very small portion of what either of those fields is capable of, and what the actual work behind creating these things entails.

Whether or not this program will fully give you the technical knowledge and the theory behind both of those applications is a whole other conversation that we’ll get to later. This article is on how to survive going through the program, and part of that is to understand what you’re learning.

It’s also important to know that what you will learn is not Human-Computer Interaction. The term may very accurately describe what I wrote above, but it’s on a whole other level of complexity. Here’s a link to Berkeley’s PhD degree requirements at their School of Information that describes what that field is. You will not come out with that knowledge from this Bachelor’s degree. If it sounds interesting, pursue it! Just know that you won’t be qualified to determine what the interface on the next SpaceX rocket should look like in order to minimize human casualties and maximize the chance of us reaching Mars. You can get there by all means, this isn’t meant to be discouraging but rather meant to highlight the importance of specificity.

Some of the roles you can expect to apply for:

  • User Experience Designer
  • User Interface Designer
  • User Experience Researcher
  • Interaction Designer

Read some job descriptions, such as these, these, or these. They’ll give you a good idea of what skills will be required of you. If you want to head into the installation realm, here are job postings from an awesome company called Artificial Rome. The IxDA awards also have some great examples of what you can end up doing.

Keep yourself up-to-date with what’s going on in the industry

At one point or another you’ll enter the workforce, and in order to rock everyone’s world you should keep yourself up-to-date with what’s going on in the world. This includes both contemporary knowledge (why is Motion Design suddenly a thing?) as well as foundational knowledge (what is typography and why does it matter?).

There are a lot of books out there, here’s a list I found on Medium, but by all means, there are so many more great books out there so don’t rely solely on that list. There are a lot of design-related articles on Medium too, so try to find what appeals to you. Readdd is a good resource to find articles on design; other places that you can expect to find examples of what people are working on are Dribbble and Behance.

All of this may seem daunting at first, and that’s alright. You have time to plan and educate yourself on whatever aspect of this field seems appealing to you, and it’s really, really important that you do. You don’t have to design a billion things before you graduate (although that would be nice, you’ll find that some of the briefs are borderline impossible to accomplish because of the lack of technical education that’s provided, which again, is a whole article in and of itself), but you definitely should have a few mobile interfaces and websites under your belt. At this very moment when this article is being written, that’s what a lot of employers are looking for and if you nail the basics within your first year, you could also grab an internship (which I would highly recommend striving for).

Dieter Rams, photo by Gary Hustwit

Get your “basics” right

Align your text. Make sure the padding on your presentation is consistent. Check the spelling, grammar, and voice of your writing. Make sure the colours aren’t blinding and your audience can read what you’re written without having to squint.

These things sound straightforward, but there are many who don’t do their due diligence when it comes to these things and it ends up distracting from the content, no matter how good it is. Care about your craft, it doesn’t have to be perfect but do your best to make your work look professional. Care about what you’re putting out there, otherwise why do it?

It’s easy to become a perfectionist (unfortunately), but it’s always better to try, do your best at something and learn from your mistakes rather than create a presentation in two minutes and not give a damn.


Ask for help

This is brutal because you’ll come across assignments and briefs that aren’t coherent, logical, or technically feasible, so hold your professors accountable and ask them what they mean. You shouldn’t be afraid to ask them for clearance or tell them that you can’t possible code a bloody “mathematical sublime installation” without knowing Java. You are paying for your education. Professors should not dock you marks or ding you for asking questions. If they do, talk to them. If that doesn’t help, report them. This is your education and your money, if someone is treating you unjustly, odds are they are doing it to others too. It’s difficult to speak up, and even more so if you’re not being heard. If it seems like no one is helping, post it to the facebook group. If that’s daunting as well, you can email me and I’ll give you my perspective on it.

This isn’t some call to arms, but it’s imperative that you’re vigilant. Any good system relies on it’s parts pointing out what works and what doesn’t. The same way good design relies on heavy iteration, getting a good education relies on everyone speaking up on what’s good and bad.


Cut filler content

Any employer worth their money will know from miles away if you’re inflating the status of what you’re presenting. If you claim that the festival app you drew will change the world forever, be ready to answer questions like “why?” or “doesn’t this other app already do that?” So, cut the filler content when presenting. People usually say they don’t have time, and if you’re interviewing or writing an email to an employer then they definitely have very little time to read it and so it’s better to cut to the chase quickly and succinctly than dive into the philosophical reasons as to why menus should be on the bottom of the screen rather then hidden on the left (and by the way, there’s a good argument for both of those scenarios).

That’s not to say that talking about something in detail is useless or moot, not at all. However, it creates an opportunity for your audience to get lost in what you’re talking about, so choose what’s most important to talk about in detail.


Learn how to give and take critique

You will not get enough critiques. I’m going into my fourth year and I still haven’t been taught how to give or receive critique and it sucks, especially when you’re presenting your work in front of 5–6 people at work and you have to lead the meeting. As such, it’s really important that you learn this early or at least read about it. There are a ton of articles and search results that talk about critique significantly better than I can.


Don’t pretend to know what you don’t; speak up

Being able to cut and paste pieces of code from here and there and hope for the best doesn’t mean that you understand the fundamentals of what’s going on. This one is really tricky, especially as some of the more insane project briefs expect you to build a full interactive installation using “whatever you prefer” in 3 weeks, whilst fully ignoring the fact that they’ve taught you none of the fundamentals to be able to do it. People don’t speak up, and the whole class ends up having to steal code from here and there, change two parameters and call it their own thing.

It’s toxic. Both for you and your peers. The ridiculously massive project briefs are anxiety inducing because of their disorganization, incoherentness (just get creative!), and their lack of awareness of their audience and what students know. So you may end up having to put things together from here and there because it’s impossible to learn Java in three weeks when you have five massive projects, each confusing, massive and unclear, breathing down your neck.

Because of this, this whole point of knowing the fundamentals may seem impossible given the task ahead of you. So what can you do in the meanwhile? Well, speaking up is definitely most important. Tell your professor that what they’re expecting of you is not possible without taking this plugin, and that plugin, and that whole project that one person made open-source. Even that takes a ton of time. Just be aware that this sort of nonsense should be brought up and that this doesn’t mean that you’re actually learn anything. It’s also good for the professor when everyone speaks up, it’ll help them teach better and they’ll surely appreciate it.

Sounds harsh, but it’s true unfortunately. Some students can spend more time on these projects and they’ll end up doing good work, but not everyone has the means to do that and that’s okay. Education is meant to be accessible and unfortunately for you and me it isn’t particularly like that here. Do what you have to do, but be explicit and clear as to what you took and what you didn’t, and let your professor know that the task is too technical or difficult. If one person says it, it’ll come over as lazy. If five students speak up, it’s clear that there’s a problem. You’ll be doing the professor a favour and yourself. It really isn’t worth it to stress over something like that.


Learn the fundamentals

Do your best to understand HTML and CSS. There are a ton of articles that debate whether or not designers should or shouldn’t code, don’t fall into the trap of listening to that kind of thing. At the end of the day, you’re always better off knowing more than less, and I can testify from first-hand experience that knowing HTML, CSS and a little javascript has helped me immensely. There are a ton of free, wonderful resources out there to learn these things on your own, and given how many websites and what not you’ll have to build, including your portfolio, it’s worth it to pick up HTML and CSS at the very least. You don’t need to know math, and if someone told you that you’re not good at it, they never taught it properly. You can learn anything on the planet, and HTML + CSS are two things that you’ll pick up faster than slower.

Be aware of design principles. Don’t add things unless you can explain your choices. Here are some gestalt principles that may help along the way. Hold yourself accountable to sticking to principles and mastering them, no one else will. At the end of the day you’ll be much more powerful having a good grip on the “basics”, than claiming you made some 3D game thing. If you have the core knowledge you’ll be able to solve any problem given to you, and that’s a much more precious and rare asset than having a low-quality installation in your portfolio.

By all means, know what’s out there and experiment with technologies. It’s awesome to be exposed to a ton of languages and technologies and be familiar with them, but it’s incredible know 3 languages/skills well and be able to build up from them, than having a little experience with 15 languages/skills.


This book talks about honest and candid feedback significantly better than I can.

Candor

Be candid and nice. Encourage others to do well and support them in what they are doing. It’s incredibly easy to let your ego run you in our field, and sometimes people will tell you that you’re not qualified for this or that, or that you can’t do this or that. Don’t listen to that nonsense (hell, don’t listen to anything discouraging I’ve said). Humans are more susceptible than we like to admit, and the same way negativity affects us, it’s good to do our best and be encouraging, honest and kind with others.

If someone asks you if you think they can get an internship, and you can see that in their current state they can’t, it’s much better for both of you if you show them areas they can improve in and what they do well, than tell them off. You’ll get better at mentoring people, and they’ll have improved their skill set.


If I told you what you can and can’t do, don’t listen to me. What the hell do I know anyway? I’m sure I’ve made mistakes in writing this article and I’d really appreciate if you would point them out. If you have a minute, drop me a note by commenting on this article or sending me an email. Time permitting, I’ll add more things that I think will help others get through.