Design Deep Dive: My Next Chapter

This January I’ll go to Manchester, England for a Master’s degree in Digital Experience Design. The program is at an alternative school called Hyper Island. It’s quick and intensive at only 10 months. I wanted to write this note for my friends, family, and anybody else who might be curious to know what my world has been like lately and how it’s led me in this direction.

Even though it might seem weird to have a pretend interview with myself, I’ll write in interview format because I think it’ll be more fun.

A workshop on body language at Hyper Island in Manchester. Photo @urhere48

What is experience design?

“Digital Experience Design” is the catch-all phrase that Hyper Island uses to describe a collection of related fields: service design, user experience design, strategic design and interaction design.

Many working professionals are not easily defined and are practicing some collage-y combination of all of these. There are a variety of perspectives and opinions, and I’m no expert (…yet). Since we’ve got to start somewhere, I’ll share my current personal definition:

Experience design is a professional field that uses design methodologies to create or improve public-facing systems. Public-facing systems are things like hospitals, universities, banks, government agencies, parks or businesses. Design methodologies are things like iterative prototyping, visualization, structured brainstorming, techniques for embracing uncertainty, and research for building deep empathy and understanding of people.

Personally, I like to say service designer instead of experience designer because it feels more descriptive of the work I want to do. Some people use the terms interchangeably, and definitions do shift over time as these fields popularize & mature.

A recent service design project from Britain’s ‘Government Digital Service,’ which maps the criminal justice system agnostic from the organizations that run it— groundwork for improving the system.

A service designer could work almost anywhere that has customers, clients, or citizens struggling to navigate a complex system — a government agency, a private university, a theme park, a supermarket chain, a cancer center, an insurance provider, and on and on.

Service designers work across physical and digital space. Since users’ moments of contact, or touchpoints, with service providers happen both on a digital screen and in the regular physical world, somebody behind the scenes had better be thinking holistically about both realms.

Is that the same thing as UX? I have a cousin/brother/landlord/bandmate who does UX.

User experience (UX) is not quite the same thing as service design. UX designers generally focus on optimizing the worlds within digital devices, whereas service designers bridge digital and physical space.

UX designers have expertise in a range of new disciplines for improving the web (i.e. user research, content strategy, information architecture, and interaction design). Service designers will also have expertise in these areas, but (if I understand correctly) will tend to zoom out, shaping both the web and physical space.

Studying service design at Hyper Island Manchester. Photo @storiesfromem

The common thread across all this work? Good designers answer first to the customer, and second to the client. In other words, they make an experience better according to its users, not necessarily its providers. (To confuse the matter slightly, internal company processes are also fair game for service design, in which case the lens is flipped but the principles are the same).

Are you going to learn to code?

I’m not going to learn code, though I have a beginner’s understanding of some coding languages and concepts. It’s not where I want to spend my time. Coding is not something you can get good at with only casual study.

The industry is un-standardized, meaning some digital designers code and others don’t.

Service design sounds a lot like being a business manager.

It does! And in fact, I write to you with a three-inch-thick GMAT prep book on the shelf above my head, collecting dust. I was set on business school for a while, but in the end I decided against it. Here’s why:

I am foremost a visual, creative, and happily eccentric/weird person. Going to business school felt like jumping into a pool that just wasn’t the right temperature. I decided to make a choice based on what feels good and natural.

I like design methods, a lot. I’m not a natural quantitative thinker. I am naturally very empathetic, the core trait of a good designer.

What is Hyper Island?

Hyper Island is a school that was started on a small Swedish island, but now has locations all around the world. It was started in the 90's by digital professionals who observed that traditional schooling institutions couldn’t keep up with the rapid pace of change in their industry. So they decided to start their own, more responsive, more agile school.

A class on KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) at Hyper Island. Photo @saraviolaa

Hyper Island has no teachers, no exams, and no formal assignments. All work is project-based. Projects come from actual clients (last year’s Digital Experience Design students worked with IDEO, the BBC, Mattel & Vans).

Hyper Island is not well-known to people outside the industry, but people who do know it tend to regard it very highly.

Why’d you choose Hyper Island? Are there other places where you can study service design?

Alumni call Hyper Island “cult-like.” As a person who lives alone, works alone, has no siblings, and constantly struggles with feelings of fitting in nowhere, a cult-like experience sounds, well, awesome.

Drink ‘n Draw on the roof of Hyper Island Manchester. Photo @urhere48

I also like the idea of stretching my mind by studying and interning abroad. The program culminates with an 18-week internship anywhere in the world. The student body comes together from many countries. Last year’s class had 19 students from 13 different countries!

The program’s director, Lauren Currie, is a service designer with lots of experience in the public sector, which is a draw for me, too.

Digital Experience Design program director Lauren Currie. Photo @redjotter

You can study service design at The Royal College of Art in London, SCAD in Georgia, Parsons in NYC, AAU in Denmark, and a few more.

Other kindred-spirit programs include the Design MBA at California College of the Arts, the at Standford (which is not a degree in itself but a lab where students from different majors can work on projects together). NYU has ITP, SVA has an Interaction Design Program, and Parsons has DESIS and Transdisciplinary Design.

Hyper Island stood out to me among this rich mix because it seemed most unorthodox, globally-minded, responsive to trends, and most different from what I’m used to.

What kind of job will you get after this?

As long as I get to be creative, serve others, and work with people I like, I’ll be pleased. A broad range of possibilities fit this bill:

  • A design consultancy or agency
  • A design-driven company
  • A design-inclined health care center/hospital
  • In the public interest

What led you here?

After graduating from college, like many of my classmates at Wesleyan, I wanted to be an artist. This ambition slowly fell apart as I realized I didn’t enjoy making art in the context of the professional art community, which I experienced as isolated and isolating. Meanwhile, I had started working at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum as a media tech. This is where I got exposed to design.

Giving a talk about art in a previous life chapter at Wesleyan.

Up until this moment, I thought design was all asymmetrical teapots and $3,000 armchairs. I didn’t yet appreciate its full range of practice and possibility. I also worked for Bill Moggridge, a huge inspiration.

I was the museum videographer, which means I attended five years’ worth of evening talks about typography, bio-mimetic buildings, digital weaving, 3D-printed prostheses, the design of Central Park, and on and on. I learned that my ambition for the arts was misplaced and that I was much better suited to be a designer.

I also did some service design work. I made video prototypes, website mockups, front desk storyboards, and more to help a large team of collaborators understand and build “The Pen,” a new digital service at Cooper Hewitt.

A service design video I created at the museum. “Video prototypes” like this are commonly used by service designers.

Of all the design disciplines I learned about during my time at Cooper Hewitt, service design seemed like the best use of my natural inclinations (empathy, simplifying complexity, and zooming out to the systems level). I also got to try it out a bit while I was there.

There will be more where this came from. If I learned anything working for Seb Chan, it’s that sharing thoughts, ideas, and lessons learned with peers in your field is equally as important as doing the work itself. So I plan to write and share as I learn, often.

Hyper Island’s Digital Experience Design students are already doing just that — you can check out Masters of Experience, their publication on Medium, to see what they’re thinking.