A Graphic Design Origin of Interaction Design?

There is something telling in that academic programs in interaction design begin at the graduate level but not at the undergraduate level. Carnegie Mellon, for example, offers only a BDes in design (with tracks that form elements of interaction design but are not themselves called interaction design). To be an interaction designer, it seems, you must first come with prior knowledge of another field.

This in some way reflects the way I came to find interaction design — as an extension, outgrowth, inevitable progression of graphic design meeting technology. The other day I met a graphic designer who was considering pausing his career to join the interaction design field because (as I often hear) that’s the way the field is headed. My own path to discovering the field followed along the lines of print design → web design → UX design → interaction design. If graphic design is most often applied to paper-based materials, then it is static, and it is inevitable that we would need to expand our theories of design once we incorporated the interactive elements that technology allows for (clicking, swiping, etc).

Basic theories of communication design remain but expanded theories about how to handle these moving parts are added. Then theories proliferated further as technology proliferated both in type and use. For people like myself who grew up in an age when interfaces were graphical and technology at its most basic was discretionary*, it seems like graphic design is an obvious place to look for the origins of interaction design.

While psychologists, ergonomists, computer scientists, and technologists of software engineering and HCI were the roles traditionally traced as those that built the foundation for interaction design, there is no reason we can’t find the threads of communication designers throughout (i.e. how type has evolved from print to screen to digital ink).

You could track the history of type display and reproduction from hand lettering to today’s ePaper. (Left: a page from the Book of Kells, Right: Kindle with ePaper)

With the flood of graphic designers joining interaction design more recently (and seeing it as a natural extension of their current skills) that will certainly influence the field to include core communication design theories. The more we think about products, apps, even process as designed to communicate a message, we can start asking what they explicitly and implicitly communicate (as Tara McPherson does in “Operating Systems at Mid-Century”).


*Although a few of my fellow Cinema & Media Studies majors documented themselves in the film “Disconnected” trying to function in college without a computer to demonstrate how un-discretionary this technology really was.