Reimagining the Future of Design Education
Alex Wright, Etsy and Carnegie Mellon School of Design
Erica Dorn, Managing Director, The Good Work Institute
Interaction designers shape the everyday experiences of billions of people across the planet. Yet for all their reach and influence, many practicing designers nonetheless struggle to incorporate long-term time horizons into their work. In an age of big data, A/B testing and Lean/Agile methods, those challenges are growing more pronounced as designers often find themselves working in environments that tend to prioritize short-term, measurable outcomes over more complex, systemic concerns.
While most IxD practitioners espouse the humanist values of empathy and customer-centeredness that are the hallmarks of good experience design, the profession’s sometimes narrow focus on “the user” can also work against weighing the broader social, political, and environmental effects of the work they do.
How might interaction designers embed more sustainable, long-term perspectives into their work? What kinds of organizational and/or economic pressures prevent them from doing so? And how could futuring and forecasting methods help us begin to envision a set of alternative futures for interaction design education? Those are some of the questions we invited participants to explore in this three-hour workshop at the 2018 IxDA Education Summit.
Building on a foundational body of work drawn from the fields of alternative economics and futuring, we set out to introduce a set of frameworks and tools to help a group of 20 designers and educators begin to embed longer-term thinking in their practices, and explore how they might develop more ownership of their own work experience and its impact on the world.
Given the context of this workshop taking place at the IxDA Education Summit, we also wanted to challenge participants to apply some of these methods in real time to identify and explore a set of long-term trends that could shape the future of interaction design education.
As a first step, we introduced participants to a set of overview material on alternative economics, focusing the conversation around how we think about value creation in the context of Ethan Roland’s Eight Forms of Capital model.
By giving participants a brief exposure to the field of alternative economics, we hoped to begin offering a new vocabulary and set of framing tools to help them explore the possibilities of re-envisioning project goals in non-monetary terms. For those interested in probing further on this topic, we’d also recommend Paul Mason’s Post-Capitalism, E.F. Schumacher’s seminal Small Is Beautiful, and a more extended reading list through Good Work Institute.
Next, we began to introduce a set of tools drawn from the world of futuring studies. Over the past three decades, professional futurists have made great headway in introducing techniques like forecasting and scenario planning to senior leaders in many organizations. But these efforts have remained largely confined to the executive suite, often inaccessible to design practitioners. Recently, futurists like Stuart Candy have begun to create tools for “experiential futuring” that bridge contemporary design practice with established forecasting methods.
Exercise 1: The Thing From the Future
In our first collaborative exercise, the group engaged in a modified version of The Thing From The Future, a game developed by Stuart Candy and colleagues at the Situation Lab to stimulate participants to engage in exploratory futuring exercises.
The deck consists of three types of cards, which can then be laid out to form one-sentence provocations that take the following form:
“In a _____ future, there is a _____ related to _____.”
“In a global future, there is a law related to water.”
“In a feminist future, there is a tattoo related to aging.”
“In a ridiculous future, there is a ritual related to food.”
Exercise 2: Scenario Planning
In this exercise, we challenged participants to work together in teams to explore a range of possible outcomes for design education by conducting a scenario planning exercise modeled after Jay Ogilvy’s planning matrix model which allows participants to frame their thinking by mapping out the interactions between a set of critical uncertainties.
As a group we brainstormed a set of potential uncertainties that might influence the future trajectory of design education. A few themes that emerged from these discussions:
- Ethics are becoming more embedded in design practice (but we don’t want “ethics” to become the new “empathy!”)
- The growing specialization of design practices (e.g., designing for AI, voice, embedded interactions) vs. the need to create well-rounded generalists capable of adapting to the future
- The trend towards self-paced online learning, raising questions about the role of credentialing institutions like universities and design schools
- The changing role of design educators; could/should they become more like career coaches who have more ongoing relationships with practitioners rather than serving as skill providers
- The growth of cross-disciplinary practices (e.g., design thinking becoming an established component of business school and engineering education), and the potential risks of dissolution / blurring of the disciplines
Using these inputs as a starting point for discussion, we honed in a set of uncertainties that seemed most critical/actionable, and began to map them out for further discussion. Ultimately, we settled on the trend towards self-paced learning and the growth of disciplinary specialization as two useful matrices to begin using for a scenario planning exercise.
During our workshop exercise, we split the participants into four groups, each of which tackled one of the four quadrants. Below is a condensation of the themes and outcomes we identified during the exercise:
Reflections and next steps
Looking ahead, we hope to build on the work from the IxDA Education Summit to continue prototyping this curriculum in collaboration with Carnegie Mellon School of Design and the Good Work Institute. As a next step, we’ll be offering a revised version of this curriculum in a situated learning environment at Etsy (where Alex works), in hope of continuing to iterate on the form of the workshop and ultimately making it more widely available in open-source form.
As part of this exploration, we hope to continue probing on some of these questions:
- What cultural factors outside the boundaries of an organization militate for or against certain types of horizons?
- How can an internally focused program of research avoid the consumerist trap of self-improvement? How might we connect systems-level thinking with self-reflection on personal values and meaningful work? How might we probe on the “fidelity gap” between individuals’ self-expressed values and their actions and behaviors? How might this program offer a framework to align and integrated expressed personal values within complex systems that create more meaningful work.
- How could an educational program like this create opportunities to consider much longer-term ethical concerns affecting the well-being of future generations?
Ultimately, any theory of change to emerge out of this research will hinge on the question of how personal, reflective modes of practice intersect with larger organizational, social, and political systems; and measuring the extent to which a program of professional education can serve as a useful intervention to address the wider-angle concerns of transition design. By developing a theory of change for how practicing UX designers can effectively contribute to long-term positive or pro-social systemic outcomes, we hope to make a meaningful contribution to the future trajectory of interaction design education.
Alex Wright is Senior Director of User Experience at Etsy and a doctoral candidate at Carnegie Mellon School of Design.
Erica Dorn is Managing Director of the Good Work Institute (formerly Etsy.org), where she develops education programs focused on building inclusive and compassionate economies through appropriate-scaled, collaborative enterprises.