Industrial to Interactive: How the University reflects intersecting trends in the design world

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By Jonathan Oden, Daily Arts Writer
Published February 20, 2012

Stop. Now look at the shape of the word “Stop.” Notice its curves and serifs — someone designed its font. Now look at your watch, your shoe or that cup of coffee in your other hand. We live in a world where design is ubiquitous. From the bed you wish you spent more time in, to the doorknobs you trade germs on, someone somewhere designed it well enough that you probably never realized it.

At the University’s School of Art & Design, the next generation of designers is, rather appropriately, being designed. Just as every field changes, today’s design themes have grown and traditional approaches to teaching designers are being rethought.

John Marshall, assistant professor in the School of Art & Design and co-founder of the design company Rootoftwo, is at the forefront of design. He describes design, in its modern state, in terms of a synthesis of ideas.

“Design is the process by which aesthetic, cultural, social, technical and economic potential is imagined and then translated to give order to objects, environments and activities,” Marshall said.

Breaking the mold

Under this definition, many assume that industrial design and product design are synonymous, but as Marshall explained, this is false: Industrial design is an outdated term in our post-industrial culture.

“I do not consider myself an ‘industrial’ designer,” Marshall said. “I played an instrumental role in the product development process at a $300-million-a-year company and transitioning them from making 12 to 36 new products per year in 1999 to 2003. My work is in every Wal-Mart, Toys R Us, Kmart and Target store in America.”

Today’s post-industrial era is very different from the industrial era that produced the first schools of industrial design. We no longer live in a world of products, but in a world of services and information facilitated by products. The consequences of this shift are dramatically felt here in Michigan.

“We are located 45 minutes from Detroit, itself a post-industrial city,” Marshall said. “The world has undergone some major changes, and the old models of doing things simply don’t work any more.”

According to Marshall, industrial design was perhaps the most important innovation of the 20th century — it has shaped the world we know. But we’re in the 21st century now, and design has expanded beyond the industrial and into newer disciplines.

Designing the future

Marshall outlined three of these new forms of design that students are beginning to work with. There is “user-centered design,” which analyzes and tests the behavior of use in product design. There is also “experience design,” which considers group or individual needs across a wide range of disciplines. And there is “emotionally durable design,” which answers questions of obsoleteness, such as “why do users discard products that still work?”

Marshall described that the term “industrial design” cannot adequately encompass these new elements of design. Instead, Marshall explained, we need a new way of talking about designers. Marshall and many of his colleagues call this discipline “interaction design.”

Studying and solving problems of interaction, this new form of design aims to highlight the interdisciplinary possibilities of design.

“I believe interaction design is to the 21st century what industrial design was to the 20th,” Marshall said. “ ‘Interaction’ is not the same thing as ‘interactivity’ — we're not just talking about pointing and clicking. It has as much to do with behavioral psychology, software and system design as it does with form, texture, color and whether or not (a product) can be injection molded in vast quantities from carcinogenic, non-biodegradable plastic.”

A growing number of students at the University are utilizing these ideas.

Rackham student Robert Alexander is working toward a Ph.D. in Design Science. Through the program, a group of highly skilled Ph.D. candidates, all trained in different fields, come together to solve issues across diverse disciplines. As a fellow for NASA, Alexander’s work with solar-heliospheric research applies concepts of interaction design.

Unlike a traditional designer, Alexander’s background is in music and multimedia. He received his undergraduate degree and masters at the University, the former in the School of Music, Theatre & Dance and the latter in the School of Art & Design. However, what truly sets him apart is that he doesn’t work with physical materials, but rather designs sound through a process known as audification.

Audification is the process of taking large data sets, rendering them into audible frequencies and then manipulating those files — much in the way a producer would — to tease new patterns and results out of samples. Alexander designs the programs that translate this data and the interfaces that allow him to explore those files.

“The way I usually explain what I do is to relate back to old-school recording studios,” Alexander said. “Back in the day, audio data was stored on magnetic tape as variations in magnetic intensity. Currently, there are satellites out in space that are equipped with magnetometers, which similarly pick up changes in magnetic intensity. If we listen to the data stream, then we’re essentially able to turn these satellites into fancy recording studios, where the sun becomes our performer with its magnetic field lines swirling through the solar system.”

As Alexander explained, the important difference between his example and audification is that with audification, you can listen to any data — not just magnetic intensity. For example, audification has been utilized in both seismology and brain surgery as a more accurate measurement of earthquakes and tumors.

What places Alexander at the edge of interaction design is how his work changes the conventional approach to interpreting data — by searching for a tactile and tangible way to explore it.

“I’m interested in redefining how creativity and technology interact,” Alexander said. “You’re not just with a mouse and pouring over data, since data simply is expansive for those methods. That interaction needs to change before you can extrapolate anything useful.”

Alexander proved this to be true when he demonstrated that by manipulating his audification research — which utilized 44,100 data samples in a second of audio — and listening to different sample atoms, he could hear eruptions of the surface of the sun faster, more precisely and with more accuracy than any traditional methods of mapping solar events. His process now sets the standard for measuring that solar data.

From Bauhaus to BFA

With such new frontiers for design, the ‘U’ has developed a curriculum rigid enough to teach all the necessary design methods and fluid enough to expand creatively alongside the ever-changing modern design world.

Design as a trainable method traces back to medieval craft guilds. However, we owe the “traditional” approach to art-and-design education to the German Bauhaus School of the early 20th century. It was their model that popularized industrial design, and their principles are still prevalent in the majority of design schools.

Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus School, wrote in his 1919 manifesto that the Bauhaus model strove to focus creative energy into a single form and to reunite the different techniques — sculpture, painting, handicrafts, etc. — into a single model.

To facilitate this unification, the Bauhaus curriculum began with a six-month preparatory class that “trained” the senses, emotions and the mind first in 2-D disciplines and then in 3-D perspectives. Following this, students of the Bauhaus began a three-year track of specialization in glass, stone, textiles, wood, etc., before being apprenticed to a set of masters. After training, a Bauhaus student often had considerable exposure but only a single technical craft, and the era of the specialized industrial designer was born.

According to Marshall, the School of Art & Design mimics these Bauhaus principles to an extent. This, he suggests, can be seen in the early undergraduate requirements and in the school’s single Bachelor of Fine Arts degree. However, Marshall explains that because the program becomes increasingly fluid and open in the later years of the curriculum, the structure is actually a hybrid model that takes the most important components of the Bauhaus model and adjusts them for the 21st-century classroom.

In the School of Art & Design, the core classes break down into four major programs distributed over the first two years of undergraduate work. Students begin with Fundamentals of Drawing, which covers the mechanics of the craft — technical drawing, design drawing, illustration and life-drawing — in a manner very similar to the Bauhaus model. Next, students take Digital Studio, in which they learn about 2-D and 3-D computer design and manipulation by following a similar program of drafting and programming.

“The effect of all this core work is to teach students to think visually across different techniques,” said Joann McDaniel, assistant dean for undergraduate programs. “The core material teaches a language of technique that aims to change a designer’s perspective through a range of materials and processes.”

But some professors at the School of Art & Design think this curriculum is not enough for new designers.

Their ideas stem from Donald Norman, whose work with design theory is respected as some of the most progressive around. The company he co-founded, the Nielsen Norman Group, has done design consulting for BMW, UICO and Ness Computer (the latter two companies work with smartphones and touchscreens). In addition to his work at the corporate level, Norman also travels around the world, studying design programs at the collegiate level. Though he is not connected to the ‘U,’ his writing and work has had an effect on how the School of Art & Design perceives the role of the designer.

One of the key issues Norman cites is the abundance of technique being taught to students. His argument is that students need to be taught technique, but only to a point.

Instead of mastering a technique, students need to learn how to use their technical skills to solve problems over diverse ranges of materials and disciplines, McDaniel explained.

“It’s important that our students get a fuller foundation outside of just technique,” McDaniel said. “Technique is vital, but it is not driving design. Design is driven by solving problems, so we need to fuel the creativity and inquiries of our students instead of bogging them down in material mastery.”

Focusing on this creative inquiry then, the School of Art & Design’s students transition from answering questions of form to solving questions of function. This shift is paramount to the future of design, but it comes with a new set of challenges.

“As the aim of design becomes more and more about interactions and problem solving, students need new ways to view their work,” McDaniel said. “Assumptions need to be checked and designers need to consider a larger picture than just aesthetics of design.”

Marshall explained that these skills are vital to the development and organization of students’ own projects. The core studios that focus on concept, form and context provide students with opportunities to develop curiosity and rigor, create responses to open-ended assignments and develop appropriate criteria for assessing their own projects. Students learn how to make the most of their studio time, to practice new skills and, above all, to ask probing questions.

“We actively encourage students to pursue interests outside the School of Art & Design,” McDaniel said. “It just doesn’t make sense to isolate a designer and artist. We have some of the best schools all across the board — music, engineering, science, literature, sociology, psychology — and they all intersect with industrial design.”

The design world of today is very different from the design world of the past. As it continues to change, schools may break away more and more from the traditional methodologies that dictated industrial design in the now past industrial era. At the University, the School of Art & Design has already developed an important curriculum focused on the intersection of art and design, where it both teaches traditional technique and encourages the future exploration of form and function. Industrial design may become obsolete in the 21st century, but the School of Art & Design may stay ahead of the curve.