Shared Profession: Learning Interactive Skills from Other Tribes

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Is everything you’re learning about interactive design work coming from the design world? If so, it’s time to look up from your desk.

As an interactive design professor at a liberal arts university, I consider myself lucky to have colleagues from so many disciplines outside of art and design. Like many colleges, we have the usual suspects: departments in applied engineering, English, communication, psychology and more. While I teach courses in user experience, interface design, motion design and user-centered design, so do my colleagues—but they do it through their respective discipline’s perspective.

Many fields of work and study have crossovers with interactive design, and there’s a lot we can learn from these overlaps. Here are four key realms that carry over into interactive design—and what we can learn from them.


In recent years, user-experience design has been gaining momentum as a viable career path in the web design field. But the thought behind user experience isn’t new. Industrial designers have been examining user experiences for some time. Don Norman, author of The Design of Everyday Things, wrote extensively about the rules and theory of industrial and product design. One of the universal concepts is the idea of affordances.

The design of door handles is a classic example in the physical world: Vertical handles on a door signal to the user that he can afford to pull, whereas a longer handle bar signals the user to use two hands to push the door open.

While web designers focus on designing for a flat screen and don’t have the same physical environment as industrial designers, the idea of affordances is still valid. The shape and dimensions of a button, for instance, can signal an action. Focusing on what aff ords the user the ability to engage rather than focusing on aesthetic style is a more effective way to establish a good user interaction.

When industrial designers develop new products, they confront constraints such as weight, time, materials, cost and function, and these factors can shift and change their approach. In graphic design, we may deal with managing materials or paper, cost of ink or delivery weight of goods. When a traditional designer is shifting her career to the world of web- and experience-based design, there can be frustration surrounding learning new technology as a whole.

The focus should be on the new rules and constraints. A web designer might have to think in terms of materials like file types, cost in the number of devices available and file transfer capabilities. The limitations within design always exist, but should never limit a designer’s creativity.


In western culture, we traditionally read a page in a ‘Z’ path, the movement of the eye going across the page left to right and top to bottom. Comic and graphic novel artists use panel position and design principles such as overlap and the Gestalt theory of grouping to help move the reader through a sequential story and guide the eye beyond the ‘Z’ path. Steve Krug, usability expert and author of Don’t Make Me Think, says we scan web pages and don’t read them like a traditional textbook. By applying aspects of comic page direction to web page design, we can help the user more easily find key calls to action on the page.

The subtle aspects that a comic artist uses to communicate each image can be applied to user interface design. Susan Kare, famed iconographer/interface designer and the individual who designed many of the original Apple operating system icons, referenced how comic book theorist Scott McCloud’s book Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art helped shed light on why many of her icon symbols worked.

“When you have a lot of detail and something looks realistic, it looks like someone (or something) else,” Kare shared with the audience at the 2014 EG Conference. “When you take detail away, things become more universal.” While Understanding Comics was intended to be a study on comic books’ value, it’s often used in web and interaction design courses to help students better understand interface design.

When user experience designers demonstrate a user scenario through a storyboarding method, they’re telling a visual story. While the panels do not need to be highly rendered like a comic book, the positions of the angles and distance need to make sense.

Durwin Talon, author of Panel Discussions: Design in Sequential Art Storytelling, breaks down panel shot terminology. Panel angles can be seen at low-angle, eye-level or high angle shots, whereas panel distance can be seen at long or medium distances, or closeup.

The different combinations can yield various results. For example, a long-distance, high-angle panel might help set the scene, whereas a medium shot at eye level might be more suitable for showing more personal dialogue. For a UX designer, understanding the thought put into each panel’s perspective and point of view will inform his development of user-scenario storytelling.


The discipline of communication is well known for engaging both verbal and nonverbal (written) forms, through subjects such as speech, journalism and public relations. In many cases the fine-tuned writing in communication has translated into content strategy, which is establishing itself as a powerful component in the web design field.

Still, we shouldn’t look past basic communication theory as an important learning opportunity for designers when developing experience-based interactions. Well-known communication theorist Marshall McLuhan coined the terms “hot” and “cool” media. This helps gauge the amount of participation a user has invested in something.

Many fields of work have crossovers with interactive design,and there’s a lot we can learn from these overlaps.

Hot media tends to have a lot of stimuli, such as a movie-based scenario where there’s less effort used to engage with the story. In cool media–based experiences, such as someone reading a comic book, the reader has to put forth more energy to engage with the content. When a designer is working with a brand or design theme and creating multiple solutions across platforms, having an understanding of hot and cool media can help her explain to stakeholders how much engagement needs to be established.

Like hot and cool media, Claude Elwood Shannon and Warren Weaver’s communication model informs web and experience design processes. This model breaks down the system in which a message is communicated from the source (sender) to the destination (receiver
). The model follows these steps:

Information Source (message in mind) > Message Sent > Transmitter Encoder (brain to mouth) > Signal Sent > Noise Source > Signal Received > Recipient Decodes Signal > Message Received > Destination Gets Message

The model shows the many levels of transmission and the noise a message may go through, hence affecting (slightly or greatly) the interpretation of the end outcome. While the model was originally intended for understanding signal capacity of telephones, it continues to be the basis of human communication and is a prime example of how such interactive theories can be used across disciplines.


In user-centered design, how and why users make choices is key in understanding how they navigate an experience. Cognitive psychology as a profession has been very invested in studying human thinking, memory and what draws us to make decisions or pulls our attention to things.

Professor and statistician Edward Tufte’s writings on information design have helped print designers handle the problem of information overload when dealing with data visualization. While the idea of information overload is not new, it strongly relates to cognitive load theory when it comes to making task-based choices. Cognitive load theory is the volume of new content the working memory can hold in relation to the number of tasks it can process. Because using websites, mobile devices or other user interfaces requires multiple tasks by users, designers may want to limit navigational elements not just for aesthetic value but to avoid overwhelming the user with too much information, so that they don’t give up on a task. In theory, if a task can be transferred from working memory to long-term memory, it can be accessed faster and more tasks can be introduced without overwhelming the user.

When interaction designers want the user to click on a link or respond to a call to action, they could look to scientist BJ Fogg’s research. Fogg’s behavior model can help us understand what triggers behavioral change. Consider needs and desires within the physical world: If you are hungry (motivation) late at night and close (ability) to the cookie jar, you may eat a cookie.

This theory can help experience designers arrange successful user-centered design solutions. If a designer can place a product link (ability) on a web page that is in aninterest area (motivation) of a user, it may serve as a successful trigger.


Acclaimed author Seth Godin is well-known for his idea of grouping people who are connected to one another into tribes. With the advent of the web, geographic barriers are no longer obstacles for human interaction.

As the field of design grows and expands, so should the different people and groups with whom we interact. So whether it’s the history of industrial design, storytelling dynamics of comics, the language of communication or a deeper understanding of psychology, there is always something we as designers can bring into our experience and interaction-based projects.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally featured in the February 2015 issue of PRINT. Get your copy.


Beautiful Users: Designing for People

Henry Dreyfuss is a figure most prominently remembered as the father of industrial design, as well as the pioneer of a user-centered approach to design. In Beautiful Users by Ellen Lupton, discover various practices of UX design — an approach that prioritizes studying people’s behaviors and attitudes in order to develop successful products. Get it here.