A Question of Materials

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By: Carnegie Mellon | December 15, 2010

three dimensional objects

By Juliana Diaz

This fall term, I was given the opportunity to be a teaching assistant for our sophomore industrial design (ID) studio class, called Generation of Form. Personally, I have no experience designing three dimensional objects. On the other hand, I have spent the past six years working in print and on the web.

What I have learned from observing the students in this class is that the knowledge you have of the materials you are using determines whether your project succeeds or fails. When students spend hours in the wood shop perfecting skills in cutting, shaping, and polishing wooden forms down to a cohesive form, they are learning not only the tools, but also the limitations of the material, and ultimately their design.

Cut a piece of wood too thin, and there is no way to recover once it breaks off. Forget about the direction of the grain, and suddenly your chair or stool lacks stability or strength. This process of constantly increasing one’s knowledge of materials is what makes great designers amazing. Charles and Ray Eames were not shy to comment on the struggles of getting some of their earlier concept chairs made, simply because they found out the hard way that wood doesn’t always bend the way your drawing says it can!

I am in school to become an interaction designer. By choosing to do so, I am also setting myself up to work with a unique set of materials, that although not always physical, have their own set of boundaries and limitations. The question is: What exactly is an interaction designer’s material?

We have been taught to think of interaction broadly, encompassing everything from human-computer interactions to human-human interactions to human-environment interactions and human-object interactions. This broad definition creates incredible opportunities for students to focus on an array of things. Yet such an open scope makes me question what each student must become well-versed in, so that they become good interaction designers. How do interaction designers develop the level of proficiency that the Generation of Form class develops, especially when each of us can end up working in such different areas? Should a well-defined list of materials exist for Interaction designers? And what is on that list? Is it code? Cognitive psychology? Visual design? Should the interaction designer have a high level of proficiency in all three? And is that too much to ask of one person? The level fluency we need in each of these spaces is unclear.

Clarity can come from defining interaction design not as the simultaneous practice of all these fields, but rather as having an awareness of these areas to craft an experience. Computation, social observation, and visual communication are usually combined to solve interaction design problems, and more often than not, we don’t rely solely on the interaction designer to provide and apply the knowledge of each of the fields to the solution. Instead, the expectation is that the designer should be capable of identifying, communicating, and conveying the goal and the story to developers, programmers, and anyone else who plays a role in creating the final experience. This means that the interaction designer should ultimately be well-versed in dialogue and empathy. And yet, this still leaves me with the question. What is the interaction designer’s material? Narrative? Conversation? Emotional awareness? Everything mentioned before? I still don’t know for sure.