in interaction design

Stop with the bullshit school projects (What I would tell interaction design students, #3 in a series)

I’ve got a little series of advice/guidance/wisdom/hubris for interaction design students

I’m very much involved with Adaptive Path’s hiring processes, and as such I see a ton of resumes, peruse a scad of portfolios, and discuss futures with hordes of students soon to be graduating from a range of undergrad and graduate programs. As a “hiring manager,” what interests me most is your work. Do you have the skills to pay the bills, and how comfortable and confident are you when talking about your approach to solving problems?

Among my biggest frustrations is having students walk me through bullshit school projects. Bullshit school projects are those which are solipsistic (solving a problem that a limited set of college students face), and/or uninteresting, and/or overly formal, and/or simply lack meaning. If I’m going to be hiring you to work with clients to help address their challenges, I need to be comfortable that you have an ability to engage in real-world problems.

I think much of the blame for these projects lays at the feet of the teachers, who have ensconced themselves in the academy in order to avoid the real world. But students have a responsibility to demonstrate what they can do in a way that someone who doesn’t know them can understand their thought process, their approach, and their talents.

Perhaps the single best way a student can ensure she is doing relevant work is to take internships at companies. I met one undergrad who has worked with IDEO, Frog, and Nokia, and the work she showed me was largely drawn from these experiences, and gave me the confidence that she could deliver real-world design.

I’m not saying students need to think corporatist. One of my favorite student projects is the redesigned BART kiosk by Ljuba Miljkovic and Ben Cohen. BART didn’t ask them to do this (in fact, it demonstrates that BART unwisely spent money on a user interface so poor it could be vastly improved by two smart college students in a semester), but for a class project they realized it offered a remarkable opportunity. It hit on a real-world pain point (as anyone who has purchased a BART ticket knows), and demonstrated a thoughtful and practical approach.

And it doesn’t need to be a project that appeals to a big audience. As part of his MFA work at CCA, Matthew Baranauskas has done a set of tangible computing projects to create new tools to help mentally challenged folks express themselves in a variety of creative ways. While the number of people who could use these tools is quite limited, by addressing a space very different from his normal context, Matthew demonstrates his skills and vision in such a way that it’s clear how he would approach professional work.

So, if you’re an interaction design student, please don’t do yet another mobile app that helps you and your friends coordinate getting beers (or yet another web app that monitors a building’s energy consumption), or some context-free formal exploration of gestural interfaces, or something that simply demonstrates that you’ve learned a set of methods. Identify an interesting problem *in the world*, and attempt to solve it.

  1. I agree with your direction, I have been a graduate of School Of Visual Arts for over 10 years now and what I remember of that experience vs, the real world is that I paid a lot of money to learn how to be a pompous designer. The insistence on the right font, and hearing I am not feeling it where are subjective comments based on the mood of the instructor, (when they showed up to class). Meanwhile in the real world its very different and the only way for a student to learn what to do is to intern at quality firms. The real education begins when you graduate so don’t assume you will hit the ground running. Many instructors pointed out, to enjoy your time in scho0l because paying work will suck the creativity out of you, which is why I think so many senior portfolios are off -the wall. (which is fine) for your sophomore or junior portfolio, but by senior year they should start focusing on how to meet the real challenges faced by paying projects…

    Thanks and Regards

    Noel for
    professional graphics design

  2. “I think much of the blame for these projects lays at the feet of the teachers, who have ensconced themselves in the academy in order to avoid the real world.”

    Kinda harsh I’d say. Try recreating the “real” world in an acedmeic or classroom setting.

    “Perhaps the single best way a student can ensure she is doing relevant work is to take internships at companies.”

    I would agree with this obviously as it really is the “real” world.

    Being successful in the real world comes with having a solid foundation of the core principles that define the space you are working in and having the opportunity to put them into practice and learning from the process. I understand that’s what you are looking to “see” in a candidates experience. The ones who have the experience byond the classromm will get a second look. But…you may miss a diamond in the rough.

  3. I don’t think anyone would want to watch a student doctor or dancer perform professionally in their respective real world theaters of operation as a school project. A good school project doesn’t prove its value by being commerically useful, but by revealing whether or not the student has grasped whatever established lessons and principles were available and put them to intelligent use. It is a stepping stone, not a destination.

    Education is one thing, occupation is another, and brilliance in either activity is too rare to be a requirement for success, in the real real world.

    A hiring manager can always opt for what he thinks of as the safe bet on an applicant’s track record. The CMA selection. Or the manager might see good potential and readiness in an as yet untested applicant and bet on his own perception and judgement for the hire.

    In the final analysis, it is the hiring manager who is constantly being tested, not the applicant. His only success is in the success of his hires.

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