Yr03, Ep23 :: Michael Smith on Deepening Design Practice

Michael Smith

by This is Design School

On this episode, Michael Smith, Director of the Master of Human-Computer Interaction + Design Program at the University of Washington, talks about information architecture as an entry point to design, the sad loss of studio culture, and teaching and practicing design research.
Photo Credit: Chris Koehler / frog


Chad:

Michael Smith, thank you for being here on This is Design School. I’m really excited to have a great productive conversation with you. When we were thinking about Season 3, you were one of the first people that came to mind as somebody I thought would be interesting to talk to that I knew from the past.

Michael:

Oh. I’m very flattered. Thanks for having me.

Chad:

I think a good place to start would be hearing a little bit where you are now and kind of your journey to get here.

Michael:

So, let us start with where I am today. Today, I am just a little under one year now as the Director of the Masters in Human Computer Interaction and Design degree program at the University of Washington, which is an interdisciplinary technology and design program that’s sponsored by the Paul Allen School of Computer Science, The Information School, the Human Centered Design and Engineering Department of the College of Engineering, and the Division of Design in the School of Art, Art History, and Design. We share faculty from a lot of different places, and our goal is to help educate a kind of technology-centered designer, design researchers and design technologists. It’s a pretty exciting and new and different place to be for me. I also sit on the faculty of the Division of Design for Interaction Design. There, I teach Design Research mostly, although you know, only once a year, or so.

And then, the question of how I came to be here is a little more complicated. Immediately prior to this, I was a Principle Interaction Designer at Frog in the Seattle studio. There I’d been working on… my specialization was in the design of large scale systems. Regularly, clients would come to us and say, “Well, we need to develop this new product, and it needs to have a number of different endpoints.” And, I would be a person they could call on to help kind of make sense of a lot of that and help coordinate and design, especially around design language systems, UI Toolkits, things like that that could be spread across a lot of different things.

I’m very also technology oriented, right? My master’s degree is in library and information science. So, I originally went to school to be an academic librarian, and then did not get a job in a library, as many don’t. And since then, have kind of slowly migrated into the world of design through the door of information architecture. So, that’s kind of how I came to be in here.

I can go into more into depth of how all of that happened, but I was at Frog for around five years, and I worked on a lot of different projects. But I was really focused on… I did a long term automotive project. I did several projects that were around point of sale stuff and then enterprise software, which is another thing that I did a lot of work in.

Chad:

I wanted to go back and go a little bit deeper into that transition from library science over to design, and pull that part a little bit more.

Michael:

Yeah. Most people do. I usually get emails from people who are in library school, or are like, “How did you manage this?” Because it’s interesting, right?

And, it is certainly a field of expertise that I think many people trained in information science could make the jump without any difficulty, especially because you’re thinking about information, right? And, even in the act of creating works of design, you’re still thinking about how can you take information and make it meaningful to people, or evocative or emotional or things like that. And so, if library science is about at some point about understanding why humans interact with information, which is really at its core what it’s all about.

Chad:

Yes.

Michael:

Then how, and I think interacting with information is not accidental, right? Now you have that information side of things, interaction side of things leads to interaction design, and then the presentation of those things ends up being how you get into the more traditional design backgrounds. I think that’s what happened to me, is I came out of library school, I went to work at the USEPA, the Environmental Protection Agency. I was doing mostly document indexing. I would take major government documents, and I would write abstracts for them. And I started working on a project that had me trying to integrate the metadata structures that we created for those documents into this new record keeping system. And, ultimately as we went through it I was like, but we can’t just abstractly design these information structures without knowing who’s going to be using them and for what purpose, and to balance different kinds of stakeholders. There’s like system level demands, and there was like individual user demands, and there was the public nature demand of all of this. And it just was like, “I can’t make these information structures without knowing the people.” And I was really frustrated with it.

And then, I left the EPA and went to work at a technology consulting company in Seattle that was doing some work around a large scale taxonomy system for a big tech giant in the area. And taxonomy was one of those things. Taxonomy is of course like the organization of information, you’re trying to create, kind of like take a body of knowledge and create some schema for organizing it. And so again, it was the same thing, I was working on this system and I was like this just doesn’t, this isn’t working for me. Like, I can do it and I can describe it intellectually or within a particular discourse or within our mode of understanding this body of knowledge, but without being connected to who’s ultimately going to be using it, I couldn’t quite make the leap. And so, I was frustrated by it.

And then, one day… So I mean, that’s still like I’m on the information side of things. And, one day I end up getting invited to a usability study. This is how it all started. I’m taking notes.

So here’s the thing, is that actually all of this began vastly before. Back in the early HTML days, right around Netscape. So, that must have been, what 1995, 1996 time period, right? I learned HTML, and started doing web design. Web design, right? I was a web master for my own personal thing.

Jp:

I remember those days well.

Michael:

Exactly. And, it’s like kind of like you’re going and you’re looking up the HTML spec, right? You’re looking at the documentation for Netflix Navigator, right? And so like this is my first introduction and then I did, and then it turns out, and I had forgotten this until maybe four or five years ago that I did actually all of the graphic design and layout for my high school year book. Now, I don’t even know how I forgot I did that, mostly just because the only thing I did in high school was like listen to heavy metal and play Doom.

So, all of these things kind of came together and what I was starting to see was like, “Oh wait, I actually know a little something about why I think things like should be arranged aesthetically.” And then, I saw this usability test, and I was like oh man, this is it, right? I’m starting to see how information architecture which I studied in graduate school plays into all of this. I can see people using it in this way, and I can break the bridge between the taxonomic organization of information and information architecture.

And so, then I got into an information architect role within the same company. I kind of moved laterally from taxonomist to information architect. And then, I got thrust into like, we gotta make websites. And, I made websites. A lot of them. Regularly, often, with way too little time. And then, you know I started doing things. You know, you’re making wireframes, you’re thinking about interactivity, you’re mostly doing flows and site maps. You’re like very deliverable focused, right? It’s like we gotta crank this stuff out, I was working on eCommerce sites, it was all like optimizing, usability and how can we get somebody to buy this thing a little better?

So now, I have this accumulated body of knowledge, right? Like all of these little interests like web design, that started off, you know, when I was just a wee teenager. Then graduate school information architecture, usability, right? Like doing research, like field research, in some ways, or in this case lab research, and then I’m now making websites. Somehow along the way, I tricked some hiring committee at Frog to hire me.

Chad:

Well, what do you mean tricked? I mean you had to get into the door somehow.

Michael:

I got referred by somebody who left the company I was working at who went there. And, you know, I earnestly, I knew a fair bit about, UX in the sense of what user experience was at the time.

Chad:

Yeah.

Michael:

But, mostly in the implementation side of things. I would say that I was very immature. I was a fairly good consultant, cause I’m a pretty good talker. I knew how to build convincing arguments for why we’re doing things the way we were. But really earnestly, I didn’t know a ton about design, like big D, or little d design. And that’s when, that’s how I got to today.

I went to Frog, had a really great interview with some very, very great people, and they were like, “Yeah, you should come and join the team.” And I was like “Okay, we’re going to do this, I’m going to go.” Scared out of my mind in some ways, cause this is one of the big you know product studios, right?

Chad:

Yeah.

Michael:

And, I went there and within the first week had one of those hard conversations with somebody looking across the table being like, “you need to do better.”

Chad:

They were saying that to you?

Michael:

Yeah. And part of that is like we have high expectations of you, but you need to have higher expectations of yourself. Not only in terms of… Because like, a lot of times in UX at the time, it was like, you know, you move fast, take chances, right? Like you’re all about, at the time it was like very rapid and iterative and Frog is a very formal place, right? It wasn’t one of those things where UX was like, sure, you can kind of make it look good but visual design was like down the cascade, it was after a lot of like the main product thinking had already been done. And, Frog was very much like super integrated, like tech, interaction design, visual design, like all on the same team. Very tightly coupled with business strategy people and with design researchers, and so it was like, oh boy, everything all of the time. And then like every single person in the chain had some expectation of formal excellence, which for me, I didn’t have, because I never had a studio that I worked in. I often worked alone in my other places where it was kind of like you have your own thing.

Jp:

Could you say that your, you knew enough to be dangerous?

Michael:

No. I don’t think I was quite dangerous. That’s the problem, is that I am now, because five years at Frog made it so.

Jp:

Oh, okay.

Michael:

Where I went out of my way to learn an awful lot about the gaps that I quickly identified as a result of that. You know, my understanding of design research was usability, right? We need to make a prototype and test it. And a mature organization like Frog, especially in the design point of view was very much like we have a lot of different ways of using design research, right? There’s many different forms of it, and there’s a lot of things that we can learn besides whether or not the product works or not. In fact, that’s kind of like not even the most interesting form of design research.

And so we got to do like design ethnography. Like, that’s exciting. Not many organizations ever get a chance to do that. Like we got to go out on the field and just observe people and try to figure out like what would be good for them, or how could we make this product relevant for their lives?

And that’s great, and I learned a lot, right? And, I learned how to be a better interaction designer by, by a large amount, the most broadest sense of that term. It wasn’t just like oh, “how can we better make like widgets fit together a little better,” or “help people use products that have some sort of glowing rectangle or buttons on them.” Mostly it was the very broad idea of like just what constitutes interaction design at the broad level, right? The, you know, the perception action life cycle. How can you change someone’s environment and help to find a way to influence them to act in a particular way and then see the environment change as a result of that? It’s really, like being able to have an environment that believes, the most broadest sense of interaction design helped me identify what could I do. How could I use this in a new and interesting way? And, I still like making products. I like designing apps. It’s kind of fun, but it’s not hard anymore. It can’t be.

Jp:

What about the location we’re currently in is one of the classroom spaces… studio spaces here on the UW campus. Can you talk about perhaps how your experience at Frog has helped translate or meld into the classroom environment?

Michael:

That’s a great point. And, so now as, in my instructor role, I’m very much trying to simulate or to create one of those working out loud environments that Frog was like. We had a strong pin up culture in that place. End of every day put your work up on the wall, right? Or the beginning of every day, show where you’re at, get critique, give critique, give updates. Be working out loud as much as possible. Some people call it collaboration, and it can be collaborative, but often times it’s just trying to be like, here’s how we’re all working toward the same goal and we see it.

“...in design education... sometimes there is a strong emphasis placed on the process, and a little more forgiveness put towards outcomes. And, I strongly believe now... formal excellence is necessary.”

 

So, I’m trying very hard to get to that environment here while still achieving our educational outcome desires. How can we create a place that is not only about the work, but also about the process? And, it has to be about the work too. It’s one of those things that I see emerging in design education, is that sometimes there is a strong emphasis placed on the process, and a little more forgiveness put towards outcomes. And, I strongly believe now, because of the environment that I was in at Frog, that formal excellence is necessary.

I mean, it’s the thing, right? You go back to the Eames quote about ideas are cheap. They are. Lots of people have ideas. Many people have ideas, but what distinguishes design and designers is the ability to execute on those ideas and to like hone in on the formal aspect of the things that you’re creating. So, we’re trying to emphasize that. If you walk around our studio, at the end of every studio session, everybody’s work for the week is up on the wall. And they can have conversations about it, they can see how other teams are doing, they can see what other people are working on, and they externalize their process in some way to learn from each other, but also it helps elevate the level of formal excellence by seeing where each of the teams are at. So it’s definitely an environment that I’m trying to cultivate.

And you know, we’re here on a Sunday morning. It’s what, a quarter to 11, maybe at this point? I can hear in the studio right now at least two student teams here working. Which, you know, is not unusual for graduate school, but at the same time, we’ve instilled in them the idea that the studio is the place where work happens. You can go and work in a coffee shop if you want, but the studio has everything that you need, and will, and that the very environment itself will help you do great design work. It’s a trend I think I’m seeing as I think that the studio model is going away in industry. There’s still beginning to be some small places that do it, and I think it’s a net loss for the discipline and the kind of the way that we approach problem. I think that the studio is a thing that… it’s a really important way to be immersive and help people grow together and for us to continue to push the discipline and the outcomes forward even or in the future. So I’ll be sad to see it go.

Chad:

What do you think are the drivers behind the loss of studio?

Michael:

As far as I can tell, it’s the need, it’s actually really tightly coupled to the desire and need for more designers in the world. Because a lot of people recognize, there was the, you know, the tech boom that started in 2007. With the iPhone came about in part because of Apple’s commitment in one way or another to like, the design of the product itself, and that included the software and the hardware and the way people used it. It was a whole encompassing thing. I think what it created was like, and it was such a, no doubt, the iPhone changed the world in a really significant way. So I think a lot of the people in business see that and go “Design is important.”

And, that’s why we see an increase in the salaries of designers and the demand for designers in not only in tech but in all sorts of different businesses. And, as that demand goes up, we also need them in more distributed cases. It’s not enough to have a design team sequestered away in their own little studio that you can call on to work on something. But what we need is somebody that can be down in the details on the team level working with a bunch of other people. As a result, they increasingly get isolated. they’re like, “We need you over here, we need you working on our thing.” And in technology, that’s one thing, and businesses there are other things that kind of go to that. But it’s like, “We need to protect you all to ourselves.” So it’s very… We’re pulling that one person aside, and then as they do that, they’re working with other people that can help them grow and develop an interesting thinking group, somebody that has a good attitude towards problem solving, but at the same time what you don’t get is that like commitment to the process and excellence process, right? There’s no other designer to be like, “You need to put more time into this. You didn’t do enough here, you got lazy,” right? That’s the kind of critique that people need to hear sometimes.

Jp:

The competitiveness.

Michael:

A little bit, yeah. I guess so. I’m not a competitive person, and so as a result, I feel like we need to have higher ideals. I like to think of it as like, The West Wing problem, right? Which is The West Wing is a TV show which was the high ideal. Whether or not you agreed with its politics, which is kind of like everybody in the White House was all trying to do the right things for the reasons they thought were best.

“The studio process is about putting people who think, who have the same motivational point of view, that aspire to the same sort of excellence together. And, when that happens, it's not even about you need to do better because I'm doing better, but rather we all should hold ourselves to higher standards.”

 

Some of the ways I think the studio process is about putting people who think, who have the same motivational point of view, that aspire to the same sort of excellence together. And, when that happens, it’s not even about you need to do better because I’m doing better, but rather we all should hold ourselves to higher standards, which I really appreciate.

Jp:

I like that idea.

Michael:

Aspirational aspect of the studio is the like we all like, we are part of something bigger than ourselves, and we are trying to do something meaningful, even if it is like making an app for helping people walk dogs. I mean, sure.

Jp:

Do you feel that, that your program is doing that?

Michael:

You know, I can’t say what people are not finding outside of the studio. Again, I see it as I’m trying my best to do that in our place. I don’t know how well I’m succeeding at it. Again, this is only my first year. So I like to see the outcomes that I have from the studio process and the things that we assign and the projects and things like that. I feel like I’m getting to a point where I’m satisfied, but also I’m trying at all times to engage people from the outside. We bring people in from industry to do critiques regularly. They work with an advisor and their custom projects from industry, and so we’re trying to like find additional vectors for elevating the standards just behind, besides the teaching teams that we have. So I hope so.

And you know, what happens in industry, I can only speak from my own experience. And, I know that people go in, and especially when they go into tech companies, often get slotted onto development teams or things like that they’re working by themselves on this narrow little slice and they get one hour of critique a week from their manager and that’s basically it. And, that can work, and lots of places do make it work. But I, you know, I’m one of those people that’s kind of like… I want to be more aspirational, it would be greater if we could have more than this.

Jp:

Oh yeah, yup.

Michael:

So I don’t know, maybe someday we’ll get back to it. But, the other thing too is my hope is that—I tell all of my students this—which is like we believe in studios, studios can do great work and I try to demonstrate to them so that when they go off in industry after a few years and they get into leadership positions and they organize their own teams, they begin to think, “Oh yeah, the studio model, this is going to be really cool.” And then we start to regrow it organically. I think that is a pipe dream, maybe, but I’m going for it. I’m going for it.

Chad:

As you’re talking, it was bringing up this idea that I was quite interested in when I was in grad school, which is the increasing role of designer as facilitator.

Michael:

Oh yeah.

Chad:

You know you’re talking about being sequestered off, and yeah, you have that role, but you’re also usually being called upon to kind of almost guide or lead a process and a different way of thinking. I’m curious to see. I mean, there’s obviously the studio model, but obviously at some point everybody’s probably going to get pulled away or pulled back in to some degree. Is that a part of the ideology here anything that you push, is the idea of facilitation in a process as well as participating in that?

Michael:

You know that way that you’ve, the way that you’ve mentioned, and I think so is that, and it’s something that I would like to work on. One of the things I would really like to see come out of MHCID is this idea that we’re not only educating people to be great designers, but also designing leaders.

Chad:

Yeah.

Michael:

And I think that’s part of it, right? We can come out and you know something about, you know, what different tools, techniques, and processes make design powerful in different kinds of contexts, but then also at the same time, can you articulate that power and help other people through it and to know their boundaries, right? And that’s the important part about design as facilitators, that there’s this ongoing meme and it’s actually I love this in Bill Buxton’s book Sketching User Experiences there’s this big page which was like, “no, not everybody is a designer.” Which I, I actually strongly believe right at the same thing. There’s this meme out there that’s like “Oh, well everybody can be a designer.” And I’m like, “Probably.” You can certainly learn a few of those techniques, but at the same time everybody has some limit, either in their own comfort, their capacity or willingness to engage in it. And so as a result, it’s better to think about how design is facilitation.

This is actually a new, it’s an interesting framing. I talk about facilitating things all the time, doing a lot of workshops, you know. But design is, designer as facilitator as well is like, that’s an interesting idea that I think I need to dive into a little deeper. I think that might be a really succinct way of putting this idea that you are trying to organize people around the core ideas of the ways of doing design, but also recognizing that not everybody wants to do it, so you’re trying to guide and shepherd them through this thing without being able to draw on their expertise without expecting them to do things that they shouldn’t be expected to do. Right, like no one’s going to say you can figure out how to fix your car. I’ll show you, and then expect me totally go and fix the car.

Chad:

Yeah. Is that something that you ran into as a principal at Frog at all? I’m guessing there was some level of client engagement in the process.

Michael:

Oh yeah. Well I mean. Constantly.

Chad:

Yeah. So that’s kind of where you have like a team of experts, then you also have the people that are coming to participate in this process in some way. I don’t know if that translates in experience at all in that way.

Michael:

It does. And, and it’s a great, I mean I miss a lot of that level of facilitation. I had done a lot of it, because there’s actually this interesting piece where there’s like Frog, one of the things was like, you would sell design research in workshops, and they were all interrelated. Which was like, if you’re going to draw people into this process, you know we can go out in the field and do design research, learn something about the participants and the people that we’re trying to reach, you know, for whatever the project happened to be, and then coming back and engaging stakeholders and trying to orient them to that; to those insights and to those empathetic artifacts, and then also getting them to be a part of this process, and getting them comfortable with abduction, right?

Because one of the things too that’s challenging is you go and talk about design research and they’re like well what did you observe? And I’m like that’s not the point of design research. I mean, it is to some degree, but it’s also about engaging everybody and creating synthesis of our personal knowledge and our organizational knowledge and the knowledge of the participants that we’re working with and building it into new insights in to a problem space. And that makes people uncomfortable.

Chad:

Yeah.

Michael:

So, if you don’t know how to do that, if you can’t be that facilitator, it doesn’t seem like you’ll be successful doing the high level strategic design work that is increasingly becoming more valuable to organizations and industry.

Chad:

Yeah.

Michael:

Did I answer the question?

Chad:

Yes. Well, that’s a hard thing to learn. I mean that, I remember that was, and is something I always struggle with in that process.

Michael:

Oh, yeah.

You know sometimes the first thing you have to recognize is that doing design research and presenting your work and arguing for it, there are those things that you do that can hone your personal craft, but that are easy to translate out, right? Once you get comfortable working with Design research participants, all of a sudden working with stakeholders is just another flavor of that, and so you go into it not with that nervous anticipation of being evaluated, but rather, you seek to build rapport, you seek to learn and hear them, you listen, you pay attention to what’s going on. And so as a result, then you emerge from this being like, “Oh look, those things that I learned how to make my craft better also help me be like a better practitioner in the more broad sense.” And so those things, you know, getting up and doing critique also helps you be a better facilitator, because in the same way, you have to listen what other people are saying. You have to quickly understand what your goals are in the critique. Like, when you pin up work, what are you looking to get from it? So I mean, I think there, it’s one of the reasons again why I’m usually just so genuinely excited about design education in the broad sense and why I’m doing this now is because like I learned all those things kind of slowly over time, and started to piece them together, and then when I started to teach them it started to cohere into some, like a very clear point of view on how you could make all of this happen.

Chad:

Yeah.

Michael:

And I had a colleague that was like, some aspect of design is sales. Which is true, right? But design is also a rhetoric. Another one of my colleagues, Andy Fitzgerald, talked about this. Where design is rhetoric because at some point what you’re trying to do is you’re building an argument for future.

Jp:

I like to say that design is a hostage negotiation.

Michael:

Tell me more about that.

Jp:

So you, in a critique to a client, you are trying to convince them that you have the best interest in mind and that you are trying to get them to agree to your decisions.

Michael:

Ah.

Jp:

But sometimes they have their own agenda in mind and want something out of it, and so you have to not agree to anything except to get something out of it.

Michael:

Ah, oh I see. Yes. So we’re. We promise there’s going to be an outcome. We don’t know what our degree of comfort with what the outcome is going to be across the board from either of the parties.

Jp:

Exactly.

Michael:

I like the idea that the thing that’s being held hostage ultimately is the product itself. Or the outcome, whatever it is that you’re making.

Jp:

Yeah.

Michael:

I don’t mean to say, I’m oriented more towards product design, because that’s what I’ve been doing for six or seven years.

Jp:

Right.

Michael:

But it’s bigger than that.

Jp:

Yeah. But, any sort of design is really, there is a product, there is a client, there is an end user of some sort.

Michael:

Yeah.

Chad:

I wanted to go back to that idea of learning through giving critique.

Michael:

Uh huh.

Chad:

Because you also were an adjunct, you taught adjunct both at UW and SVC, right?

Michael:

Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Chad:

During your time at Frog, how did that push your own learning as a practitioner?

Michael:

Well, so one of the things that’s interesting is that it, well you know, as a practitioner you end up developing a set of processes and things that you do that are part of your personal style and it may not be conscious. It’s one of those things that you develop these things that are either like, it’s comfortable to me. There are things that you do because they help you understand, they help you through the sense making process of design. And beyond that, right, you develop crutches, right, like oh I can take this shortcut or things like that.

And the things about teaching when I started at UW, I remember quite clearly how it all happened. I came to a critique that was UW interaction design students’ portfolios, and I was looking at it and I went into it and Tad Hirsch invited me to come in and do these critiques and sat down with a lot of people’s portfolios, and afterwards he’s like, “So what do you, what were your impressions overall?” And I was like, “Oh, that’s like good formal craft skills, some decent design that they gave but there’s some big gaps that I think kind of get in the way from them like being able to immediately slot into kind of the roles that we’re looking for.” And he’s like “Okay, what do you think those are?” And, I kind of told him, I was like “You know you don’t talk much about information architecture, it doesn’t seem that they can think in that decompositional side of things. Like how do you, like synthesis is about making new sense of things, but there’s also some aspect of like breaking things down and helping to make sense of it that way.” So he was like “Okay cool, thanks for volunteering.” And I was like “Okay, sure.” And then like four months later he was like “So you’re on the teaching calendar for Fall.”

Chad:

It sounds like Tad.

Michael:

You know him. Exactly, right? So I was like okay, if you want this class, you come in and teach it. And then, what that did, and this is a long way of telling the same story, is it forced me to go through and think about my own process and the way that I do things and decompose it in much the same way.

So, what was I doing? How is it valuable? What were the gaps and what were the shortcuts? And so the very act of writing a syllabus and trying to figure out how are you going to teach this topic and what way will you teach the topic helped me understand myself better. And so, it was a reflective thing. It was a critique of not only the work I was doing, but the way I worked. And, it was like a process and methodological way of doing it. And then, you do that where you’re like, “oh, okay, well I have some gaps, I need to fill those in.” And, because I would I would expect this of someone else, I need to know what it is. And then I was like, “How am I going to do the research to fill this gap? How am I going to teach myself how to teach this?”

Chad:

Yeah.

Michael:

And then, the best part of it is then you go in and teach the class and then you see this process manifest itself through the students doing the work. They start to achieve the outcomes that I would expect them to achieve through this process. And then I was like “Oh.” It’s in some way a validation, right? It’s a test. And so you get to see, “Okay, now I understand not only my own process better by going through and decomposing it in such a way to better understand it and teach it, but also I can see in what ways even that understanding was not complete because these fresh new minds whom are hungry to do great work don’t have the whole picture and what they struggle with.”

But then at the same time, how you can help them work through that through the critique process and through explanation and personal work and feedback until they get to a great outcome as a result. So that was like, that little bit of teaching was really important in catalyzing for me. It also showed me here’s some more, here’s some holes you need to fill in. And, in much the same way, the design research that I had been doing at Frog, I was pretty rough at it. I knew how to do a good interview, I kind of knew how to plan things, but I didn’t know how to guide a team through it. I needed somebody to be like, “Here’s great, here’s how we’re going to do it, we’re going to work and figure out who these participants are going to be, let’s go make it happen.” And then, once I started teaching design research, all of that clarified for me. I understood the theoretical underpinnings, but I had had some like… As part of library school you learn how to do qualitative research. Then that all got resurrected, and the next thing is I teach that class through this book I was assigned in graduate school, right? Robson’s Real World Research, which is just like this really nice concise, here’s how to do qualitative research. And then, what I do is I assign that, and then I match it to design research methods. So it’s like okay, you can’t escape here without knowing observation, without knowing how to do interviews, because every other method in design research is kind of dependent on learning those two skills. So it kind of goes from there. I think that teaching helped. Because I didn’t have a formal design education, it helped me better understand what design was in the more kind of formal sense.

“I think that teaching helped. Because I didn't have a formal design education, it helped me better understand what design was in the more kind of formal sense.”

 

Chad:

Yeah.

Michael:

Okay. I’m sorry, I feel like I’m starting to ramble now.

Chad:

No, no.

Jp:

Not at all.

Michael:

Okay.

Jp:

I find that very fascinating as I think of my own design teaching, I’m thinking like oh, I need, I’ve got to push that even further. My 300 level class is about design research.

Michael:

Yes.

Jp:

And, I would love to get it down to a 200 level to get it earlier so that way at the 300 level they’re doing it, they’re not just getting their flavor for it.

Michael:

Right.

Jp:

They’ve already consumed it and they’re hungry for it at that point.

Michael:

Yeah, and so just as my way of thinking about this is that I think there’s different ways of flipping the rigor switch on design research. What I really like to do is, and I know that some people would strongly disagree with me on this one which is, “No, you have to start very rigorous and then teach them to back off, right?” It’s the, like the great jazz musicians didn’t just break the rules, they knew the rules and then learned where to break them.
And I’m like, “That’s fine, but I also have to trust that people are interested in developing their own set of skills.” So, it’s kind of like “Okay, here’s how you could use observation, just base level. Go out, pay attention to people.” And then you could do that with sophomores, 200 level people, right? Then at 300 level, it’s like “Okay, well now let’s talk about some structures of how to do this, right? What are different modes of doing observation?” And then, as you go along you can up the level of rigor associated with that. It’s kind of like you can learn the technique and you can begin to use it in a way that doesn’t do active harm to. It’s kind of like, “How am I informing my design decision making,” to, “How am I then actually being able to make claims about the people that we’re working with,” to finally the highest level of rigor is how can we actually say like “Here’s what we know to be the truth about a particular group of people,” right? And that’s 200, 300, 400 right there.

Jp:

Yeah.

Michael:

So I mean, those are those kind of exciting things that you can do. I’m excited. I think I’m going to be doing some, a bit of research next quarter, and I’ve never gone through the IRB process at UW, because I’ve never had to. I’ve never had to get my research plans reviewed. And so, now I have to think about this in a whole new level of rigor for myself, which is like how will I be able to ensure that I’m communicating adequately the goals and kind of participants of my research in order to ensure that if I want to have it published and validated in that way, I can do so.

Jp:

Yeah.

Chad:

The design world is changed a lot in the last 10 years.

Michael:

Yeah.

Chad:

That’s not a novel statement. Now that you’re in a university setting leading a program, I’m curious about how you balance, while creating curriculum, the need to teach relevant skills that are relevant for today’s demand.

Michael:

Yes.

Chad:

Versus also preparing these students to change with the field as time passes.

Michael:

Ah. That’s an interesting question. My general feeling Is is that there are… I myself have a very theoretical minded point of view.

Chad:

Yeah.

Michael:

And so you know, I think there’s a few different like layers to all of this, right? If being able to address the base level theory, right? Like where has the discourse in the discipline led us to at this point? And do we as a group, as a practicing field, then also recognize where those things have come from and where they’re leading us? There is the side of body of thought that we can draw from, and a bunch of experiences and practices. And a lot of those haven’t changed very much. I mean the newest kind of du jour thing is prototype and test which is like, “Ah ha, yes!” And sure, okay. I mean I know it’s a lot of books written about this and it’s an entire mode of operating that some parts of the world are very excited about. And, I don’t know if you saw like Alan Cooper’s big, ranty tweet storm about it. He basically got online and was like, “Prototype and test isn’t human centered design.” He’s like, “I don’t know what it is. It’s maybe design, but it’s certainly not human centered.” Right?

And, I can’t really tell if that’s like, where he’s coming from, you know? Is it, because some people would say, “Well you’re testing with people, right? Isn’t that the core idea that users, that people that you’re involved with have some say into the things that you’re creating?” So, I look at that kind of point of view which is we can certainly teach and respect that in some way, but part of it is about building the curiosity about why we do things. So that’s the way that you get people to continuously change and to be thinking and progressing and maybe that’s the best part about it is to be a progressive designer means also to know not only where we came from, but what might work in the future, and thinking about the future in a critical way. Not only in the practice but also the work that we do.

“To be a progressive designer means also to know not only where we came from, but what might work in the future, and thinking about the future in a critical way. Not only in the practice but also the work that we do.”

 

Jp:

(Laughs)

Michael:

Uh huh, uh huh. Right, exactly.

And, I dwell on it constantly, because it’s true. It’s absolutely true. You know, when the studios were looking at that. Which is like “Okay, we can do some things.” Like, what is sketching? What is, you know, doing things in systems for analysis and individual prototyping techniques, right? So, if you start with a paper prototype, right? And the same way, if you start with observation in the research course, what you’re building there is a really flexible tool that has never gotten old, that has been around since like scientific inquiry. I mean it’s as old as anything, right? So observation, a structure technique can be applied to so many different things. So, when a new technique comes out and you can see and translate and understand how observation plays a part of that. Then, it becomes easy for you to try something new.

And, in the same way, when you think about craft in design, there are, you have to learn how to sketch well. Because without knowing how to sketch, you can’t go through and think about the leveling the various degrees of fidelity required in order to communicate a design idea. And, the same thing with prototyping. This is a really important part of our program. You start with making paper prototypes because paper prototypes are fast, they’re easy to understand, they’re very flexible and powerful, they can be used to solve a number of different design kind of like challenges in different ways. And then, you can use that thinking, the way of thinking about problem solving using prototypes to then extend into all different kinds of prototypes. Video prototypes, behavioral prototypes. Look at like physical computing and kind of making large scale things that could be miniaturized in the future. All those things require the same fundamental theory to kind of base it off of. So we really put the emphasis on that, and then allow students to explore different techniques or skills through the studios, and then they can use them interchangeably at their desire. We still can go take those techniques and letter them back up to the theory that underlies them. And then, in our lecture series, we get really theoretical. That’s my favorite part about it. I’m getting there? I think so.

Jp:

Yeah, I was just going to say we’re reaching our time with you. Do you have any last minute questions that you want to?

Chad:

I’ve got all my big ones covered, how about you?

Jp:

I was just going to ask you I guess a design tip for the design students out there. What should they be reading?

Michael:

What, oh, what they should be reading?

Jp:

Yes.

Michael:

Oh, okay.

Jp:

Actually, let me rephrase that. What should they be reading or listening to or looking at? Because design education isn’t just about reading, it’s about experiences.

Michael:

Yeah. So like, okay, so let’s start with a basic movie. Everybody has to watch Jodorowsky’s Dune. Have you guys watched this?

Chad:

No.

Michael:

Okay, well now you both have homework.

Chad:

All right.

Jp:

I like it.

Michael:

So it’s a documentary about Alejandro Jodorowsky, he’s a Spanish filmmaker. But, Jodorowsky made a bunch of really crazy psychedelic movies in the 70’s like El Topo and The Holy Mountain and you know, very much like avant garde filmmaking, even for that period. But at some point, he was signed up to make Dune before David Lynch did, and this movie is him recounting the story of how he didn’t come to make Dune and what he did along the way. And it is the perfect example of the genius mad man designer in some way, right? Try to coordinate all of these things and to realize some vision. So that at the very least is a thing which is like it’s about first learning how to deal with difficult people, but also about being committed to an idea so wholly. So that is definitely like.

Jp:

Awesome.

Michael:

You should watch that.

Jp:

Yes.

Michael:

And then like there is a… So the other thing I’m really interested in design fictions, design futures. And so people have been asking what science fiction do you want to read, right? And so, then I have like my two big fiction books I think everybody needs to check out. You have to read Ursula Guin, you read the Dispossessed. And that isn’t so much about like a design idea, but the main reason why Ursula Guin is so important to me is that she really was the first science fiction writer that I had read that proposed a future that was humane in some way, that actually represented what seemed to be an actual course of humanity in the broad scale. Which is that, it is realistic but also that it doesn’t have to be either like blindly utopian like Asimov or like bleakly depressive like Philip Dick. So you know, she is of that same era. But, actually has a point of view that says that humanity is valuable in some way. And then the contrast to that of course is William Gibson, right? I’m sure everyone would be like read Neuromancer. Don’t read Neuromancer. Read Virtual Light. If you want a bleak understanding of San Francisco basically in the very near future, that’s the book to read.

Jp:

Okay.

Michael:

And then, I have one final book recommendation. Listening to you, I don’t know, like listen to more heavy metal, that’s all I say. But the other book, the actual design book that people if they haven’t read it, keep asking people, like has everybody read Alexander’s Notes on the Synthesis of Form? You should read Notes on the Synthesis of Form. It’s a short text. It’s kind of based in an architecture point of view. But, I think that everybody who reads it has a new and different understanding of the role of making things or expressing themselves through creation in the world. It’s a great text. So I’ll close with that one. Notes on the Synthesis of Form.

Jp:

Nice. Well thank you very much for your time, and great space that you have here. Hearing the students and seeing all the stuff on the walls and the conversation… I feel very inspired.

Michael:

Oh great, thank you so much.

Jp:

I think I’m going to pass it onto the students. So, thank you.

Michael:

All right. Appreciate you having me on, thanks so much guys.

Chad:

Thanks.

Jp:

Thank you.

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