Software Equals Interactive Design Education?

When students hear the words interactive design, the first thing that leaps to mind is Flash, HTML or Dreamweaver. But interactive design isn’t all about mastering software. At the classroom level, instructors planning to go head to head with the filters in graphic applications, the audio play list and any vector animation on the web are in for double duty. When developing curricula, instructors will ask, “What might help in dealing with the problem of using software? Should we teach it ‘outside’ the class, i.e., done as workshops by techs, or as a totally separate ‘nuts and bolts’ unit?” No matter the course, its timing, or its content, students must learn how to master software on their own. This does not imply that students in an interactive design program should be sat in front of a computer and learn about the intricacies of Photoshop and other Adobe products by stumbling through all the menus and palettes; rather, instructors must instill self-reliance and ambition beyond these tools.

“What might help in dealing with the problem of using software? Should we teach it ‘outside’ the class, i.e., done as workshops by techs, or as a totally separate ‘nuts and bolts’ unit?”

When it comes to learning software, students can be divided into two categories: self-reliant and instructor-dependent. The self-reliant student will dabble, toy, and experiment until they reach some level of mastery with the given tools; peers will rely on them for help either during or outside the class. Oftentimes the instructor even looks to these students for technical assistance, and moreover, the self-reliant student is the model teacher’s assistant. On the other hand, instructor-dependent students feel the teacher must direct them in times of need, and when instructors continue to help students with even the smallest problems, they will hinder the student’s growth because this prevents them from exploring and troubleshooting on their own. For designers, the willingness to discover and take risks is a valuable asset that mirrors the design process itself. Play yields inquiry, forcing one to ask questions about the matters at hand and then observe, act, and react in order to reach an objective. Whether the media is pencil or computer, instilling self-reliance and the play principle should always be the instructor’s objective when teaching computer media and technology. But changes occur so frequently that unlike a pencil or paintbrush, the Photoshop of today will be different within 1-2 years time. And with companies acquiring one another, or absorbing their competition, it is foolish to revolve a class (or curriculum) around software because institutions may find little or no support for that software in the near future.

At an early level of development, students must learn to understand this so they may adapt to technology’s dynamism long after they leave school and then carry the habit of play and self-reliance into their interactive design practices. By having a media course at the foundation level, students would be exposed to the fundamentals, history, and usage of the computer as a creative tool from the outset. Said course would have weekly lectures about historical and technical data, with breakout sessions for studio work or lab sessions moving them through one piece of software to the next: bitmap and continuous-tone renderings; working with vectors and Post-Script data; and combining the aforementioned with motion. Only after passing this class, would students move into advanced instruction or their focus area, such as graphic design.

But merely creating a new course or changing the entire curriculum won’t guarantee a changeup in a student’s design process; they may invariably start with the computer and rely on software around the clock. And while such a process has its benefits, this technocentric method will close their creative process, and cut them off from valuable research methods and practices, so intervention must happen where the instructor will redirect the student to keep them fresh, motivated, and on the right track.

This intervention can happen in a number of ways, and sometimes teamwork will help bring about fresh results and foster each student’s communication and social skills. Brainstorming sessions are just one of many ways to get them to talk with one another instead of gazing at a screen in isolation, and brainstorming will have a valuable impact over the long term because it teaches students to work in broad terms at the outset, having a broad view of the problem and its context. Requiring students to perform other experiential tasks such as interviewing—where they can hit the ground running and get first hand information from reliable sources—teaches them that design and the work they do has social and cultural relevance, even though it can exist out of context on the users’ computer screens. From interviewing, the may learn that a kiosk will best serve the problem instead of a website. And heuristic evaluations (although a quick and efficient method of testing) challenge students to hold their designs against the barometer of real-world applications and experiences. Mapping will also yield favorable results, especially if the process involves the entire class: through mapping, students will source material that relates to the problem at hand. The visual or textual data builds up piece by piece on a wall, evolving and growing into something that early on, appears out of hand (first described by Robert Horn in 1966). However, through a macro viewing, where students can see large amounts of information and images, they will begin to draw relationships by grouping, fusing, or combining elements. This method of categorization is akin to having an outline prior to writing a paper—it gives you a structure. Nothing is more upsetting than when a student has either lost their storyboards or outline, or both; and it’s even more infuriating to learn about students ignoring that process entirely.

The argument has been made that students, who dwell on processes like those above, will fail to become productive and efficient designers when they enter the workforce. Some even believe that mastery of tools, software and technology is the privileged and ideal skill-set for interactive designers entering an agency. In fact, what most employers do want are designers who can hit the ground running in a number of domains: an understanding of software; a willingness to work in team environments; dedication; curiosity; and strong communication skills. In agency and studio environments, there is always a need for talented electronic production specialists, who dedicate their time and effort to final assembly and engineering of jobs using commercial software and technology; they ensure that a job is “tightly” rendered and that all parts are in place prior to final production and implementation. This would be similar to the 3D designer that generates Frank Gehry’s conceptual visualizations; any of Gehry’s gestures or drawings would be nothing without the 3D designer, but Gehry does not spend his own time rendering and wrestling with the computer because in the studio, generating that initial idea—even as the crudest napkin sketch—carries the most value.

In order for interactive design to move forward, we must generate thinkers, entrepreneurs and innovators in the classroom, so they will have the ability and ambition to do more than mediate between the idea and end product using code or commercial software. In order to prepare students to be thinkers as well as form givers, they should be surrounded by process-sensitive problems and interdisciplinary projects that put them in touch with culture, current events and social issues. Said educational goals would create a self-motivated student with a passion for life-long learning as engaged citizens. A new graphic design curriculum that focuses on principle, tools, complexity, and change would better prepare students for such endeavors. Principles would instruct students about the means of creating dynamic, expressive and communicative form; tools would sharpen hand and craft skills while introducing a wide variety of rendering methods including print and digital media; context would expose students to a range of problems, issues, and influences while fostering critical thinking and inquiry; and complexity would expose them to a range of difficult and dynamic problems needing intense examination and adaptability. Through this breadth of instruction, students would gain ambitions deeper than the supposed financial affluence that awaits them, and foster critical inquiry far beyond gazing at a computer screen for answers.

About the Author:

Jason Tselentis is an educator, writer, and designer living in North Carolina. As Associate Professor at Winthrop University’s Department of Design, he teaches visual communication design, brand strategy and development, web design, and typography. Jason has volunteered as Development Director for the Charlotte AIGA and he has served on their Advisory Board since 2009 focusing on education and membership.

His writings about design and visual culture have appeared in Arcade, Eye, mental_floss, Open Manifesto, HOW, and Print magazines. He is a Print contributing editor. Jason has four books to his credit on design and typography principles, and design history.

From 2003-2009 he contributed to the award-winning design forum Speak Up as an author. He has blogged for RockPaperInk and AIGA, and writes for,, and