Amid such a display of polymorphous technological perversity, one might well ask what any of
this has to do with preparing graduates for the job
market. “These economic times apply a pressure to
become more vocational,” O’Sullivan acknowledges.
But ITP is holding firm to its philosophy of preserving creative freedom in a technology world often
fixated on producing measurable outcomes. The
school’s philosophy evokes a more Arcadian school
of thought, one in which the pursuit of creative
expression trumps the demands of industry. No
doubt many of these students, after they go to work
in the industry, will one day look back fondly on the
freedom they enjoyed in ITP’s digital sandbox.
A few blocks away on 13th Street, Parsons Design
School offers an MFA in communication design
and technology. In contrast to ITP’s loosely structured curriculum, Parsons requires students to
take a foundational course in interface design, then
choose from one of three concentrations: interactive, narrative, or computation. Within each concentration, the program emphasizes a traditional
approach to design education with lots of studio
time and opportunities for critique.
Like ITP, Parsons offers plenty of room for personal creativity, encouraging students to explore
social and artistic themes in addition to more
applied projects. Recent student thesis projects
have ranged from a mobile application to support
outpatient health services in the developing world
to an experimental video installation that draws
parallels between Little Red Riding Hood and an
oppressed Muslim woman,
Together, ITP and Parsons constitute the closest
thing to an educational establishment for interaction design in the city–long-running programs with
substantial enrollment and a track record of turning out highly employable graduates. And while
each school differs slightly in approach, they share
a common purpose in trying to create a supportive
environment for students to follow their creative
instincts while developing marketable skills.
At the northern tip of Greenwich Village on 14th
Street, Pratt Institute is exploring an altogether
different approach to design education, by cross-pollinating two once disparate disciplines: library
science and graphic design.
As library science programs across the country
struggle to reinvent themselves in the Internet age,
many are closing down or recasting themselves as
“iSchools” in the mode of UC-Berkeley. While Pratt
has committed to preserving its foundations in
traditional librarianship, many of its recent graduates have found themselves leaving the library field
after graduation to take on roles as information
architects or, in some cases, interaction designers.
Recognizing this trend toward nontraditional
career paths for library school graduates, Pratt’s
library school dean, Tula Giannini, spotted an
opportunity. Situated within a school best known
for its design programs, Pratt seemed uniquely
positioned to experiment with its curriculum at the
intersections between the information sciences and
“There’s going to be a need for high-level digital
skills that go beyond navigation and usability,”
explains Giannini, “to the creative side of illuminating meaning: revealing content and relationships in
an interactive, participatory, conversational environment.” In other words, librarians need to learn
to think like designers.
Starting this year, Pratt students will be able to
pursue a combined degree in library science and
digital arts, drawing on the school’s deep well of
graphic design training in addition to the library
school’s growing emphasis on topics like usability
and information architecture.
How will the traditional, left-brained library curriculum converge with the design school’s more
right-brained, experiential approach? No one knows
quite yet. The first dual master’s degree student
will enroll this fall.
All three of these schools have embarked on
uncertain paths, trying to prepare tomorrow’s
digital designers for a world of constantly evolving forms. How all of this will play out is anyone’s
guess. But if there’s one thing interaction designers
ought to be good at, it’s living with uncertainty.
“Everything here is a prototype,” says Danzico.
“This is version 0.1.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR Alex Wright is the author
of Glut: Mastering Information Through the Ages. He
has led user experience design initiatives for the
New York Times, Yahoo!, Microsoft, IBM, Harvard
University, and the Long Now Foundation, among
others. His writing has appeared in Salon.com, the
Christian Science Monitor, Harvard Magazine, and other publications. He writes regularly about technology and design at http://
September + October 2009
© 2009 ACM 1072-5220/09/0900 $10.00