Origin Story: Looking Back, Looking Forwards

We were asked to write about our interaction design origin stories for class today. I liked how mine turned out, so I thought I’d put it up for future reference.

Nov 5, 2015

Looking Back, Looking Forward

Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized.
— Daniel Burnham

My path to interaction design has been a meandering one through several disciplines. I started out in Economics, dabbled in Architecture, explored Finance, entered the startup world, and finally came to IXD. The meandering has made sense (at least to me!) - each step has informed the next significantly. My time in Economics and Finance helped me appreciate ideas that make good business sense: I never think about any new idea without considering the practicalities of getting it done (resources needed) and margins (profitability). The startup world pushed me to be more collaborative, and plopped me alongside brilliant engineers, and primed me for the competitive and exhausting nature of starting a business.

There are probably examples from earlier in my life that are related to design, but I would point to a single course in my freshman year that was a clear moment: Designing The American City by Alex Kreiger. That was where I learnt about Jane Jacobs and the new urbanist movement, and that was probably where I was convinced that human-centered design is the way to go (without actually knowing about HCD.) Kreiger’s class led me to spend a summer at Harvard GSD, where I really enjoyed the design process: prototyping scale models of buildings, thinking through the context of a space, and empathizing with the individual that inhabits that space. After the program, I did other creative things at school such as theater set design and building, cartooning, and comedy writing, but the lessons from Kreiger’s class stuck with me.

Throughout my life - and I wrote this in my application essay to IXD - I’ve identified some consistent themes that I’m interested in. I’m interested in cities, having moved from an ultra-efficient one (Singapore) to the largest one there is (the Big Apple). More specifically, I’m interested in making an individual resident’s experience of the city an enjoyable, sustainable one. I’m specifically interested in waste and waste management, a topic is very seldom explored when talking about the consequences of exploding urban populations. 

Besides cities and waste, I’m also convinced that artificial intelligence is the single most important topic within the future of the human race, and would love to explore ideas in that realm. And finally, I’m interested in good product documentation, such as good user knowledge bases, support centers, or API documentation.

Who do I look up to? I’ve been asked this question numerous times, and each time I’ve struggled to put my finger on a single figure. I like to think that there are three groups of people I admire:

1) The Chameleons

I’ve always been a big fan of the concept of tailoring what you produce to the challenge at hand. Maybe an app is not the best solution for people in a low-tech community, or a modern design style is not suitable for a sombre place of worship. That’s why I look up to people who are able to effortlessly change their approaches and disciplines instead of sticking to a single aesthetic vision or brand. Rem Koolhaas is a good example, with his approach of really understanding history and context to find the right solution. Bjarke Ingels at BIG is another one: Ingels takes a conciliatory approach to his architecture, trying to find a good solution for every stakeholder’s needs rather than enforcing his own aesthetic.

2) The Creative Polymaths

Are polymaths more prevalent in today’s society or less so? I’m not sure I know the answer. On one hand, information on any subject is freely available, and everyone can claim to know a bit about a lot of things. On the other hand, today’s society kind of demands specialization in order to stand out from the crowd. One thing’s for sure: there have been some amazing polymaths throughout history. Buckminster Fuller is one them, being an excellent architect, designer, inventor and writer (he also fits the Chameleon mode.) Ray and Charles Eames are two others - working in art, film, visual and furniture design. I especially admire the ones who write well: to me good writing communicates a clear understanding of their idea.

3) The Design Entrepreneurs

Because of my background in economics and business, I appreciate people who have successfully married design and business. Steve Jobs is probably the most quoted example: the Apple revolution involved not only a strict adherence to strong user-centered design, but also revolved around Jobs’ key decision to streamline the entire company around a small number of key products. Eliot Noyes is a lesser-known − but just as impactful − figure: he was instrumental in introducing a corporate-wide design program to IBM, and should never be overlooked whenever the Thomas Watson Jr quote “good design is good business” is brought up, or whenever people discuss Paul Rand and the Eames’ work for IBM. More recently, I’ve admired the work of design-centric businesses such as MailChimp, AirBnb, and Zendesk.