By Greta Chiocchetti
As the Spring 2022 semester kicked off, Academy of Art University announced an exciting update to one of its most dynamic and tech-forward departments. What was previously known as the School of Web Design & New Media is now the School of Interaction & UI/UX Design—IxD for short.
However, the name change doesn’t signal a divergence in the program’s curriculum, Co-Directors Andrea Pimentel and Fred McHale explained during a Zoom call. If anything, it’s just a more accurate way to describe what students are already doing—and will continue to do—in the department.
“In reality, this was a catch-up to the correct name of what the department really has been doing for quite some time,” said McHale. “Our students get hired as UI/UX designers; our students get hired as product designers … But the department name didn’t align with what we were actually teaching and what our alumni are doing and what students are learning in the classroom.”
Web design is just a portion of what UI/UX is, added Pimentel.
“Web design is still in that overall term of interaction design. But it’s a very, very small part of what our students do,” said Pimentel. “This field has evolved so much over the years. Now, our students are working on these huge teams, working on these massive global products that aren’t just a site with pages; they’re software. They’re things that interact with your data that are really customized specifically for you. And that can be in many different languages. It’s just such a different job than simply web design.”
In an interview with Art U News, Pimentel and McHale shared how the department has grown in the 14 years since it was founded and what’s in store for the future of IxD.
How would you define UI/UX?
Fred McHale: The UX is the psychological portion, the portion where you’re talking to your users or understanding people. And then, once you’ve done that correctly, you move into the UI portion, where you start to use that information to design the visual thing, in our case. For me, the name implies that user experience is about enhancing the experience for the user through design. And there’s a number of design processes that you go through to do that—everything from using design thinking and user-centered design to understanding the people who are going to actually use the product you’re designing. So you’re solving a problem for them, as well as enhancing the experience. The goal is for them to not only be able to do the thing they’re doing but to enjoy the thing they’re doing. And that involves the actual functionality of how something works and how they get around that thing to also the visual aspects of making it—to steal a word from our Associate Director [DC Scarpelli]—to make it a delightful experience.
Andrea Pimentel: I see a couple of different components to it. It used to be that when you learned software, you’d get this big thick manual with it, and now, instead of doing that kind of thing, we’re designing so people can intuitively use these things, and it’s immediately helpful to them. Now companies are really looking a lot more towards what problems they can solve for their potential audience, and let’s make those products for them. So I think UI/UX is very much focused on that particular component—that first, we’re going to try to make the thing usable and intuitive. But also, let’s talk about what it is that you need. We’re not going to just make a product and hope people use it; let’s make something that’s specifically for you and helps make your life a bit easier along the way.
How has the role of UI/UX evolved in the industry?
FM: I’ve seen a huge shift in the way companies think about designing products. It might have before started out with the inception of an idea, and it went immediately to an engineering team to build it, and then the designers came in afterward. Now it’s flipped completely: the designers are the ones coming in at the very beginning. The UX designers, product designers, so on and so forth—they’re coming at the beginning; they’re coming up with the idea because they’re the ones that talk to the humans.
How has your guiding philosophy for the department evolved over the time you’ve headed it?
AP: When I first started teaching here, it was the computer arts media department, and it was very much about being great at software. And that is greatly different from our approach now, partly because the expectations of designers have changed so much, where, in so many fields, you were just expected to know how to use your digital tools. Over the years, it evolved from just knowing how to use the tools to learning to use those tools for a purpose. I think that has been just an absolutely astounding evolution over the 14 years that I’ve been teaching at this school and really seeing our students take their creativity to a higher and higher level and deeper purpose of trying to make people’s lives a bit better.
FM: Although we teach some coding, which is an important part of our job, it’s simply one of the tools. So it’s just knowing the medium. If someone is a sculptor and doesn’t know about marble, can they be an amazing sculptor? If you’re a painter, and you don’t know how to use paint, or you don’t know how a paintbrush is made, or canvas, can you be an amazing painter?
What kind of student should consider taking classes in the School of Interaction & UI/UX Design?
FM: I think we’re a very inclusive kind of department in the way that when someone comes in from a different background, it’s good because we want them to use those skill sets with the user experience skill set that they gain. We get students—especially in the grad side—who are like, ‘Oh, but I don’t have a background in this. I have a business degree.’ Awesome! That’s great.
AP: So much of UI/UX is just empathy and understanding people. You know, that’s a big part of design anywhere. So we definitely welcome students who have a passion for solving problems through design. I think, also, being always interested in what’s next is a really important quality to have. [I]t’s very much about evolving and finding what’s next. And that’s terrifying for some people and exciting for some people. If you’re the kind of person who’s excited by that, then come join IxD!