Not Another Design Program: Interaction Design and Electronic Arts at the University of Sydney

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The University of Sydney (©TOPMBA)

Have you ever heard about interaction design? It is one of the cool program that people may often get confused at or may not be familiar with. Brace yourself because you are about to be introduced to this one-of-a-kind program by our contributor, Adis Regar. Let’s check this article!

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One of the hardest parts about being in the Interaction Design and Electronic Arts program (aptly abbreviated into IDEA) was trying to explain to parents and relatives what I was studying.  “I’m learning to design how people interact with technology,” I told them.   “Oh, like IT?” they asked.  “It’s less programming and more designing.”  “Graphic design?”  “Not graphics, more the experience of, let’s say, using an app-”  “Ok, apps!  You learn how to make apps?”  “… Sure, I learn how to make apps.”

We don’t learn how to make apps.  Interaction Design is more about studying behavior within an interactive system between users and the digital products they use, and working out a way to make that interaction more effective and meaningful.  But it is still such a new, emerging field that there is little consensus on what that entails, even among industry professionals.  It overlaps with User Experience (UX) Design, Human-Centered Design (HCD) and Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) to the point where these terms are sometimes used interchangeably.  To be honest, when I decided to enroll in the program at University of Sydney in 2016, I didn’t really understand everything that it would involve.  But I knew that after a decade of working and teaching in the entertainment industry, I was ready to learn something new.  The program description on the university website promised training in skills like design thinking, user research, and creative coding.  The truth is, the program is flexible enough that it can adjust to your needs according to your professional aspirations.

The Masters program, taught under the School of Architecture, Design and Planning, indeed caters highly to returning professionals.  By the time they entered, many of my classmates already had extensive work experience in digital design and development, game design, graphic design, communications, even marketing.  My undergraduate background in film and theatre production (try explaining that to parents) felt out of place at first, but came in handy during assignments where we had to make videos to pitch our designs.  Classes are mostly held in the evening and during weekends to allow for people with 9-to-5 jobs.  It means kissing weekend excursions to Blue Mountain or the northern beaches goodbye, assuming most of your friends have those weird weekday classes.  Totally worth it, though, Manly Beach is packed during the weekends anyway.

Some of the steps involved in designing a speculative interface (©adisregar)
Some of the steps involved in designing a speculative interface (©adisregar)

During their first semester in the program, students take a series of core classes including Interface Design, Design Programming, and Design Thinking.  My parents would be relieved to find that I did learn how to design user interface (UI) for mobile applications in Interface Design.  Design Programming involves the aforementioned creative coding—we learned the basics of the Java-based language Processing to program visual designs and animations.  Design Thinking teaches the fundamentals of human-centered design, including user research, ideation, prototyping, and user evaluation.

The second semester is arguably the most intense, consisting of IDEA Laboratory and IDEA Studio.  In Lab, you have to quickly learn the open-sourced hardware Arduino, applying design thinking to create devices that response to changes in their environment (weather-based recipe generator, anyone?)  In Studio, you team up with classmates and use your newly-acquired sick Arduino skills to build a prototype for a solution to an existing real-life problem.  Successful groups have gone on to enter their projects in national exhibitions and won funding for further research.

A working prototype I designed and built for IDEA Lab (look familiar?) (©adisregar)
A working prototype I designed and built for IDEA Lab (look familiar?) (©adisregar)

In the final semester, you can choose between three options—a more comprehensive studio group project, a professional internship, or an individual capstone research.  I knew I was heading towards a doctoral degree once I completed the program, so I picked the last option.  Aside from core classes, a host of University of Sydney electives are available to choose from, anything from software development and mobile computing to object design and video editing.  An optional specialization in either Audio and Acoustics or Illumination Design adds an extra semester to your length of study.

A weekend session of prototyping and user testing for our IDEA Studio project (©adisregar)
A weekend session of prototyping and user testing for our IDEA Studio project (©adisregar)

The many options available would be overwhelming if not for the excellent guidance from the faculty.  There was a sense that they really want to help you get the most out of your education and prepare you for the real deal.  When I told them early on that my goal is to research the application of interaction design on theatrical performance, they were 100% supportive.  They hooked me up me with an advisor from the Theatre department, let me take Theatre electives, and assigned me a thesis supervisor who was genuinely interested in the topic.  They also place a huge emphasis on work placement, both before and after graduation.  I still get e-mails on a regular basis from the department with opportunities for internships, part-time and full-time positions in the interaction design field.  Normally, the constant e-mails would bug me, but the positions advertised are often quite prestigious, promising a lucrative career in a burgeoning industry.  The curriculum is also constantly revised to keep up with the rapid changes in the field.  For instance, due to a scheduling conflict, I ended up taking Interface Design in the third semester, a year after most of my friends in the program took it.  By then, they had already added Adobe XD onto the syllabus, even though the software was still in beta-testing.  My friends were jealous, and rightly so, considering the knowledge of Adobe XD is now considered a valuable addition to a UI and UX Designer’s resume.

So if you love design but also enjoy research, prefer projects to final exams, like hanging out on campus during the weekends, and relish the idea of being ahead of the technological curve, this is the program for you.  Be prepared to put in the work—most students in the program knew there was no sleepwalking your way to an easy diploma and a corner-office gig.  It should come as no surprise that friends I met in the program have ended up in various design positions at top companies like Atlassian, Telstra and Commonwealth Bank.

At which point, perhaps it’s worth figuring out an explanation for what it is you do beyond “I make apps.  For a bank.”  As you’ll have learned from the program, it’s so much more.

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Photos source: Adis Regar & TOP MBA