Interview w/ Brian Lucid: Designers & The Web

1. A lot of recent graphic design graduates are having difficulties landing a job because they don't have web skills. Are design schools updating their curriculum soon to fix this problem? Should they?

Your question taps into a problem that design schools have been battling for twenty years or more: How to balance the teaching of conceptual and visual language skills with the integration of production or implementation skills?

You can also frame this as a balance between teaching long-term skills vs. short terms skills. Most design programs span three years if we exclude the foundation year. This does not leave a lot of time for the myriad skills a young designer needs to acquire to have a successful career. We could focus on training students to be immediately employable from a technological standpoint (i.e. short-term production skills), but that comes at the expense of design fundamentals, and lacking those fundamentals creates limitations for the student as they move into senior positions in their design careers.

To paraphrase Meredith Davis, students in design school today will remain in the workforce until the year 2060. Design educators face the impossible task of preparing students for a lifetime within design. The way design is implemented will change one hundred times over in that span of time. New mediums will emerge and flourish. New interface concepts will appear and old metaphors will fade away. To flourish in this changing landscape, designers must be broadly educated and have a strong conceptual understanding of the different media in which they work.

My personal philosophy has been to focus on the things that are constant within our discipline—conceptual, editorial and strategic thinking, sensitivity to visual language—and combine them in the classroom with the foundation concepts of dynamic media: systems, data, logic, feedback, experience, etc. In my observations, designers struggle when moving into a new medium like the web because they lack an understanding of the core concepts. It is not simply a tool or an implementation problem.

Once students have a firm conceptual grasp, we can then provide specific implementations—HTML5, CSS3, jQuery, AS3, Processing, Open Frameworks. But even here, it is far more important to teach students the ability to identify and absorb new technologies than to give them rote technological education. Technologies change too fast, and students cannot become reliant on others teaching them how to make. The modern web was built upon the concept of bootstrapping—self-motivated learners who take pleasure in teasing the possibilities out of a new technology. I don't want to see this change.

2. Isn't knowing how to design layouts enough? Why should designers learn to code?

For designers, nothing ever seems to be enough! As designers, we are both the victims and beneficiaries of a discipline that no longer has clear boundaries. We are expected to be visual, conceptual and highly technical. Not every designer can, or needs to, meet this rigorous standard—every designer needs to find the balance that is right for them—but I personally endorse the idea that designers should have a fundamental understanding of code.

Understand that when I define "coding" I am referring to systems that employ programmatic logic, not markup languages like HTML and CSS. Over the past few years we have seen an explosion of new languages designed for visual work. Never have there been so many options, or resources, for visual artists and designers who want to explore computation.

I feel designers should learn to code for two reasons:

  • Design has become increasingly focused upon the flow of information, meaning that designers now must work with real-time content that is generated from multiple sources and is often almost entirely removed from context. This creates a unique set of design problems, problems best solved not with static forms of design, but with dynamic ones. Programming gives us the tools to develop systems that filter, organize, normalize and visualize content in ways that our traditional tools cannot.
  • The fundamentals that programming teaches—system, logic, iteration, randomness to name a few—are fundamental concepts that must be understood when working in a design landscape where the computer and the network sit at the core of the medium.
3. What's your take on WYSIWYG editors?

Designers are inherently visual people. Code often feels disconnected and alien to the things they want to make. Code also requires a different design process—more iterative and systemic—than the processes we naturally employ when we sketch visually.

I have been a longtime defender of WYSIWYG tools, or any tool that empowers visual designers to get engaged in a technical process that they once felt locked out of. I want designers to be part of the dialog, and not have their creativity limited by lack of understanding or access to technology.

To me it is not about being visual or non-visual, there is room for both—tools for visual thinking and tools for system thinking—but how the tools empower designers to do new types of work. One can see parallels today between the way a language like Open Frameworks has led visual artists towards programming in a "serious" computer language like C++ and how, years ago, tools like Dreamweaver or Flash opened the web to visual artists and designers. Are there limitations in all of these systems? Yes, but in my mind the benefit of access outweighs a bit of messy code.

4. Besides churning out more and more awesome designers out of MassArt, are you working on any other interesting projects?

My teaching is deeply influenced by my practice, so I try to keep myself busy with interesting projects.

Recently I have had the opportunity to consult with Adobe Systems working on many of the issues brought out in the question above: specifically, interfaces that empower designers to take that first step into the world of code.

My colleague Heather Shaw and I have also have been working on projects with the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. They are a visually sensitive client who understands that the web can be simultaneously an information channel and a medium of artistic expression.

On the home front, I am putting together an undergraduate curriculum teaching a Processing programming language elective to our Graphic Design undergraduates at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design. I also have been doing a bit of multi-touch work—both hardware and software development—and some Kinect hacking to support our graduate students at the Dynamic Media Institute.