How should universities change?
The first thing to do is ask: “What is the purpose of all the technology we are developing?” And the answer is, obviously: “To help people.” But the understanding of “people” is in a different school—the social sciences—than the school where the understanding of technologies is taught. Right now, people in one area don’t understand what someone else in their own department does, let alone what is being done in other departments.
If you want to be broad, you have to be shallow. In fact, you are shallow, because that’s what journalists are: very broad and therefore, of necessity, relatively shallow in any area.
Broad and shallow shouldn’t be a negative. What a great designer does, and what a great journalist does, is try to step back and figure out: “What is the interesting problem here? What things have to be combined to make this work?”
How can universities get started in making the necessary change?
I think that the current emphasis on STEM—science, technology, engineering, and math—needs a “D,” for design. Designers need to learn STEM (where S includes both the hard and the soft, social sciences). But similarly, engineers need to learn D: after all, the point of engineering is to develop things for people and society.
Despite the problems you’re citing in the educational system, aren’t companies that are making the exploding numbers of smart phones and tablets producing excellent design?
As things get better and better, they also get worse and worse, in part because there is such a rapid growth in companies developing all sorts of new things. Many of our newer devices have exciting potential, but because of their newness, they tend to frustrate.
What flaws do you see in them?
Sometimes you accidentally hit the screen, and it goes to some other location, and you have no idea where you are, or how to get back. Or you want to change something or edit, and you can’t figure out how to get there.
Here is a simple example I give in lectures. I say “Oh, you have an iPhone—how nice. We are located in Milan, or New York, or San Francisco, or Seoul, so your phone is set to this time zone. Please change it to a different time zone.” And they say “That’s easy—you go to settings, you go here—and, oh no, that’s not it …” It’s fun to watch them.
Here’s the neat part: when they finally find it, they look up and smile and say: “See, that was easy.” Even when you have trouble doing a task, it still feels like it’s fun. You don’t say, “What a bad design.” You say, “Oh, it’s my fault, I forgot how to do it.” This shows both the strengths and weaknesses of modern technology: it is fun, it is exciting, and it is revolutionary. But we have forgotten some of the design lessons of the past. We can do better.
We need fewer screens and keyboards and more physical devices, more full-body motion, more integration with the world. With today’s new displays, sensors, computation, and communication technologies, it is all starting to happen. This is an exciting time.