Natural leaders

Digital has rapidly gone from addon to core function for many in the marketing services arena, but while ad agencies are keen to embrace its potential, designers are surely the best practitioners to realise the engaging benefits of interaction. Lynda Relph-Knight argues the case for design

Things are never static in the digital arena. We know, for example, that rapidly changing technologies present new opportunities for designers – take the emergence of the iPad and the escalation in demand for apps as content for it and the iPhone. But an even bigger mobiliser is the shift in social attitudes engendered in digital communication and a hunger among ordinary folk for ever more brilliant installations to entertain, delight and educate them.

Digital is a world still bristling with creative possibilities and there is a palpable spirit of adventure among its exponents. At a time when graphics giant Neville Brody and others are urging the more established creative community to once again take risks with their work and be prepared to fail – a trait they argue was lost in the slickness of the Margaret Thatcher years in the UK, when success became the only permissable course – interaction designers have experimentation built into their psyches.

From the early days of digital – a term no longer favoured by its pioneers, who prefer interaction now – groups like Digit (now part of WPP Group) were proud of their experimental activities. In Digit’s case an experiment led to the beautiful, award-winning Typographic Tree (pictured right). The team behind that project quit in 2002 when the WPP deal was in the offing and set up All of Us, upholding a similar philosophy with regard to experimentation.

Meanwhile, Benetton’s Fabrica research arm in Treviso, northern Italy, has a digital team whose ’what if’ experiments often make their way into the retailer’s stores to get customers to engage with the technology.

This sentiment also finds its expression in Fray founder Simon Waterfall making a strong case for more play in design. For ’play’, read experimentation. For experimentation, read risk. He and other trailblazers also back collaboration with complementary creatives – interaction of the team variety – to extend the fun and enhance the outcome.

One reason for this left-field approach is the way most interaction pioneers entered the digital world. There were only a few role-models, with Malcolm Garrett and Andy Cameron, formerly with Fabrica and now at Wieden & Kennedy, being among the early champions.

There were no dedicated courses in those early days, and designers came via training in film, graphics, architecture or, in the case of Waterfall and others, product design. It was a melting pot of ideas and experiences, with passion a common theme.

Early adopters on the education front include the Royal College of Art in London, which set up a computer-aided design MA some 20 years ago with Gillian Crampton Smith at the helm. That course evolved to become Design Interactions under Professor Anthony Dunne, also of Dunne and Raby, and encompasses everything from biotechnology to digital installations, showing how far interaction design has now expanded beyond the website.

Things have changed now, and courses abound. Some of the best, that count D&AD Student Award winners and other interaction ’names’ among their alumni, are listed here. We can only hope that specialisation at an early age doesn’t kill the spark that sets the best of interaction design apart.

Interaction designers experienced the rollercoaster of the dotcom boom and bust of the late 1990s and early 2000s, with consultancies like Deepend hitting the wall. Many honed their business skills then, through experience, but there is still a tendency for them to adopt different business models from the consultancy norm – Poke and Fray are prime examples that consultancies in other disciplines could learn from.

The debate rages on as to whether interaction design sits more comfortably with other design disciplines or with ad agencies, many of which boast digital arms. If you’re talking digital design, then ad agencies might make a case, but true interaction suggests engagement with people – and that surely is the remit of design

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