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Steve Burgess Gets Educated: The New World of Interaction Design

Emily Carr’s Haig Armen on why design is not about how things look.

Steve Burgess 19 Feb

Steve Burgess writes about politics and culture for The Tyee. Find his previous articles here.

[Editor’s note: Vancouver’s postsecondary schools are centres of innovation, fascinating research and new ways of thinking, from the sciences to art to business. But too often, the work isn’t widely shared. In this continuing Tyee series, the unlettered Steve Burgess sets out to talk to our most interesting and exciting educators, and maybe even pick up a little book learnin’ along the way.]

Haig Armen is sitting inside Moja Coffee on Commercial Drive, wearing a T-shirt that bears a graphic image of jazz legend Miles Davis. That mix of music and design may be as near as Armen can come to combining his interests on a single piece of clothing. His career history takes in architecture, design, music and now, teaching. And in 21st century education, it seems there’s a certain amount of jazz involved.

Armen’s current project combines music, education and design rather neatly. Currently on sabbatical from his teaching position at Emily Carr University of Art and Design, Armen is preparing to head for Dundee, Paris, Estonia, and his ancestral home of Armenia, where he will be helping students design new musical instruments.

“Most of the new instruments we see are electronic, a complete departure from old instruments,” Armen says. “But hold on a second. There’s a reason a piano is as accessible as it is — you can walk up to it and make a sound. Whereas with some of these electronic things, you have to have a degree, you have to read through a manual to get it to make a sound. I want to encourage people not to give up on the old ways entirely.”

“My research is about how we interact when we create music, both with instruments, other people and environments,” he says.

It’s not just a lark for the 52-year-old professor. “This work will culminate into new curriculum for our design program,” Armen says. “Some of the specifics of the research explore the use of new sensors as a way of enhancing musical interfaces and the use of machine learning for music.”

Armen teaches design. But if you’re thinking sleek, streamlined Lamborghinis, you can just go drive your little racecar into a lamppost.

“Design is not just about the way things look,” Armen says. “That’s something we are trying to move away from. Design is not just style. It’s not just about how nice the car looks. There’s a series on Netflix called Abstract that’s about shiny new things, new Nike products or car designs. Those things are part of the problem. We’re hurting the environment. Everybody needs transportation, yet we’re killing each other. That to me is the much bigger problem to solve.”

Armen started a program at Emily Carr called Interaction Design, focused on the way people relate to objects or systems. “We’re the first to teach it in Canada,” he says. “I’m grateful that the university gave me the time to develop the program over the past seven years. Now the program has doubled in size with around 120 students, and we’ve just announced a master’s program… starting fall 2019.”

What is Interaction Design? “It’s a kind of design that’s not overt,” he says. “It’s more about when something doesn’t work well, you notice. It’s one of those areas of design that is not about how something looks, but about how it feels and how it functions. You have to know about psychology.”

Armen cites the new wave of automotive touch screens as one interactive design area worthy of critical study. “There are really problematic things when you put touch screens on the dashboard of a car,” he says. “This is a mission critical area — you don’t want to be futzing around with some button in traffic.”

He continues: “Typically, interaction designers design websites, mobile apps, interactive installations and networked objects. Students are encouraged to explore emergent technology, experiment to create systems and interfaces with physical, screen and sonic elements.”

But Interaction Design goes further. “Our program might be considered quite experimental, since our focus has strong critical and ethical perspectives,” Armen says.

“We have our students explore the overuse of technology — for example, the ethics of creating addictive games. Students are made aware of the ‘dark patterns’ in user experience, such as when companies trick their visitors into buying or subscribing unwillingly. There are also a lot of problems with digital media being designed just for the rich, white and male population of the world. Many interactive experiences are culturally and gender-biased.”

“Some of it is speculation, like how will artificial intelligence affect society. These are questions I like to have our students digging into. Design is about solving problems or unearthing new problems we didn’t know we had.”

Interaction design extends to other intangibles, such as ways to make websites less prone to trolling. “It’s about accentuating the better parts of human nature. People can be great if you give them opportunities to be great.”

“With the ubiquity of digital media pervading our daily lives it has become essential to equip designers with the tools to critically evaluate and become actively involved in shaping the behaviour of artifacts and systems,” Armen says. “Our graduating students have gone on to work at places like Apple, Google, Microsoft — or create their own startups.”

Teaching is about providing opportunities. But as every teacher knows, it can be hard to know which students are open to them. “I have engaged people. I have people who are doing it for their parents,” Armen says. “Some of them are just staring at the walls. That happens in every school.”

But, Armen says, you never know when you’ve reached someone. “I have only been teaching as a professor for about seven years now, but I have people who work in the industry come to me and tell me, ‘You said that one thing,’ and they’ll quote me and I don’t even remember saying it — and they’ll say, ‘That changed everything for me.’ I find that amazingly satisfying. A lot of times you think people just have their head down looking at their laptops and not listening. You’re not sure which ones are the dormant seeds. You’re just trying to put water on all of them and eventually one of them is going to turn into a huge, blossoming plant.”

Armen’s first foray into design was of a familiar kind. He followed his father’s footsteps into architecture, then, still in his teens, he landed a job at an architectural firm only to find it was not the exciting and visionary profession he had imagined.

“Many of the architects at this firm said, ‘Get out of architecture while you can,’” he recalls. “We were just making cookie-cutter condos. So I moved away from architecture.”

At that point, Armen was already playing guitar in a number of bands. He studied jazz at McGill, got his degree, and after doing some cruise ship gigs, ended up playing for Cirque du Soleil. But even running away to join the circus proved less glamorous than imagined.

“I thought I’d be travelling the world, but they dropped me into one troupe in Fort Lauderdale. Not the greatest place,” he says with a wince.

Armen returned to Montreal and began teaching guitar. His career would take another turn when his work for record labels got him started on designing CD covers.

“That had me transitioning from music to graphic design,” he recalls. “In the mid-90s people were starting to make websites. I designed a few websites that won some awards, and that got me a job at CBC.”

The project he was hired to help design was Radio 3. He would spend six years at CBC, some of which was spent teaching old-school Mother Corp. employees the wonders of digital journalism. “My role, in a way, was as a mentor. I was teaching people who wanted to know how best to use the internet.”

Armen also taught summer workshops at Simon Fraser University and eventually got an offer to teach at Langara’s Media Design Program. By that time he had started his own successful design firm, Lift Studios, which helped design Olympic websites and other high-end projects. Armen would eventually leave Lift behind when he began teaching full-time at Emily Carr.

But it wasn’t a straightforward transition. When the college came calling in 2006, it would lead to an interesting case study in just what qualifies a person to be a good teacher.

Clearly Armen had credentials and oodles of real-world experience. But Emily Carr requires instructors to have at least a master’s degree. They promised Armen a tenured faculty position — but only if he would agree to pursue a master’s. So Armen spent the next five years simultaneously teaching at Emily Carr and pursuing his master’s at the Centre for Digital Media.

Was all that really necessary? Armen is diplomatic. “I don’t think I know everything,” he says, “and I think the professors who say they do are the ones you want to stay away from. The best educators are people who are also life-long learners. For me that’s always been the case.”

But when pushed, Armen admits that his master’s studies did not really result in greater technical knowledge and skill. Rather, he says, getting his degree taught him about himself — and since most of his classmates were about half his age, about how he would relate to his future students.

“It taught me about how I approach people of different generations, and I think that makes me a better communicator. I didn’t learn about the subject I would teach — I did learn more about how to teach, which is much more important. Because the topics will change.”

Emily Carr may have required Armen to get a master’s in digital media, but if there’s a university degree that truly shapes his teaching career it may have been those jazz studies he completed at McGill. Both how and what he teaches can be compared to the kind of improvisation bebop players rely on.

“With music, it’s an aural tradition,” he says. “You hear something and try to mimic what you’re hearing. I had one jazz improvisation teacher, David Turner, an accomplished alto saxophone player. He said, ‘Charlie Parker might throw out a phrase like this’ — and he’d play it, and then say, ‘Now you play it. Don’t worry about the notes. Just say it back to me. If not with your instrument, with your mouth.’ He would get us to internalize the rhythms and the phrasing. That kind of learning was so different from what we’d get from textbooks.

“I have thought a lot about how to convey that kind of learning. There’s a lot of rhythm to it. I’ve seen videos where people are teaching tennis in that way. The sentiment behind it is, ‘You can’t teach the body in English. You have to teach it in body language.’”

And the students too must learn to improvise. After all, Armen points out, it’s almost impossible to predict the specific skills they require in years to come.

“My role is how to teach young people to negotiate the future. Things are moving so quickly we don’t know what careers are going to look like in 10 years. Students need to learn about adaptability. They need to learn about hybridization. My career came out of mixing or mashing up all those things that I do — architecture, music, digital media. When I was in university no one predicted the Internet. Our role is not to make the predictions, but it’s to train your students to be adaptable, to be able to react to how the world is evolving.”

The songs of the future may well require instruments yet to be designed. For teachers like Armen, it’s a matter of preparing the young virtuosos who will play them.  [Tyee]

Read more: Education

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