While Apple co-founder Steve Jobs didn’t invent his company’s technology, his emphasis on good design ensured that his products seized a considerable share of the consumer market. Customers developed an emotional attachment to the sleek lines and cheerful UX of the iPod, iPhone, and iPad.
A generation after the first MacBook hit store shelves, we’ve fully embraced design as an essential part of technology—even if that means many tech companies mimic Apple by encasing their latest products in brushed aluminum.
Despite that emphasis on aesthetic quality, however, the tech sector (and the schools that pipeline new graduates to its companies) is still very much driven by STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math). But given the need for solid design to make a successful product, should we consider changing STEM to STEAM (science, technology art and math)?
“I see the acceptance of the STEM-to-STEAM conversation as an acknowledgment that we may be returning to a Renaissance understanding of the disciplines,” said David Carroll, Associate Professor of Media Design at the Parson School of Design in New York. ”That they [science and art] are meant to be re-unified. Perhaps it is the technology of the 21st century that enables this reunification of disciplinary boundaries erected through the specialization of the 20th century’s peak industrialization.”
Scott Briefer, Senior Experience Designer/Creative Director at IBMiX, a design offshoot of IBM, agreed. “As a facilitator for IBM Design Thinking,” he said, “I am actually pleasantly surprised at how many large corporations are beginning to embrace human-centric design as a means to creating new delightful, ‘wow’ experiences for their customers, employees, clients and end users.”
Talk of aesthetics aside, what practical steps can tech pros take to incorporate more design sense into their work?
“The principles of Design Thinking are everywhere,” Briefer said. “It’s all about designing for the experience and not the features… In my classes, almost immediately I show a slide of a rather nice coffee maker, but it’s a machine. The caption to the slide is, ‘This is not an experience.’ I immediately follow that up with a photo of a woman enjoying a cup of coffee. You can see clearly from the photo how much this woman is cherishing drinking—being warmed—by the coffee. The caption: ’This is an experience.’”
Carroll believes that classroom training is necessary: “If a tech pro was very serious about learning design, they ought to consider formal training, like attending a program at top art and design school. We’re seeing more and more developers and folks with engineering and science backgrounds being drawn to art and design programs like ours.”
Where to Begin
Where can tech pros interested in design begin their education? Stanford offers a free and virtual crash course in design thinking, where participants redesign a “gift giving experience.” It’s a hands-on interactive introduction to design, condensing a 10-week course into approximately 90 minutes. To participate, you just need some supplies and a partner.
There are also schools such as General Assembly that offer full-time, part-time and workshops on design, both in class and online. Classes range from two-hour sessions, to full-day design boot camps, to an eight-week class on visual design.
Built by Google, Udacity’s Product Design Program is a free two-month course that will teach you product validation, UI/UX practices, and Google’s Design Sprint. There are no knowledge prerequisites, but they want you to arrive with a problem to solve.
And for a quick primer (and something you can watch at work), there are always TED Talks, where the “D” in “TED” stands for design. Here is Rochelle King speaking on the complex relationship between data and design in UX. It’s a quick talk about how Spotify got more people to stream more using data, A/B testing, and an improved UX.
Design requires a mental shift for technologists. Today we’re working in a crowded, competitive environment and it’s not enough just to make something anymore. The end users must have a good experience or they will go somewhere else. Understanding design will help you build that good experience.