Department Dossier: Liz Danzico

November 10, 2010

The latest in a series of one-on-one conversations with SVA department chairs.

In May 2011, the MFA Interaction Design Department will graduate its first class of students. It’s the culmination of the start-up phase of the program, which was begun by Department Chair Liz Danzico in 2009 to focus on designing products and services that range from smartphone apps and social-media programs to urban planning and educational systems. Danzico spoke with the Briefs at the beginning of the fall semester.

How has the program changed from the first to second year?
It’s a really interesting experience having a new program. Everything is new: new desks, new faculty, new curriculum, new students, the way they experience it for the first time. But a lot of things have changed. When you design any product, when you put it on the white board or sketch it on paper, it looks great and all of the angles line up. But when people begin to use your product or curriculum, things bump into each other. When you watch people go through the course schedule, there’s a change in tempo, just like when you design a Web site and watch people use it and there’s a speed that people are comfortable using it. So we’ve changed our tempo somewhat in response to that.

What has been the most interesting surprise about the program?
How fast the students have grown has been surprising to me. I had set goals: the first year is for concepts and methods; the second year for thesis and developing longer-term goals, applying what they learned from the first year. The remarkable growth of the students in a very short time has been a nice surprise. I expected a certain amount of growth over two years, but the pace at which they’ve grown and shown what they learned has been surprising.

How has running the department affected your professional practice?
I think about the work I do more broadly now. I think I was only doing one or two types of work before, but now I’m exposed to so many different things and perspectives from students and faculty, so I consider all of that. It’s rare that you design a product or service and then you sit eight hours a day, day after day, with people using your product. You watch them succeed, struggle, learn, and it’s in part because of the opportunities you’ve created or the mistakes you’ve made. You have an influence, and it changes your relationship to the things you design. So going back to professional work, making a decision about a logo on a Web site, no decision is insignificant, it all has an impact on real people.

Since your department is about interaction design, how does your online presence both promote and enhance the program?
A lot of the students will tell us they found the program or faculty members through the Web site, or they’ve been following a single faculty member through their career through a personal site. On the flip side, we really encourage students to create their portfolio every day. Creating a portfolio is not an isolated event that stands outside standard activities. They should constantly be talking about and presenting their work both online and offline, so each course has its own site to post work and get them in that mindset. It draws attention to the work they’re doing, and it reinforces that as designers we need to be articulate about our work.

In what sort of professional fields are your students expressing an interest?
There are three different types of fields in which one would be practicing interaction design: the first is an in-house or service agency for a larger corporation; the second is in an entrepreneurial approach, students working on products or services, iPhone or iPad apps, and setting up their own design businesses; the third is some sort of public service or non-profit work, either working for a city, establishing a non-profit or getting involved in education. We’re seeing examples of all three with the 17 people who will be graduating.

You’re about to graduate your first class—what are your thoughts about that?
Are they going to hug me on stage? [laughs] I’m very excited to watch the students’ growth over this academic year. The remarkable shift in how articulate, how mature, how much design vision they have shown over one year, it’s been so remarkable to watch. I’m looking forward to seeing them walk down the steps from the stage at Commencement, it will be so rewarding to have seen them through that transition. I’m honored to have been given the opportunity to be a supporter. My job is to be scaffolding, to be invisible and hold them up so that they can be seen.

Image: ©2010 Visual Arts Press, Ltd.

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