My Third Semester of Graduate School

For the most part, my third semester of graduate school at NC State followed the pattern of the two prior semesters: a studio course and a seminar. This semester the theme for those two classes was Culture. In addition to those courses, I also took a course with my other "second years" in which we essentially mapped out our plan for the thesis semester and began researching and constructing our topics. I also served as a teaching assistant for an online course, Graphic Design History, which was a new kind of teaching challenge for me as well as an excuse to beef up on design history I had long ago forgotten. 

The secondary theme for the semester, in addition to Culture, revolved around the Institute for Emerging Issues, which has a physical location on NC State's Centennial Campus at Hunt Library. IEI felt that their space is not properly leveraged for maximum impact, and they wanted to see what we might suggest in terms of content, interaction, and engagement. We were told to hold nothing back, every concept would be open for consideration.

In studio, we began with research into the Institute for Emerging Issues. Split into several groups, we were asked to research various aspects to IEI's structure compared with other existing organizations, through topics such as hybrid spaces, community engagement, technology, and our group's topic, portals. We spent several weeks researching in groups, then presented and shared our research with the class. After the class had a chance to review all research, we were asked to create project briefs explaining what each student would suggest as far as changes to the IEI space. In my brief, I sought to improve visitor engagement by using proximity interaction to draw users into the space, then direct them to feedback portals where they can register for interaction in the online space.

My project Brief for the IEI Interaction Project:

Throughout the semester we created small "warm up" exercises to get us thinking about different aspects of interactivity through cultural engagement. These included studies in Play, Proximity, and Presence. (See videos for the three exercises below.)

Play: for this exercise we were tasked with making a boring, everyday activity joyful and fun. I decided to make mine about feeding house plants, using water-reactive terra cotta pots that would only display a playful pattern when the plants were well hydrated. The idea was that it would be fun to make sure the pattern was always visible, especially for kids. 

Participation: For the second exercise we were encouraged to focus our work within the IEI space. We were asked to demonstrate how we would express a user's participation through interaction design. I chose to do this by creating light puddles, projected from the ceiling, that would match a passerby's steps and intensify as the approached and entered the IEI space. 

Presence: The final exercise focused on presence: what does the space do to recognize and encourage your presence within it? This study was most closely related to my final presentation, which was a combination of presence, reactivity and personalization. 

Coinciding with our studio research, in our seminar class, we completed readings on thick descriptions, researched online communities, created observation survey guides, and researched and presented to the class various types of research methods (which will be VERY helpful to us next semester when we begin thesis research!). In my group we researched how to conduct Conversation Analysis, Think-Aloud Protocol, and User Testing. My two group mates and I first dug into what those categories entail using the fantastic resource Universal Methods of Design, which should be any designer's research bible. We then found real examples of research studies that included our assigned methods and presented them to the class, along with a class demonstration in which we asked our classmates to Prototype using lego characters and Play-Doh. 

Observation study sheet I created for conducting visitor observations in IEI's space:

Slides from our Research Methods presentation:

Class Exercise in Prototyping with Play-Doh, creating modes of transportation:

The semester culminated in a morning of presentations to the IEI staff at Hunt Library, where we presented our ideas complete with context, research, and video simulations to demonstrate how our interaction suggestions would change the nature of the IEI space. See my final presentation below, Responsive Wayfinding and Guidance in the IEI Commons. 

My Second Semester of Graduate School

My second semester of grad school just came to a close. The theme for this semester was New Media Environments, so both my Studio and Seminar class focused on projects, readings, and discussions related to emergent technology and its connection to graphic design and the role of the designer. 

The first project we were assigned in studio centered on Data Visualization. We were tasked to select two data sets from North Carolina (civic stuff, weather, demographics, anything) and then create data visualizations that combined the two, whether they were related or not, to create sort of “fake” mashups that might suggest some kind of relationship between the two. 

I can’t say why but I had SUCH a hard time choosing a data set for this project. I wanted to make some sort of deep, thoughtful comparison between datasets, when really it would have been better to just choose them randomly. I was also hugely hung up on picking something having to do with the cycles of the moon, because I could already imagine some killer visuals that would go along with that. Finally I gave up on that and chose statistics on teen pregnancy in NC compared with money spent on public schools. (Not surprisingly, there did seem to be an inverse relationship between the two.) There were three parts to this project. First, we created “2D Mashups” that simply overlayed the two sets together, then “3D Mashups” that did the same thing but introduced depth. The last part, “4D,” involved creating a device-agnostic interface that allowed the data to be drilled and explored at different levels. This culminated in a poster, shown below: 

My favorite part to make was the one in the middle on the right that looks like a wedding cake or a roller coaster. This was made from construction paper, and I used my Silhouette die cutting machine to cut out the design for me. Turned out pretty cool, if lacking a bit on labels.

Then we studied “smart objects” - meaning objects that are connected in some way digitally to the environment, or to other objects. At first, I thought of a “smart cup” that would track your water intake throughout the day. Speaking with my teacher, I also mentioned it might help people like my dad, who have to limit their liquid intake for health reasons. Her reaction was that the limiting of fluids was way more interesting than just tracking fluids. So I ran with that. My dad had a kidney transplant several years ago, and before that, he underwent dialysis three times a week. In order for his dialysis to work, he also had to limit his daily fluid intake to something crazy like 32 ounces a day. For reference, that’s like one giant fast food cup. For the whole day. So I thought it would be helpful for a smart cup to track how much you were drinking throughout the day, keep you on pace, and slow you down using visual cues and haptic feedback if you drank too fast. The video below explains the concept, and illustrates how the cup’s interface would work. (This video includes sound. The sound of my own voice, actually. Sorry.) 

Last, we explored Augmented Reality - where a second layer of information or access can be digitally added to an existing physical space. One of the videos we watched for inspiration was IKEA’s virtual catalog, which is a fun watch, go check it out. Immediately I thought of home improvement as a context, one - because I love working on my house, and two - because I've done some home repairs in the last year that involved many hours in Photoshop creating mockups so Matt and I could choose what color would work in our kitchen. I thought it would be great if you could load an app onto your phone or iPad and view the room or project area “live," and select a new color for a surface that you could view through the device. (At this point, I’ll mention that yes, Home Depot came out with an app for picking paint colors after I created this project. But I downloaded it and it’s crazy buggy and not at all as seamless to use as I had imagined. So keep trying, Home Depot.) To present this project, our class chose to create gigantic videos for display at Hunt Library in the Immersion Theater. This ended up looking pretty cool. Here’s a video of my video in the Immersion Theater. 

This semester also allowed time for me to take an elective class, and I chose “Teaching Design at the College Level” which is a PHD-level course, taught by our grad department head, Meredith Davis. I’m glad I signed up for it, because on the first day of class she told us she was retiring at the end of this semester. I enjoyed the class so much - Meredith has been teaching for thirty years, and she has creative strategies for every kind of teaching situation you could imagine. It was a little bizarre to learn how to motivate and evaluate design students from a person who has taught me as a design student on more than one occasion. There were a couple of moments when she would reveal the reasoning behind a type of exercise or evaluation and I would privately think, ‘oh yeah, you so did that to me one time, and it worked like a charm.’ We wrote a short paper comparing pioneering design teaching methods (I chose Bauhaus) to contemporary design education. I found a lot of similarities between Bauhaus methods and my own experience in undergrad at NC State. We also created a final poster presentation on a topic of our choice, and I chose the topic of Relevancy in Design Education. After we presented and discussed our posters as a class (there were only about a dozen students in the course) Meredith turned and said, “Well, as you know, this class is a pass/fail course, so good news, you all pass!” I enjoyed that class so much. 

This semester was also my first student teaching experience. I was paired with Scott Townsend (who was one of my teachers in undergrad) and together with my classmate April Maclaga, we helped teach a design course called 'Visualization Representation and Display' that used to be simply called 'Imaging' when I was in school. I digress. Throughout the course of the semester I helped with routine classroom management like taking attendance, timing critiques, and printing and distributing handouts to the class, but I also go to create and present a few software demonstrations, conduct one-on-one desk crits with students, and even lead full class in-process critiques. I got more and more comfortable throughout the semester with advising students on their concepts and designs, and each day I was stunned by these (sophomore!) students' talent and professionalism. 

We ended the semester with a “salon-style” presentation at Hunt Library where we posted all of our Studio and Seminar work for the rest of the faculty to evaluate and ask questions. And then… Summer! 

My First Semester of Graduate School

Well, I'm one quarter of the way through grad school, and halfway into my seventh (yes, seventh) year at NC State. I've finally gotten over the bizarre deja-vu of returning to my alma mater every day, though they've certainly done their best to confuse me with all the new traffic patterns. I've learned an incredible amount over the semester, also that pretty much everything I've ever designed prior to grad school was superficial. I kid, I kid. But really, it's been amazing to have time to actually explore different concepts and designs so that by the due date they're thoughtful and well-researched projects. I'm learning to ask more questions and challenge my own answers to those questions. 

We completed three projects this semester in our studio class. The first was about annotation and elaboration. We were asked to choose an existing text and explore ways to allow users of the text to add to it in a meaningful way. I decided to look at mystery novels, and designed an app for use on e-readers that would allow readers of, say, Sherlock Holmes to highlight text then collect and categorize it as evidence, name suspects, and finally declare their own hypothesis. To see how it works, watch the (4:00-ish) video below. Beware - there is some spooky music, but it doesn't start right away, so be careful with your speaker volume.

The second project began with some group research into collaborations. Our group chose to study NC State's disaster emergency preparedness plan, which turned out to be very extensive. We interviewed several individuals from NC State and the Red Cross to find out what kinds of collaborations take place inside NC State as well as with other outside organizations and colleges. 

To me, the most interesting collaboration we discovered exists between the six universities in Raleigh; NC State, Meredith, St. Augustine's, Peace, Shaw, and Wake Tech. They've organized themselves as the Cooperating Raleigh Colleges, and membership in the group allows each to rely on each other in times of crisis. I chose to focus on this area for my independent collaboration study, a mobile app designed to connect students from each of these six universities and help them find an provide transportation for each other. The biggest challenge was to establish trust between students who would most likely be strangers - and make them feel less apprehensive about being matched with other students for travel. See my final design for the app in the (5:00-ish) video below. Again, there's music. Really happy music.

The last project was about the use of schema in creating new interface designs. A schema is a set of principles or conditions in the real world that users already recognize, and therefore do not need to be taught to understand. We were asked to choose an online community and use a known schema to enhance that community's interface. I chose AIGA Raleigh - an organization near and dear to my heart - and focused on the idea of agency - enabling user action - on their site.

Side note: AIGA Raleigh is the local chapter of AIGA national - a one hundred year old organization for design professionals. Our chapter has a rather unique structure. We're "open source" - meaning you don't have to be an elected board member, community board member, or even a member at all - to suggest and spearhead new events or programs. If you have a great idea, you're encouraged to run with it, and we want everyone to be involved, and feel a part of the triangle design community. With this in mind, I created an interface for their "Get Involved" page that centers around AIGA's three missions: Design Ability, Design Impact, and Uniting People. I created a short questionnaire that seeks to match potential volunteers with their goals for participation, their ideal time commitment, and their unique skills. The schema used for the survey is essentially a word cloud - where word size and surface area communicate the hierarchy of ideas. See the final project in the (1:30-ish) video below.

And that was my first semester!