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Design Educator Profiles: Jonathan Hanahan

September 5, 2019 / By Kelly Walters

Design Educator Profiles
We are excited to share profile interviews with some of this year’s AIGA DEC Conference presenters. In this month’s edition we share a brief profile of design educator Jonathan Hanahan. At the 2019 AIGA DEC Conference, he presented his paper called Designer as Gatekeeper: Critical Approaches to Designing Interfaces. In his abstract he states, “In the era of fake news, alternative facts, and the spreading of flat out lies, designers sit at a hugely undervalued and powerful position. They control how society ingests and experiences information in today’s global network and are the gatekeepers to information and the systems at play under the thin veneer of the surfaces society engages with. This presentation focuses on a research and teaching pedagogy exploring the idea of Thick Interfaces. In both my practice  and my approach to design education, Thick Interfaces are tactics which slow down, augment, alter, and temporarily distort common everyday micro-interactions that designers and users have established subconscious familiarity with. These often overlooked interactions are the key to providing audiences with the ability to reflect on the reality of their technological experiences and re-center themselves and their participation with them.”

What was the moment you decided to be an educator and how has your involvement in education influenced your practice?

Two answers. First, I had a mentor in undergrad who showed me how special the student/teacher relationship could be. It had a huge influence on my approach to art and design and my desire to be an educator. In undergrad I knew that eventually I was going to teach, I just didn’t know what. I was studying architecture but did not necessarily want to practice architecture. Secondly, I view teaching as a largely selfish endeavor. I love teaching, I love how giving it is, and that I learn so much more being the teacher than being a student. I view the class as a team and myself as a coach and the whole group is working together towards a common goal. In terms of practice, I was never good at the designer-client relationship, and teaching gives me a platform to explore design devoid of commercial implications, where I can investigate and research the topics I am passionate about more freely.

Where do you think design education is going?

My hope is that it’s becoming less of a technical checklist of skillsets and shiny new tools or technologies and becoming more about developing processes that are a little more critical of the mediums and the spaces that designers are engaging with. Also that students should learn processes that allow them to adapt to new environments and tools. It’s not about the preface that “I’m this type of a designer…” That statement is something I struggle with in my practice too. Like what am I? There was a while that I was a “graphic designer” and then there was a while that I was an “artist” and now I’ve just realized that I can be comfortable sitting in the middle.

I’m super influenced by my undergrad education in architecture, and that’s the way I approach interaction design now, as a spatial practice. The other day, I was also talking with an architect and he was saying how the architect is the last generalist or should be the last generalist. I believe the designer should be on that list too. There should be no expertise in anything. The best designers in my opinion are not fluent in any one medium or subject but conversational in many. They can cobble together fragments and understand some of the overall logic, but at the same time are naive enough to still ask unexpected questions. There is a beautiful fine line between the amateur and the master that successful designers latch on to that allows malleability between any particular subject matter or tool.

How do you to continue to grow as a design educator? 

I have to learn new stuff to teach new stuff, and I’m teaching a new VR course which I’m excited about. I’m teaching it because there’s a great student desire at Washington University in St. Louis, particularly due to a growing relationship between art and engineering (We just launched a dual Human-Computer Interactions minor between the design program and the computer science department.) I proposed the course because its in an area of my research but also because I am personally skeptical of VR (or all artificial realities) as a medium for positive experiences beyond entertainment. Teaching the course forces me to wrestle with those questions and allows the classroom to be a laboratory to test them out collectively with students. I’m also trying to weave VR into my own practice a bit more so in that way my teaching and research practices are intrinsically stitched together.

What strategies or methods do you use to incorporate cultural awareness in your work or with your students? Are there any strategies or things that you’re trying to do or are mindful of in your own teaching practice?

The area that I’m teaching is very much about the digital network and how our experiences in it shape our everyday realities. Much of those experiences go completely unnoticed so many of the methods of are less about teaching the skills to use digital technology, but more so to teach a process that encourages criticality and carves out time and space to observe the results of the things we make. My research practice focuses around the  idea of designing thick interfaces, which disrupt familiar experiences, and the goal of this practice is not to say “this is good or this is bad” or “this is the answer” but rather “this is what is.” The audience can form their own conclusions but the work carves out a space and provides enough information to make that judgment. My hope is that in the classroom it’s the same perspective, to approach topics by asking deep questions that we usually don’t ask and creating scenarios that amplify the things we often overlook. I think particularly for this current student body— who is going to graduate and be designing with technologies for an audience that knows very little about what is actually happening inside and around their devices—the work should both satisfy a task as well as provide an opportunity for an audience to understand the realities they are participating or subscribing to. We need critical minds inside of big tech asking these questions.

What are your top three design books or resources in your library? 

Kenneth Goldsmith’s Uncreative Writing, 100% is the most important book. I teach to it at least once a year. Find and replace the word “writing” for “design”, and that’s the process we’re looking at. I’ve been embracing that, there’s no need to make anything new, but recognizing it’s about shifting context within design that already exists. That applies a lot towards teaching code and teaching code through the act of hacking up existing design as opposed to trying to write it from scratch. I also think Dunne and Raby’s Speculative Everything: Design, Fiction, and Social Dreaming was really important. I also really love Jacques Rancière The Ignorant Schoolmaster, which is about the ability to teach something that you don’t know and the role of the teacher is not necessarily about being the expert, but about digging the best pit for somebody to try to get out of.

Jonathan Hanahan is a designer whose speculative practice explores the cultural and social ramifications of experiences which transcend physical and digital occupations and the role technology plays in shaping, mediating, and disrupting our everyday realities. He develops Thick Interfaces – tools, devices, software, artifacts, websites, videos, etc. which agitate the digital facade and reveal the physical reality and complexity which exist underneath the thin veneer of our devices. Hanahan received his BARCH from Virginia Tech and his MFA from the Rhode Island School of Design. In addition to his studio practice, Hanahan is an Assistant Professor in the Sam Fox School of Design and Visual Arts at Washington University in St. Louis. 

This interview was led by AIGA DEC Steering Committee member Kelly Walters, Assistant Professor of Communication Design at Parsons School of Design, The New School. The text was transcribed by Graham McClanahan and edited by Kelly Walters.

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