A human-centered interview about the Institute of Design

Mon Apr 15, 2019


Photo courtesy of Institute of Design


Up until this point, my TechNews series about the Illinois Institute of Technology Institute of Design (ID) has been rather surface-level in nature. I’ve explored ID from a historical standpoint, looking at the foundation of the school in the Bauhaus and how it came to be a part of Illinois Tech, and I also looked at the various degrees offered by the school at various points in time through its storied history.

However, while these articles may have been helpful from an introductory perspective to understand ID, I find that they still lack a more human-centered understanding of the school and its approaches to education and the modern world. It was from this desire of deeper understanding that I interviewed current ID student Prapti Jha to better understand ID from the perspective of someone who is actually in it.

Jha is currently at ID pursuing a master of design (MDes) degree, due to graduate in spring of 2019. She obtained an undergraduate degree in architecture in her home country of India and worked with her own architectural design firm for several years. In Jha’s own words, she has “been a creative person all my life,” and so architecture, “as a design field and as an amalgamation of engineering and art,” was a perfect fit for her.

Through the various architectural and interior design projects Jha worked on through her firm, she became more and more interested in exploring the underlying concept of design and the power it contained. “Why am I designing this building, and what is the purpose?” Jha found herself asking more and more as her projects increasingly sparked her curiosity in design. In particular, she gave the example of a rural housing project she was a part of where she worked less with architectural planning and more with “understanding people and their needs.”

Unknown to her at the time, Jha was actually applying one of the core tenets of the design methodology: the human-centered approach. Much of the ideology taught and applied by ID is based around understanding the core problems within a given situation by understanding the people most affected. “I didn’t know what the term was at the time, but I loved what I was doing and the whole approach.”

This human-centered ideology, as well as its universal accessibility and applicability, is perhaps one of Jha’s favorite parts of ID and her design education. “We have people from all the backgrounds you can think of: engineering, humanities, business,” Jha listed during our interview. Indeed, she would later go on to remark the unique dynamics created by the various backgrounds of ID members gives the school its own distinctive experience not easily replicated elsewhere.

When asked why she chose ID over any other design or art school, Jha explained that the biggest appeal to her is its “very hands-on approach,” that has its students “making stuff while thinking,” an approach that many Illinois Tech undergraduate students have heard of and experienced before. Jha believes that the very practice-oriented approach to education that ID offers bestows upon its students a unique opportunity to expand their ways of thinking beyond simple lectures and presentations.

She also explained how ID grants its students a large amount of freedom in customizing their degrees and the specializations they acquire. “80 percent of the courses are electives,” so ID students really get to craft their own programs that cater to their particular interests, all the while seeing how the human-centered approach can touch all aspects of life, both professionally and personally.

A final unique aspect of ID that Jha shared with TechNews called back to the unique composition of its students, coming from various fields and levels of experience. Particularly because of ID’s master of design methods (MDM) program, many ID students come from halfway points in their careers, meaning that a typical ID class can have students who have just graduated with their undergraduate degrees working with corporate executives taking a sabbatical to continue their education. Coupled with the very applied nature of ID courses, these students will oftentimes be engaging each other on a regular basis, sharing critiques, feedback, and discussions.

“ID has provided me with a different way of thinking,” Jha responded when asked what she felt were the most valuable skills and values the school has given her. When approaching problems, she now tries to apply a “human-centered lens” that first prompts her to reframe the problem before immediately jumping into solving and asking the right questions to truly understand the situation.

When asked for an example, Jha described a class project she had in partnership with the popular downtown Chicago marketplace Eataly Chicago as a client. She explained how her group was first presented with the supposed problem that Eataly Chicago had “a very overwhelming experience for customers when they came inside” and was asked to help reduce this feeling of being overwhelmed. When her team began by researching and interviewing shoppers of the store, they found that many customers “loved the overwhelming experience of walking into the store as it set the venue apart from many others.”

Instead, Jha and her team found that the struggle many shoppers found when entering Eataly Chicago was in wayfinding after entering. Thus, by applying a human-centered approach from the very beginning, her team had to completely reframe the problem they were presented with to best help their client. Instead of reducing the experience upon first entering the store, they focused more on transitioning this entrance into the actual shopping stages.

Jha concluded her interview with TechNews with advice to undergraduate students that “ID is a place, open to everyone, where anyone can equally come in and make an impact, regardless of background or experience.” She also implored undergraduates to take advantage of the various open houses and panels ID holds to get to understand the school better by actually hearing from the people in it. After all, learning about ID through a human-centered inquisitiveness gets at the very core of what the school stands for.

ID will be holding one such open panel on Thursday, April 18 from 6 to 8 p.m. in the Kaplan Institute, hosting Jha and several other ID students and alumni. Titled “Design + Illinois Tech: An Alumni Panel on the Value of Design for Engineers, Architects, and Tech Professionals,” this panel is particularly targeted towards current Illinois Tech undergraduates and will even feature current ID students with undergraduate degrees from Illinois Tech. More information can be found online at https://id.iit.edu/events/.



Appears in
2019 - Spring - Issue 11