Interview with Jon Kolko of Frog Design

Having met Jon Kolko at the Bounce IDSA conference I was pleased as punch to get him to sit down for an exclusive YD interview.  Acting as Senior Design Analyst at Frog Design in Austin and Editor-in-Chief of Interactions Magazine, Jon brings dizzying insights to the worlds of interaction design and its ramifications to industrial design and research.  Click through to our interview after the jump, but also check out some of his excellent talks like the recent Austin Creative Confab or his presentation on design synthesis.

Basing his conference talk on the influence of outsourced design and how we need to change as designers to stay relevant, Jon Kolko urges us to become more culture-centric to stay afloat (see his presentation’s slide deck here).


Billy May:  Your career has had a predominant focus on interaction design and even software, yet there has always seemed to be a affinity for industrial design lingering just behind the curtain.  What continues to draw you to that field over the perhaps more germane (or at least typical) field of graphic design?

Jon Kolko:  I have a degree in Industrial Design, and I think standard industrial design training – basic form exercises in the context of a traditional Bauhaus studio model – helps forge a fundamentally different way about thinking about more timely design problems of time and behavior. I can keep a fairly complicated problem of interaction in my “headspace” at once, much like an industrial designer can keep the complexities of a physical object in their working cognition and manipulate it as they desire, flipping it over or cutting through it. An interaction problem has nodes and branches and ultimately takes up an artificial “mass” when visualized. Consider a concept map, or a flow diagram; this can be navigated and manipulated in the mind just like a toaster or a blender.

My draw towards interaction is kind of ironic, I guess, because I love beautiful objects but I hate “things”. I’ve never really been passionate about mass produced items, like an iPod or a car, only with art – one offs, made by hand, crafted and cared for. Design is less, to me, about the output and more about the process.

BM:  In an earlier talk, you professed a love for configuration software; besides fun projects like that, what kind of problems and projects really get under your skin and excite you?

JK:  As tongue in cheek as that point may have been, I do enjoy designing configuration software, and pricing software, and the other gnarly problems of the enterprise, not because I’m some sort of configuration masochist but because these problems are hard. I’ve worked on the entire spectrum, from consumer electronics to software and to the web, yet the design problems I enjoy most are the ones that are difficult to solve.  Un-fucking the complex is one of the things that I get the most excited about. This is true in the public sector – where the problems are complicated by various stakeholders, agencies, and a lack of resources – and in business, where the problems are fueled by competing groups, quarterly priorities, and a tendency to latch onto fads and trends. Taming complexity, making sense of chaos, and generally righting the wrong – that’s what design’s all about.

BM:  Your talk gave a lot of attention to the aggressive expansion of outsourced industrial design and designers’ need to gird their careers by reaching deeper into research.  Having a background in both education and curriculum development, what challenges do design schools face in the changing market and how do they need to react to keep their students relevant and marketable?  What do students need to start doing themselves if their programs fail to adapt fast enough?

JK:  There’s no “if” about it; with some obvious exceptions (such as Delft or University of Cincinnati), design programs in the United States and Europe haven’t adapted fast enough. It’s a strange time for graduating seniors; the economic strife we have going on in the states is a red herring for design graduates, who should really be looking at Asia and thinking about how they can stay relevant when the million Asian designers hit the global marketplace.

I think students need to focus on the intellectual aspects of design, rather than becoming enamored with the more obvious, traditional, and seemingly glamorous parts of design. Many students see Karim Rashid, or other flamboyant form givers, talk about design, and fail to realize that these are purposefully produced public approaches to a profession, much like Paris Hilton is to media. Design isn’t about that, at least not the design that’s going to land you a job and help you pay your mortgage. It’s about something thoughtful, and methodical, and useful, and beautiful, all at once. The design I talk about, and the design work we do at frog, is so far away from the “making beautiful objects” of yesterday that it’s almost a different job entirely.

BM:  Many of the designers I spoke with at the conference shared your conviction for a greater amount of responsibility on the part of students for activities upstream of form giving.  Do you think design programs need to append more skill sets on top of the typical foundation of form giving or do you see the intellectual side of things cannibalizing other course work?

JK:  It’s a difficult line to walk. Having built a curriculum in Industrial design, I feel the pain of any educator trying to balance the increasing demands of the design profession with a constrained set of “slots”. The constraints are actually larger than simply fitting in all of the required design courses; most accreditation programs require a percentage of classes as general education or liberal arts, which ultimately may be the most important classes students take – but are viewed by both the students and the faculty as “wasted space” that could otherwise be filled by more drawing courses.

I’m a proponent of the foundational studies programs at most art and design schools, as they teach the care, craftsmanship, and appreciation for quality that is critical for any type of design (form giving or otherwise). What I’ve found, however, is that 17 and 18 year old students are obviously too “green” to understand and appreciate the point of the foundational program, and so the exercises seem pointless and time consuming; as an example, most designers can recall a freshman year exercise of being forced to draw something (a bell pepper, usually) very small and then VERY LARGE. Theoretically, this is a great project to introduce a sensibility of scale, perspective, craft, and detail. Yet most students see it as a waste of time and a waste of resources (those prismacolors are so expensive!).  This is not a fault of the student, as they should not be expected to value something that has little relationship to their world or life. In fact, this is less a problem that design schools can “solve” as much as it is a critique of the base education system (grammar school and high school)
in the United States.

BM:  As designers make their way to higher, more cerebral climbs of design output to safeguard their jobs, do you see the jobs themselves becoming harder to justify as the deliverables become another step removed from the final tangible products?  Or do you welcome that separation of thinking from product?

JK:  I long for a day where designers, without long and convoluted explanations and examples and spec work and hand waving, are paid for the output of their mind, rather than their hands. We produce artifacts to visualize, and to illustrate, and to show what we mean; these are ancillary to the things we think. Doctors, lawyers, even smarmy politicians aren’t compensated directly based on their output – only on their intellect. Ultimately, we need to realize – and we need to communicate to our clients and to the general public – that design is a culturally embedded phenomenon about changing behavior.

BM:  How do we, as designers, validate our quality of thought, what metric do we grab hold of aside from our occasional excel spreadsheet and powerpoint?

JK:  We need to exhibit value during the process of design, rather than placing emphasis on the value we added to the output of design. The “litmus test” for designers to claim success has frequently been to gather awards, or to point at a finished product on the shelf; this implies that our role is in the development of a static artifact. As a first step, we need to care less about the outcome and more about how we got there. Then, we need to educate those around us – in a non patronizing fashion – why our process is valuable. This education usually comes by example, and with patience; I’ve heard so many designers bemoan the “stupid client” who “doesn’t get it”. This is like faulting a five year old for not understanding complex trigonometry; of course they don’t understand it – you have to teach them. And just like the five year old, they aren’t going to learn it because you said it to them once, and they aren’t going to learn it by getting mad at them. We need to evangelize, and teach, and show, and do these things methodically, overtly, and patiently.

BM:  As Yanko Design caters to just as many designers outside the US as it does those within, what advice would you put to those trying to bridge the gap culturally, if not geographically.  Are channels like the internet breaking these cultural barriers down or is geographic relocation a must?

JK:  If designers are going to take on larger problems than those of form and function, I think, to some degree, we need to “be in the culture” we are designing for. This does mean that we need to move around geographically; the internet is great, but it hasn’t broken down any geographic barriers in any substantive way. As a parallel example, a recent post on core77 implied that the flickr group “what’s in your bag?” can substitute for ethnography. Steve Portigal took this to task as being the “lamest post ever”, and to some degree, he’s right. When we reduce culture down to a set of differences, like “they eat different food” or “they like vibrant colors”, we only serve to paint ourselves as ignorant; if we actually act on these reductions and design based on these silly observations, we end up with some awful results. Culture is richer than that, and so – as hard as it may sound – to design for the richness of any culture, designers need to go absorb that culture and become part of it.