“I believe that we can’t design the experience. We design the interaction, and the experience is unique to every single person.”
A Q&A with Interaction Designer Elham Morshedzadeh
Spotlight articles shine a light on designers and design materials we admire. Our founder and principal designer Rebeccah Pailes-Friedman has met many wonderful designers in her time in the industry, and in our Spotlight interviews we ask them about their work, their design journey, and what inspires them. In this interview we spoke with Elham Morshedzadeh, an industrial designer, usability researcher, and design educator with a focus on healthcare and community-centered design. She has a master’s in industrial and product design and a PhD in user-product interaction design. She is currently teaching at the University of Houston and works on a number of transdisciplinary healthcare-related research and design projects. We asked her about her user-product interaction, her experiences in design higher education, and the approach to design education in different countries.
Q: What motivated you to pursue a PhD in User-Product Interaction design?
A: There were different reasons. I was into art and I was into design, but I was also always a good researcher. I like to get in-depth with things, and that’s why I started my master’s in the first place. I would say that my master’s was not a traditional master’s in design. Many people basically do more product design in their master’s program. For me it was more about looking into different types of interactions; between humans and products and between humans and systems. When I was pursuing my master’s, the meaning of interactive design implied digital products, or products that have some digital components in them. I always wanted to look into the true meaning of interaction, interacting with this device or object, this physical thing. I like the physical, functional, and cognitive aspect, so it started there. I did deep research into the overall understanding of how interaction creates the experience. I believe that we can’t design the experience. We design the interaction, and the experience is unique to every single person. It’s literally that person’s experience, and no matter how much you try, people’s experience will be different and unique to themselves.
There were a couple of reasons for getting the PhD. One was that I was fascinated in how we can combine our thoughts and qualitative aspects of design into something that is more reliable, something that can facilitate stronger conversations in interdisciplinary work that we do with the engineers. They don’t communicate like us. How can we describe our qualitative data in a more reliable way such that we can gain the respect from our colleagues or from our collaborators when we are working on a design? I thought that would be more than just a project to do on my own, and I really wanted to do it in a more academic way because it was part of my understanding that that structure can provide me a good foundation for achieving my goal.
I also really wanted to teach. I really love teaching, so that was also aligned with what I was doing. I worked in industry as well before getting my PhD, before even getting my master’s. The combination of my experience working with big groups of people, where I was the only designer, and trying to convince those people that what I’m saying, it might not have the same data or numbers that you’re looking for, but it makes sense. That was an experience that pushed me towards trying to find better language to communicate in interdisciplinary work. In my opinion, interaction applies to any type of design, and that’s why I took a deep dive into interaction evaluation.
Q: How did the different levels of design degrees you experienced differ from one another?
A: It was not funny, but I will say it was funny that in the last conference I attended there was this guy sitting beside me. When we introduced ourselves he saw my business card and he said, Ohh, PhD. Since when did we need a PhD in design? He was basically saying, What do you know? But I think he was being privileged, he was always given this permission to speak his thoughts aloud, no matter what they are. I wanted to tell you that it’s not the only way to pursue higher education in design, but it’s one of the ways. So I’m not saying that it is for every single person, but it has its own value.
I have a little bit of a skills issue with the master’s in industrial design curriculum. To me, a master’s in industrial design, it’s just another studio. In many programs, it’s another studio project with a little bit of deeper aspects in the design of a product. I’m actually looking at higher education in design as looking into different philosophies and different methodologies, and incorporating design with other disciplines. That’s why, for example, in my PhD I looked into quantifying my data. I looked into factor analysis, basically looking into how to use the computer to quantify my qualitative data. I was looking into how the impact of one interaction can impact another, things that as a designer I might not know, but a machine can tell me.
I see higher education as an infrastructure and a foundation to strengthen designers and give them the seat at table for designing a strategy, designing vision, designing a pathway for any idea or company, rather than just sitting behind a desk and sketching. That’s my idea of higher education in design because, to be honest, they are partly right. Many of the things being taught in traditional education in industrial design are skills. They are hard skills like sketching classes, software classes. I always tell my students that if you just want to be good in Rhino, you can take a module. You really don’t have to come to school. What we are trying to train them is more about those soft skills, about better communication. Understanding how their decision or their design is impacting other things around in that environment. Working together and even creating the respect that the designer needs between themselves and other people in the discipline. Good storytelling. Storytelling is not just about good drawings, good illustrations. Yes, you need good technique to tell your story, but it’s not all about the illustration. It’s about knowing: where is the peak of your story? Where are you at the end? How do you connect everything that you said into a conclusion that reminds your user about all the challenges that you explained to them at the beginning?
So these are the soft skills that it might not be possible to do in a four week module. It might not be possible to do it in six weeks. It’s something that we constantly talk about with our students. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was basically getting myself ready to do more interdisciplinary work. Nobody was even talking about interdisciplinary work then. Fifteen years ago I was the only designer in a team of 20 different engineers and entrepreneurs, and they were all wearing suits. The moment they saw me, they said, Who is this kid? But by the end of that project, they were constantly calling me to say, What do you think we should do with this? What do you think the solution is for this? I gained their respect and changed their opinions about what designers do, and that has been my agenda since that moment. I always wanted to teach and I always wanted to learn, so being in an academic environment always made me happy. They say to the job that you don’t work one day in your life. I’m not saying 100%, but it’s summer and I’m in my office so…
Q: You did your bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Iran and now work and teach in the U.S. What differences have you experienced in the attitude toward design education across different countries and institutions?
A: There is a truth that we can’t deny: most programs around the world are influenced by the traditional, Bauhaus, European design definition. In my experience in Iran, we were definitely influenced by that. It really depended on which college the program was located in; if the program was located in an art and design college, it was more artistic. It was more towards Italian design, fun, emotional design playing with form and function. And then if it was located in an engineering college, it was more focused on the engineering aspect. There were even two different degrees, a BA and a BS. At the same time, my college was something in between. The difference was that we were taught plenty of basic courses in engineering, like mathematics, physics, mechanics, and physical electronics. That was a good practice to have in order to be able to work with other disciplines. That’s something I feel we are lacking in programs in the U.S. We expect our students to learn about mechanics themselves. Unless there is a course or unless there is a project designed specifically for them, they don’t get an official education in any of these disciplines, and that causes the quality of prototypes to decline in the depth.
I told you, I’ve worked with engineers. It’s not just the it’s not just the facade or how it works or something like that. You really have to understand how to pack those devices in that space. Production limitations are a very, very important thing in the evolution of a concept into a product that can be production-ready. I would say, at least in a couple of the programs that I experienced in the United States, they lack that unless there is a good professor, you know? I don’t mean to say that we need to teach everything, but I would say it is good to have those foundations.
In Japan, one thing that was interesting to me was the attention to their culture. You could see the integration of their own culture in the design of their studios and in the design of the projects they teach their students. They also idealized western design history, but they were fully aware of their own potential, their own value. So they empower their own culture and values but, at the same time, it can isolate them. They can be more focused on: what is a good design for this company, for this environment, for this community in Japan?
Another thing that I wish I could see change in American programs is the approach to the senior project. I think it’s very rushed, allowing just one semester. The students aren’t able to complete a full design process. In a best case scenario, maybe some of them will test their first prototype. In both Chiba University and in my own country, we would dedicate at least one year and sometimes more to accommodate working with a manufacturer.
Q: How does your experience teaching in design influence your design practice?
There are two different types of impact. One is design related, and one is personality or teaching related. On the personality side, I would say it makes me more patient toward my students. It makes me even more open minded towards different approaches. I’m really happy that I work in design outside of my teaching because it keeps me more human towards my students, rather than just being their teacher. From the teaching point of view, it keeps me updated. It really pushes me to keep track of what needs to be taught, which is also the challenge for design education in my opinion. This is a never ending question.
Overall, what I am teaching right now is not that similar to traditional design education. I focus very little on the end product. I focused a lot on the process, on decision-making, on prioritization. I ask myself, What is the demand in the industry? My work is still very narrow in one area, and while teaching a group of 20 students, I experience a very wide area. That itself adds to the challenge of teaching industrial design or design students, because you have to be able to have some knowledge about everything, which is ridiculous… but that’s also this exciting part, in my opinion.
We talk constantly to the students about what’s happening in the world right now. How is it going to impact our job? How is it going to impact their future as a designer? And I’m being honest with my students, it’s not that I know everything. Especially when they are in their senior project, I tell them, You are supposed to have even more knowledge than me about this topic by the end of this project. Going back to the difference between the bachelor’s and the master’s, the thing is that if you go back to the traditional definition of a master’s degree, you really need to have an agenda of research and a body of research.
If you’re just doing another product design as your master’s without a good body of research behind it, then why are you doing it? The degree means that you are capable of starting, running, and accomplishing a whole research process, no matter what the end product might be.
Q: What are you working on that’s interesting to you at the moment?
A: There are actually two things. One is that I’m starting a new initiative for women’s healthcare, making it better and more accessible. We’re working with new technologies like eye tracking to understand what’s going on in a woman’s head when they go to the exam room and they are waiting to hear for example if the lump in their breast is a cancer or not. We have so much capability right now to make those experiences less traumatic. It’s not an easy route convincing people to work with you. Even the communities and the public, and it’s very, very hard. That’s another mission that I have, I want to rely on communities rather than isolate or alienate them.
The second thing is that I want to work on small, detailed add-on designs that make somebody’s life a little bit better. For example, a better bike handle for people with arthritis. That’s something I’m really excited about. A third thing: I also do painting. I used to be a painter. I was doing it professionally and then in the last ten years I couldn’t because of life getting busy, moving to a new country, getting a job, and all these crazy things. I decided that I want to go back to it and I’m already working on my fifth painting. I hope to be able to do an exhibition by the end of this year. My true passion is actually drawing and painting. And it’s so funny, even though I haven’t painted in the last ten years, my brush strokes have changed. I think they are more confident because I am a more confident person. Internally I feel more comfortable with who I am. The way that I put the brush on the canvas; I’m not afraid to be who I am. I think that a lot of that is because I’m a researcher. Because I’m always looking, I’m not doing something similar every single day. I have to come up with new proposals, new ideas to do research. And I think this is a skill that I learned in higher education; to think in different directions and connect things that might not seem connected at all.
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