Online or printed, physical or virtual, bad or good — we're constantly interacting with design, from the websites we visit and the ads we see to the products we use and the stories we read.

But what is interactive design, and how are SAIT's design programs evolving to embrace new technologies and future challenges?

By the time you’ve popped your first coffee pod into the machine, checked the weather on your phone, scrolled through your social media feeds, and pushed a few buttons to lock your front door, you’ve likely experienced dozens of examples of interactive design. 

"From a day-to-day standpoint, interactive design is literally all around us. It is part of every industry — from construction, energy and hospitality to tourism and transportation.”
Andrew Stevenson (GCPT '09) Academic Chair of Digital Design and Production SAIT School for Advanced Digital Technology (Photo: HarderLee Photo)
Head and shoulders photo of Andrew Stevenson

And that proliferation of technology has revolutionized design as a career. Ask graduates of SAIT’s long-time design programs — New Media Production and Design, and Graphic Communications and Print Technology — and you’re sure to hear how changes in everything from software and commercial printing presses to websites and augmented reality mean expanding their skills and the tools they use.

Responding to those changes and anticipating many others on the horizon is the focus of a new tech-driven, two-year diploma program called Interactive Design that will combine the best of both earlier programs and better reflect current and future trends in industry and design.

But how do you prepare for the future when you don’t know exactly what’s coming?

“I think that’s the crux of it all,” says Stevenson. “In a world where we don’t know what’s going to happen next week, or even tomorrow, and where artificial intelligence is increasingly on the scene, our design program needs to connect to industry in new, meaningful ways — to embrace new technologies just like our industry advisors are embracing them.”

Increasingly, designers are not only creators and doers but also the thinkers and problem-solvers behind the creation, Stevenson says.

"Interactive design is about designing with intent — focusing and reflecting on the journey for a user of whatever platform we are working within.”

LINK asked three industry experts who are helping to shape SAIT’s Interactive Design program to share the design challenges they face, how tech is helping solve those challenges, and the future they see for graduates of the new program. 

Design is more than what it looks like

Rodolfo Ferro Casagrande (Web Developer Fast Track ’17) doesn’t like the stereotype he encounters all too often — that design is only about beautiful visuals and bells and whistles. As Head of Design at Helcim, a company providing digital payment products to merchants in Canada and the U.S., user experience, rather than visual aesthetics, is the primary driver.

The design priorities when creating a payment platform for a busy, chaotic restaurant, for example, are accelerating activity, reducing clicks, eliminating frustration, and continuously loading new transaction details. And the stakes are high.

“The experience of the people who use our products, and how quickly that product allows them to do what they need to do, can create a competitive advantage that could dictate a company’s success or failure.”
Rodolfo Ferro Casagrande (Photo by Cyrielle Fuchs)
Rodolfo Ferro Casagrande. Photo by Cyrielle Fuchs.

It’s not surprising, then, that some of the newer terms attached to design — UI and UX (which stand for user interface and user experience) — centre on the word “user.” They’re also less about coding than they are about creating the best experience, explains Ferro Casagrande.

“UX places the user at the heart of every design, and it’s not just for tech companies; UX is for every company with a digital product. Every one of those companies needs designers to focus on continually improving their customers’ experience with their product.”

Laser-focused on the user

Focusing on users is something Katrina Tabuli, lead digital experience designer with custom software development company VizworX Inc., does at every turn — including in her role as a subject-matter expert for the Interactive Design program.

“I always say you have to be best friends with your users. Really knowing and understanding them is only becoming more important, especially as we look to do more augmented and virtual reality.”
Katrina Tabuli (Photo courtesy Gaby Gonzaga)
Katrina Tabuli. Photo courtesy Gaby Gonzaga.

So users are always top of mind while Tabuli is shaping museum experiences for clients who are using the Philespace platform created by VizworX, including Energyphile, Contemporary Calgary and Heritage Park.

That could mean putting herself in the place of a museum-goer scanning a QR code to access a vignette about what they’re seeing in person. Spending hours or days working on a solution for a single clickable button. Or asking a seemingly endless series of questions: What changes are necessary if information is accessed using a mobile screen? What’s the best way to handle multiple layers of information? Does a child have the fine motor skills to use the tool Tabuli is designing?

“If a user is annoyed by any part of the experience we’re creating, then we’re not doing it right,” she says.

Design challenges and opportunities

Fortunately, getting to know more about users — and what they want and need — is easier than ever. The unfettered access designers now have to people's thoughts is one of the most significant changes Scott King (NMPD '03) has seen during his two decades in design. 

"Social media is the ability to read people's minds at scale," he says. Using that information, along with other data being collected by businesses and companies, completely changes how designers make decisions.

As a digital strategist, King says, many of the solutions to problems he finds himself solving rely heavily on data. He likens it to plumbing. "What's happening in the background that nobody sees or generally cares much about can solve really interesting problems."

One example involves a car manufacturer that King worked with to address the need to differentiate between online customers shopping for a commercial vehicle and those shopping for a personal vehicle.

“Technology has allowed us to, for the first time, be able to determine who the customer is and which content they see,” he says. Customizing what a user sees might not sound that impressive on the surface, but to King, it’s mind-blowing.

"We have audiences with really specific needs, and technology lets us both understand those needs and deliver information in the moment. It’s key to delivering a good customer experience, and it’s an enormous advantage.”
Scott King (Photo courtesy Critical Mass)
Scott King. Photo courtesy Critical Mass.

But technology can also bring complications, including keeping data secure and making the experience palatable for users who may feel uncomfortable with sharing their data.

King says that such complex challenges feed his interest in design. “It’s made my career a wild amount of fun.”

But a career in design isn’t all fun, he adds. Bad design can have serious environmental implications. Like any infrastructure, interactive design that uses poorly written code can leave a giant carbon footprint in its wake.

“Tech designers are getting better at delivering great experiences without using as much processor time,” says King. Night mode for smartphones, for example, might seem like a relatively small design innovation, but dimming screens and reducing the need for energy-demanding white pixels can add up across the billions of phones used worldwide. That thoughtful approach recognizes the impact of UX design on the environment and helps reduce carbon emissions by putting less demand on the global data centres and servers powering the internet.

Developing responsible designers for the future

And while designers have the ability to make designs inclusive, accessible and sustainable, that privilege also comes with great responsibility.

Preparing the next generation of designers to tackle business and societal problems (think online tools to help improve financial literacy, for example) — plus future challenges we can’t even imagine yet — is a passion King, Tabuli and Ferro Casagrande all share.

It’s why they, and a number of their fellow industry experts, are serving on the advisory committee to help Stevenson create the Interactive Design curriculum. They all want to ensure students have access to a broad range of courses, skills and experiences, including the program’s innovative labs and classrooms.

Like design itself, these flexible learning spaces will be about taking new thinking and applying it.

"We’re creating a different style of classroom, with a different kind of output — one that mirrors what graduates will find in an industry that is always evolving."
Andrew Stevenson, on the classrooms and labs designed to reduce carbon emissions and support sustainability on campus.

Rather than teacher-centred, lecture-based courses, much of the learning will be project-based and interdisciplinary. While studying design theory and technical skills, students will also focus on understanding human behaviour, developing critical thinking and building communication skills. The times they spend together in the same spaces, says Stevenson, will centre on learning that develops, creates and expands on new knowledge.

In their final semester, students will take an industry-led course called Future of Design. Keynote speakers, panel discussions and tours can get students networking and building confidence.

“Designers are increasingly getting a seat at the table and being seen as an integral part of business,” says Ferro Casagrande. “That means more — and higher-level — opportunities today and in the future.”

That’s an interesting thought in a world worried about AI eliminating jobs. It’s a question King says he’s often asked. His reply is always, “Are there more or fewer designers today than when Photoshop was created in 1988?” While there may be fewer typesetters, says King, the answer is more — a lot more. “For the most part, AI-assisted design tools will make design more accessible to more people, and that means more designers in the future — not fewer.” 

And that’s one more reason for launching the Interactive Design program, Stevenson says. “It’s about designers taking these new tools, embracing them fully, and using them to create better quality experiences and better quality products for people to use.

“It always comes back to design with intent.”
Andrew Stevenson

Digital Design is everywhere — make it part of your future career

This is where technology meets creativity. Start your interactive design career with the latest tools and skills informed by industry experts. You’ll learn how to leverage new technologies to create memorable, bold and inspiring designs.

Interactive Design diploma
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SAIT is located on the traditional territories of the Niitsitapi (Blackfoot) and the people of Treaty 7 which includes the Siksika, the Piikani, the Kainai, the Tsuut’ina and the Îyârhe Nakoda of Bearspaw, Chiniki and Goodstoney.

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