The New School News

New School Alums Talk Inclusive and Data Driven Design at SXSW

New School alumni have been featured speakers at South by Southwest for years, reflecting the central role played by design and social research in the creation of technology and media. 

The panel Potty Talk: Service Design Post-Binary featured Eli Robinson, BA Psychology, a UX researcher and designer who has long been drawn to researching bathroom design, particularly in relation to equal access for people around the world and to the environment. “Everybody uses the bathroom. It’s personal, and it’s a universal subject. It’s a universal need; it’s an underserved need,” says Robinson.

Robinson explains how she found her way into design: “I got into design through a lot of other jobs that aren’t considered highly educated professions, such as farming, working with children, and being  a cashier. They’re called unskilled jobs, but in many cases you’re designing and managing other people’s  User Experience of entire subject areas. For example, if you’re behind a counter in a bicycle shop and you’re careless or rude to someone who’s brand new to bikes, you can shut down a whole area of undiscovered opportunities for them. Or, you can be friendly and try to remove the friction that’s kept them out of bike shops in the past, so they’ll be excited to come back. UX Design is an attempt to transfer these considerations to digital realms.”

The connection between psychology and design may not seem obvious, but Robinson finds the link essential. “Studying Psychology meant that I learned how to take notes while someone was speaking in a way that captures their voice and tone and doesn’t distort the interview, which is a pretty big part of design research. At The New School, we learned how to create a study that would yield genuine insight rather than a predictable or banal discovery. You want to find something you didn’t know, and to do that ethically. . Research is a fundamental part of how good design happens.

“Design only means what we think it means, it sometimes has a lot of power in certain industries, but it changes all the time. Really, each of us is a designer, anytime we do something deliberately. Our titles don’t mean anything in comparison to the larger things we’re designing, such as our lives. The New School facilitates  that kind of thinking. It attracts people who have an intelligence around designing their life, who want to think in larger time spans than fiscal quarters.. Many parts of our world need a deliberate design makeover by people who truly consider the User Experience of others. If you’re  designing a good experience for other people and yourself, you’re doing it right.” 

Nicole Pokorny, MS Strategic Design and Management, co-led a workshop titled Create Immersive Experiences Using Data Driven Insights, aimed at introducing strategic design-based methodologies and design thinking to the public, including those who do not work in a design industry. Pokorny specializes in retail consumer experiences and works for a global architecture, design and strategy firm. During her time at The New School, her graduate capstone project was on how to save brick-and-mortar retail through the understanding of physical space, technology and human connection, with a strong focus on highly experiential, temporary retail experiences. Projects she has worked on include the award winning Victoria’s Secret Bombshell Gardens on The High Line.

Pokorny noted that in the recent past, brands often focused on what was “Instagram-worthy” or what was trending online among their competitors rather than trying to understand what their specific consumer audience wanted. “In order to have design speak to your audience, you need to understand who they are and what they want. This is a major shift we have seen in the last few years, one that brands and retailers have begun to appreciate. Many brands have made redesign investments and wondered why they were not making the impression they hoped for. That is because intentionality is needed—to understand consumer behaviors and preferences first, followed by analyzing the data and findings, identifying gaps and opportunities for design optimization, and then designing with those strategies in mind. Purposeful design with your consumer in mind will land every time.”

Pokorny appreciates the human-centric approach she learned to employ as a student, especially as artificial intelligence takes on a larger role in design. “The way the program brings together design, societal influences, economics, sustainability, organizational management, and other human-focused issues was a key part. It also provided leadership training, which was an unexpected component of the program. I didn’t realize it would give me such a solid basis for going from a manager to a leader. This program gave me the confidence and the ability to look at myself holistically and determine where I’m strong and where I have the opportunity to elevate. I think I’ve used everything I learned in the program – it truly helped me to level up.”

Pokorny’s leadership training was on display as she guided attendees through the workshop. “It led to a lot of dynamic conversations, and I’m hopeful that those who attended have a greater understanding of why data, insights and intentional analysis are important to design ideation. I hope that they feel they have the ability to carry on these conversations within their organizations and bring these thought processes into their work, and that the ideas expand their ability to think about design differently,” says Pokorny. 

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