Interview with Brenda Laurel

What do Aristotelian poetics have to do with human-computer interaction? Quite a bit, if you think about it like Brenda Laurel does. From an early interest in interactive theatre and interactive fiction, through falling in love with computer graphics and learning to code, and a long career designing computer games, Brenda has kept the cultural aspects of HCI at the forefront of her work. In this interview she talks about her work designing games for girls, and about working with others who inspired her (including Timothy Leary).


I was pretty fed up by that point by seeing how the gaming world was very gendered. I had some pretty deep research on how girls play. I wasn’t going to accept the street wisdom that girls just didn’t play computer games period, end of story. That was not something that made any sense to me since I was a game player. We did a lot of work with thousands of kids and tried to understand the kinds of play that attracted girls; not just computer play, but play period. I think if we’d asked what kind of computer games girls would like, we wouldn’t have gotten an interesting answer. So we asked deeper questions, like how does play differ according to gender in the age group we were looking at.

I bring with me a couple of observations about what it means to be a good designer that have almost nothing to do with skill. One is that design is activism. Our engagement is with popular culture, it’s with global culture. We’re not so much about sitting around understanding ourselves or extruding our interior experience like a fine artist might be, but rather we’re about engaging and shaping the world. Design does that, and is incredibly powerful in that regard. Since we have that kind of power we need to understand what the tools are to engage that way, and we need to frame ourselves in relation to the world, as an agent, as an activist, as a source of power and change.


Conducted by Tamara Adlin on June 5, 2007 11:32 PM

Want to see what passionate thinking looks like? Peek inside a brain filled with theatre, invention, games for girls, and design-as-activism.

Tamara Adlin:  Hello everyone. Today I am excited to be talking with Brenda Laurel who is a designer, researcher, and writer. Her work focuses on interactive narrative, human computer interaction, and cultural aspects of technology.

She is currently the chair of the new graduate program in design atCalifornia College of the Arts Her career in human computer interaction spans over 25 years, which is one of the reasons I’m so excited about talking to her today.

Her book, Computers as Theatre, was one of the very first books I encountered when I started getting interested in this field. She’s also the editor of The Art of Human-Computer Interface Design.

Hello! Thank you for finding the time for this. 

Brenda Laurel: My pleasure.

TA: The first question I always ask everybody is: What fascinated you when you were young? It could be when from when you were a kid, or when you were choosing your academic path. Was there some fascination that you think helped lead you to make the choices that put you where you are today?

BL: I hate to be boring but I was fascinated with theatre –

TA: That’s not boring.

BL: – and got involved with interactive theatre about the time you were born, which was very trendy then. I wrote and directed a fair number of interactive pieces in various environments. Then, when I got a chance to go work in the computer game business in 1976, it seemed quite natural. My first job was doing interactive fairy tales.

TA: Oh, that’s cool. The year I was born was 1968, for everybody who is reading this and doesn’t know. Can you tell us a little more about interactive theatre? Was it a big jump away from traditional stuff?

BL:  It was a movement, I guess you’d call it. I think its roots probably came out of conceptual art, performance art, happenings – that sort of stuff. It was certainly a reaction to the culture of the time. Dionysus in 69, a famous piece of experimental theatre, debuted in 1968, and there were interactive pieces being performed in New York by, say, 1974. Living Theatre was doing interactive stuff, and Jerzy Grotowski’s Poor Theatre had started in 1968. There was a nascent role-playing community in those days as well, even though I think it predates D&D (Dungeons and Dragons).

Interactive theatre is where you have a rough scenario or pieces of script with improvisational interludes. It’s a lot like Commedia dell’arte in that regard. The scenario basically outlines what the plot elements are, but audience members’ responses direct improvisation on the part of the actors. In some cases, audience members become included in the actions, but that typically doesn’t work so well because people got embarrassed when they got called upon to play parts.

Also in the tradition of Commedia, the script that got played in any given town might be responsive to what was going on in the town at the time, so there was kind of a responsiveness to current events and locations involved in the tradition. We tried to maintain that in the work that we did.

TA: This was semi-improv. As an actor you must have had to think extremely quickly.

BL: Yes, that’s why I don’t do it anymore. If you have the basic scenario in your mind and you’re practiced in improv, it’s not that hard.

TA: That totally followed what you were studying, right? I see you had an MFA and PhD in Theatre from Ohio State.

BL: That’s right.

TA: But your dissertation was the first to propose a comprehensive architecture for computer-based interactive fantasy and fiction. You were working on that, I assume, before ’76?

BL: No, actually I passed my generals in ’79, and then the company I was working for – a very early computer game company called Cybervision – went out of business and everybody slowly drifted to Atari.

Cybervision logo
Figure 1: Cybervision logo

So in ’79 I came out to the golden west from Ohio and started working at Atari, and got back to my dissertation when I realized that I was almost out of time.

By then I had become really interested in computer games and interactive fiction. I conceived the idea of figuring out what we could do with some of the principles of Aristotelian poetics in building smarter game systems. The goal was a system that could generate next actions, or conditions for next actions, that would lead to dramatically satisfying experiences. 

TA: So I have accidentally skipped us forward over the middle of the ’70s. I’m extremely curious about those moments in your thinking that transitioned you from this extremely theater-based life and thinking style into the computer realm.

BL:  Well, it was a very particular moment. I had a friend named Joe Miller, who is still a friend of mine, who was working at Battelle Research Labs in Columbus in their new computer graphics group. He was a buddy. One night, late at night, he took me over to see his lab.

I saw NASA images showing up on a screen in his lab. I sort of fell to my knees and said, “Oh my God, whatever this is I want a piece of it.” About a year later he quit his job, and he and his colleague John Powers founded Cybervision because some guy had shown up with the ability to do interactive stuff via the television. Since Joe knew of my interest in theatre, he asked me if I would be interested in designing some interactive fairy tales.

It all seemed very smooth at the time. The only hitch was that I had to learn how to program.

I found myself doing things like reinventing cell animation because I was so ignorant about how animation worked. I was programming lip synching and stuff in an environment of rudimentary technology. We’re talking 2k of RAM here! It was interesting. 

TA: What programming language were you working in?

BL: Joe and John had developed a specialized language for the device we were using which was based on the 1802 computer – which, by the way, is the one that NASA was using at the time because it was able to function at low temperatures. But they used a higher level language than I learned. Then later, Joe forced me to learn a little bit of assembly languageprogramming.

Typically what would happen is that I would want something to happen and I would say, “Boys, you need to write me a subroutine,” and they’d go in the back room, code up something in assembly language, then let me call it in ajump out, so I didn’t have to do much heavy lifting in that regard. 

TA: But still, going from improvisational theatre to code – ouch.

BL:  I was in the directing track as well as being an actor. You do a lot of things that are kind of mathematical anyway when you are blocking a play: When you are figuring out where actors should go on a stage, you’re probably looking at a piece of grid paper. Now we can do that with a Quake Engine – we can see it in 3D. But in those days, there was a lot of rudimentary geometry involved.

Plus, I had studied stagecraft and set design and things like that, that were moderately technical. It didn’t seem like a big leap. 

TA: So you had the boys in the back room doing the hard stuff.

BL: Yes, that is the key to my success: Having programmers in windowless rooms doing my bidding.

TA: You know what, that’s probably not so far from the key to a lot of peoples’ fields. It’s one thing to have the ideas, but it’s another to get them to work.

BL:  Yes. So I did the graphic design and interaction design and wrote high-level code, and then they wrote subroutines.

When I moved to Atari, I actually got into a management job, originally managing the educational software effort. I think I was the first software producer-type person for the Atari 400-800 series. We were trying to think what we could do with that machine in the realm of education.

Then my group got bigger and we started doing all of the software producing for that machine, which immediately took us into the realm of translating some of the games that had existed on the Atari console into the 400-800 environment, and developing new games for that environment because it had different capabilities.

After about two years of that, I hit the wall. Atari was hitting the wall at the same time. I realized I wasn’t getting what I needed intellectually and creatively. It so happened that Alan Kay had just been hired as the head of Atari Research. I had had several conversations with him. That was when ideas for my dissertation started forming, because I was talking to this brilliant research guy.

Alan brought in a bunch of people from MIT’s Architecture Machine Group (which was the precursor to the MIT Media Lab) to work in the Atari lab – so I had the opportunity to be around people who had already been thinking pretty deeply about interaction and got a lot of support in following the holy grail of the idea of this more intelligent game system.

As it turned out, the way I approached it in my dissertation wasn’t particularly feasible, because in those days expert systems were all the rage, and I thought that was how we were going to go about it. This was before the monumental discovery that the most interesting character in a game was actually another human player. When that happened – it seems like Habitatfinally broke the wall down there – the whole idea of using big AI to design computer games got back-burnered, although people in the game industry continue to be very concerned about using flavors of artificial intelligence to animate machine generated characters.

TA: I’ve done several of these interviews so far, and lots of people are from the psychology background or other research fields. It sounds like you were surrounded by people doing high-powered technical research.

BL:  Well, at the Atari lab there were a lot of shenanigans going on. One of the things we did was to invent a fictitious lab director named Dr. Arthur T. Fischell, and then we undertook to make him as real as we could using email messages. I did his voice with a vocoder on the phone when he had to talk to somebody. We made up a bio for him. It sort of climaxed in a live teleconference with this nonexistent person. I actually played Arthur, with facial hair and everything, from a remote conference room with cables laid down the hall to the bigger room. The only person who figured out that it was me was actually Douglas Adams, who happened to be visiting the Lab that day. It was a pretty persuasive hack. We even got Arthur an employee number.

I remember one time the management of Atari called the lab and wanted to know Arthur’s home number, so I got on the phone with my vocoder. Also, Arthur was British, so I had a voice like this: (emulates voice).

I gave them the number for dial-a-prayer in Boston, so if anybody ever tried to call him, they got some religion.

People in the lab were not just technical people. There was a lot of interest in character. One of my colleagues was doing facial recognition, and thinking about how to animate faces so that, for example, women in the Arab world could do business with men through a virtual persona.

We were surrounded by people who were doing very imaginative things even though they were technically skilled.

TA: So you were having a lot of fun every day.

BL: I had a blast. It was great. It was insanely great

TA: Were you aware of or reading some of the other stuff coming up in the field on interaction design?

BL:  When I was leaving Columbus, I was thrashing around trying to figure out what my career should be. Joe had said to me, “You should go into human factors,” which, as you know, was kind of an outgrowth or combination of time/motion studies and the issues in aviation that had to do with how human pilots operate very complex machines.

I said, “What’s that?” He said, “Well, if you use an ATM, you are experiencing human factors design.” ATMs were a brand new thing in those days.

I kept that in the back of my mind, I guess. Later at the Atari Lab, I became acquainted with Don Norman and started talking with him a lot, and wrote a paper called “Interface as Mimesis” that he published in his human-centered design book (Full title: User Centered System Design: New Perspectives on Human-Computer Interaction).

I was starting to think of UI (user interface) as an idea that’s related to poetics, and that has to do with imitation of life. Don actually mentored me through the beginning phases, I guess, of my dissertation work.

I was lucky. I got to the best guy in the field quite by accident. My life has been so wonderful with coincidences like that. I’ve had the chance to work with such terrific people all quite by accident. 

TA: That’s been a theme in a lot of these conversations. Everyone has had a lot of creative inspiration in their lives that has helped support them as they’ve built on. Were you aware you were part of building a new discipline?

BL:  I think by the time I got around to writing my dissertation I was totally aware of it and on fire. I can remember not sleeping because I was so obsessed with what I was thinking about.

When I was finished and I showed the manuscript and ideas to my editor, who was at Addison Wesley at the time, he said, “Oh man, this is really revolutionary stuff. You ought to think about turning this into a book that would explain your thinking to other people.”

So I rewrote the thing, and that’s where Computers as Theater came from. It’s what everybody does; they try to turn their dissertation into something readable by normal humans. That’s how that went down. 

TA: That came out in ’91, right?

BL: The book did, yes. The dissertation was finished in ’86. I spent some time in between. Actually the Apple book that you mentioned – The Art of Human-Computer Interface Design – came before the publication of Computers as Theatre, and I had a contract job with Apple to gather the thoughts of the people who were working in the human interface group there and edit the book.

My editor (at Addison Wesley) was also the editor for that book, so I approached him with Computers as Theatre, and he went for it. Later on when I got back to writing books again, I started working with MIT Press. My last two books have gone through MIT Press. 

TA: Were there particularly interesting thinkers you encountered when you were doing The Art of Human-Computer Interface Design? I assume Don Norman was there at the time, right, at Apple?

BL: No. I dragged some outside people into that. book, and Apple wasn’t so happy about that. They were delighted I got Don and Nick Negroponte to write in the book. They were not so delighted that I got Tim Leary to write in the book, but I was working with Tim Leary in a game capacity at that point and had become his friend. I knew he had some pretty interesting observations, so I got away with it.

TA: Why weren’t they excited about that?

BL:  In those days, and I think even still today, there’s a lot of thought that he was a lightweight culture criminal. Because of the way he was stigmatized by the United States Government primarily, he was not taken seriously even though he had done such groundbreaking work in interpersonal psychology. I took him seriously but he was a coded person; he was an outlaw to a lot of folks.

It was a disturbance in the force, I think, to have that kind of person writing in the book, but I am glad it happened 

TA: I wonder if there are people who are like that today.

BL: Who are getting stigmatized, but who are actually great thinkers?

TA: Yes.

BL: I’m sure there are. I can’t think who they are at the moment. It’s become a much hipper world to be in, so with people like Laurie Anderson and Peter Gabriel getting involved in the ’90s, the door kind of got blown off of who had permission to work in the field in terms of their cultural significance.

TA: Yes. Laurie Anderson and wearable computers and her tie that actually was a piano…

BL: Right. Well, the original vocoder inspiration for Arthur Fischell came from Laurie Anderson’s work. It’s funny, isn’t it?

TA: Yes. You’re talking of people who both again are highly creative and embedded in the arts, and the most technical of the technical.

BL:  Brian Eno is another great example of that. He’s been a tremendous influence on me although he probably doesn’t know it. But his work has had a lot to do with my thinking.

TA: And now he’s done an installation recently with music and lights through computers and multiple images. He’s still doing that stuff.

BL: Yes.

TA: Here we are in the early ’90s, and you’ve got two books behind you –

BL:  – and two babies in front of me.

TA: Really?

BL: Yes, I wrote my dissertation with my arms around my first child. She was in a little baby sack and I was reaching around her to the keyboard. It was pretty funny.

TA: People who read that are going to go “oooofff!”

BL: Yes, she’s turned out to be a bonafide, card-carrying hippie. I think this may have something to do with it.

TA:  Right, it was either that or a stern Republican.

BL: My worst nightmare was that she was going to be a born-again Republican. But no, that didn’t happen, thank heavens.

TA: That’s good. So you had these two kids, you had these two books, you were obviously used to working like a maniac. What did you start to look towards next?

BL:  Well, it was weird. It was a difficult time. There was a recession going on. I worked at ActiVision for a couple of years – ’85 to ’86 – when I went back to work after the kids were… well, no, it was between kids. I was at ActiVision for two years producing and then they went through their Chapter 11 moment.

I jumped to Epyx because my friend Joe was at Epyx, and was there just in time to turn the lights out. It was a pretty depressing run.

In ’89 I got involved with the Apple research people, working with Alan Kay and Rachel Strickland down in Los Angeles in the Vivarium Project.

Rachel and I were working on storytelling and narrative intelligence as a way to think about getting kids involved in programming. We were using coyote stories. It was this great experiment with Native American stories to see if kindergarten kids had the western notion of narrative already burned into their brains or not. It turned out not; that they were able – and interested – to do fairly nonlinear things with storytelling when we gave them tools. 

TA: What was Vivarium?

BL:  Vivarium was a project that Alan started in Los Angeles with the magnet school that was intended to be a test bed for kids and computers. Alan’s been on a mission since day one with his Dynabook idea and stuff.

Vivarium was a place where we could try out a bunch of ideas about engaging kids with technology. Then, after that I wandered into the human interface group proper, and got the job to do the book with them – which was really interesting for me. It was sort of like anthropology because I was really trying to channel the contents of other peoples’ brains about what was going on in the business.

After that was over and I had published Computers as Theatre, I was on the speaking circuit. I did a bunch of virtual reality work. About 1992 I met David Liddle at a conference. He hired me to come to work at Interval Research, so my life ignited again.

I got back into the place I wanted to be in a research capacity. I stayed there for the whole ride, although in ’96 my work on gender and technology got spun out into Purple Moon, which was a startup company that did games for girls.

Purple Moon game
Figure 2: Choice screen in a Purple Moon game

I was pretty fed up by that point by seeing how the gaming world was very gendered. I had some pretty deep research on how girls play. I wasn’t going to accept the street wisdom that girls just didn’t play computer games period, end of story.

That was not something that made any sense to me since I was a game player. We did a lot of work with thousands of kids and tried to understand the kinds of play that attracted girls; not just computer play, but play period. I think if we’d asked what kind of computer games girls would like, we wouldn’t have gotten an interesting answer. So we asked deeper questions, like how does play differ according to gender in the age group we were looking at.

Purple Moon was the result of a lot of heavy lifting.

TA: Were there particularly interesting things you found out?

BL: Yes, and this is documented in my book Utopian Entrepreneur.

One major issue was that in those days the play community – the people who looked at play – were labeling constructive play as being pretty much something that boys did. They were thinking of it in terms of this box, this ship, building forts, stuff like that. It turns out that girls can engage in constructive play too, but they do it most often in the form of narrative.

That was a big key. Girls are really interested in free play, where you’re building a story, you’re trying to understand a story, you’re engaging in a story in some way.

I guess the other big finding, although there were many, was that there are biological reasons why girls are not as interested – or weren’t, in those days – in action games. In those games we were looking at side-scrollers, and it turns out there is a statistically significant gender difference in the domain of what’s called “mental rotation,” which is imagining an object in a different orientation. So if you’re looking at a side scroller but you’re playing an action game, you have to do the mental rotation of 90 degrees to see yourself as being in a first-person view with those characters.

TA: So was the side scroller the actual interface to the game?

BL:  Yes, the games went sideways, basically, as opposed to first-person point of view games like we have now.

There were a few POV (point of view) games, and not surprisingly, girls like them. Sonic the Hedgehog is one.

So this business about mental rotation and navigational styles… Girls tend to be more body-centric and interested in landmarks as a navigational tool, whereas boys are more likely to do dead reckoning and are very comfortable, say, with plan views of environments.

Those pieces of information about brain-based differences helped us to think about designing a UI that would be more attractive to girls. 

TA: How interesting. The whole area of biological differences is a little fraught with danger, I suppose.

BL:  You couldn’t even talk about it in the ’80s. It was just taboo. Doing this research I caught shit from the feminist community, and I caught shit from the male gaming community, because everyone problematized it. But there it is.

TA: You still found what you did to be true.

BL:  Yes, and it’s also true that girls tend to do better at pattern matching, so that was a clue. We even talked to girls who were good at Tetris because everybody was saying, “Wait a minute, Tetris is about mental rotation.” When we talked to champion female Tetris players, we learned that they were framing the problem in Tetris as a pattern matching problem.

That led to the observation that you can get a person – female, let’s say – to perform better at a navigational task that’s exactly the same if you frame it differently.

Say they’re trying to drive this car from here to there and you show them a map. They’ll perform better than if you tell them they are trying to get through a maze, because the way they are framing the problem psychologically allows them to tap into other skills.

Does that make sense? 

TA: Yes, totally. So in a way the (female) Tetris players were perhaps seeing all the different potential rotations of the shapes and just doing pattern matching.

BL:  Right, and looking at the pattern below and the pattern that was falling down and trying to do a really quick pattern matching solution.

That’s not huge, but it’s important. I think the social content of the Purple Moon games was the result of understanding girls at the tween age and what is nagging them; what are the issues in their lives at that age.

We learned a lot of things about how girls construct their identity. There are really two kinds of identity that most girls have at that age. One is social and quite concerned with relationships in the external world, and the other is very interior and tends to be more age-appropriate.

So when they’re in their social selves they’re imagining themselves to be a bit older. When they’re in their inner selves, they’re at their right age – at the same age or maybe even younger.

Different principles apply, but the same concerns are worked out in different ways in the two frames that girls tend to have as they struggle to become adults at that very difficult time of their lives. 

TA:  Seventeen Magazine is no longer interesting once you reach age 17.

BL: Exactly, probably 14 now.

TA: It’s interesting, I do work with companies doing data driven personas. Some of the games companies I’ve worked with have discovered that their most promising target markets are actually women and not men, especially when it comes to games more related to puzzles and pattern matching, like Bejeweled and things.

BL:  Right, and first-person games have always been hits with women, even back in the day, Pole Position was a first-person driving game that girls played. Girls and women have consistently been a strong audience for driving games for that reason, I think, because it’s a first-person deal and it has to do with a first-person agency. For girls it’s kind of their ideal of who they’ll become when they get older.

It was an interesting ride. 

TA: What happened with Purple Moon?

BL:  Purple Moon was caught in an interesting situation. The web was just starting to happen. There was at that point no off-the-shelf way to do, for example, online retail.

We were rolling our own. We had a web presence that was very strong. In fact, we were beating Disney for about three months in terms of dwell time and hits.

But we were also making real products – CD-ROMs – that had to be manufactured, warehoused, shipped, gotten into shelves at retail, etc. Investors in the late 90’s saw in the online world a situation where none of those problems existed. You didn’t have material goods to worry about, and the valuation of a company that didn’t have material goods as part of their product line could be astronomical.

So our investors got very restless. They wanted to put their money into one of these online companies with 100x return on investment deals, like or something. They were saying, “We’re not going to mess around with you CD-ROM guys anymore.”

We were looking for investment, but right in the middle of trying to land investment with Mattel our Board quite suddenly shut us down. We managed to get ourselves sold to Mattel just to make everybody whole and pay everybody the money we owed them, and then of course Mattel acquired – in 1998, 99 and 2000 – they proceeded to acquire every single company in the space of games for girls as a defensive move to protect their property,Barbie.

It was like a snake that ate something too big. The investment they made was so huge – on the order of $700 million – to buy all those companies, that they didn’t have the money to service the brands.

So they ended up killing almost all of them except the American Girl brand, and then eventually within a year they were out of business in the interactive side. Then (CEO) Jill Barad got fired, and that was the end of the story. 

TA: So all those little creative companies got suffocated.

BL:  Yes, although some of them are still kicking, like GirlTech people are still out there, but that movement – that moment in time – is over.

At the same time, because the web was becoming so much more accessible, our mission of getting girls comfortable with technology was being accomplished by their engagement with the web, so the social need to do something targeted to females for the purposes of getting their hands on the machine was passing. The need for that kind of intervention for that reason went away. I think there is still a huge market, obviously, for girl’s and women’s games, and people keep making little runs at the fence, but as you know the game world is not particularly keen on research. They’re not asking the right questions a lot of the time. 

TA: When did you go to Sun?

BL:  I went to Art Center after the appropriate year of grief over Purple Moon. I was invited down to Art Center in ’98 or ’99 to help design a new curriculum for the media design program there. I was invited by Andy Davidson, whom I had met previously in the DVD business –CD- i I guess was the format he was into. He was at Philips.

Anyway, I went down to Art Center, helped redesign the curriculum, and got really engaged in teaching. Eventually when Andy left I became the chair of that program, and chaired it for four years.

During that time, it was rough times here (San Francisco Bay Area). It was post-bubble. My husband, who is an inventor and researcher, had a lot of trouble finding work. He had finally gotten a gig at Sun. The guy who was running the lab there was somebody we’d known from Interval, and he asked me if I wanted to work there.

I was doing two jobs at that point. I was commuting to Los Angeles every week, living in a little apartment down there to be chair of the media design program (at Art Center), then coming back up here and working the other two and a half days at Sun Labs.

Sun Labs went through a layoff, and I offered myself up because at that point I was so exhausted I didn’t think I could breathe. So they kindly laid me off and unkindly laid off my husband at the same time.

We were back at “yikes” moment. I kept teaching at Art Center and one day I just said “I can’t get on an airplane again. This is killing me. I’ve got to do something else.” The very next day I opened my email and there was a note from the then president of CCA ( California College of the Arts) saying, “We’d like somebody to come up here and start an interaction design program.” 

TA: So you just put it out to the universe, and the universe said okay!

BL:  Right on, instant grats. Really swell. I wish I could do that more often. So I interviewed for an interaction design position, and really kind of persuaded these guys that what they wanted to do was a graduate program that was transdisciplinary if they could, because in my journey it’s just been obvious that the boundaries between what we would call industrial design and communication design and interaction design are really dissolving.

It’s hard to find something that exists in the world that doesn’t exist in more than one media type, if you think about it.

My vision at Art Center was the same, but now I have industrial designers included in the program, and we’re able to work in 2D, 3D and 4D, so it’s a grand experiment. We’re watching this thing in the fall, but we’ve got a great crop of students coming in and I think we’re going to go to the next level in terms of design education.

I bring with me a couple of observations about what it means to be a good designer that have almost nothing to do with skill.

One is that design is activism. Our engagement is with popular culture, it’s with global culture. We’re not so much about sitting around understanding ourselves or extruding our interior experience like a fine artist might be, but rather we’re about engaging and shaping the world. Design does that, and is incredibly powerful in that regard.

Since we have that kind of power we need to understand what the tools are to engage that way, and we need to frame ourselves in relation to the world, as an agent, as an activist, as a source of power and change.

I’ve never stopped wanting to help younger people who are very bright to understand that they have power, that they can get into their power, giving them tools about strategic thinking and research and even business – intellectual property law, stuff like that – so they can enter that world not as a stoop-labor programmer or graphic designer, but as a potent force who can think large and provide vision and strategy for a company or client.

TA: Wow. So my last question usually is what fascinates you now, and it sounds like you’ve actually answered that.

BL:  Yes, I think so. We are running out of time here in terms of the global situation. There’s a way in which fussing around is not useful. In my view, we need to be engaging questions like sustainability and climate change and globalization and immigration policy and human rights in everything that we do.

It may not be that those things show up in a particular design, but the question needs to be asked every time. I am really interested in the fact that I think we need to stand up faster, work harder, work stronger, and be more proactive about what kind of world we want to have.

I know that for artists, and I think this is true of designers as well, there is such a tendency to be self marginalizing and to say, “Oh, I’m going to stand here outside of the spectacle of the world and comment on it, throw little paper airplanes into it with messages that things are wrong.”

There is a fundamental shift we need to make. It’s easy. You just say, “No, actually, I’m not outside, I’m in the middle. I’m in the center of the world, I am the wellspring of popular culture because it’s the truth.” So often that’s really all it takes to make a talented person a powerful change agent.

TA: I think that’s really resonant for people in the HCI field who are constantly trying to swim upstream in the development process, and get to the center of strategy.

BL:  Yes, one of the reasons I quit going to CHI for several years was because I kept seeing such incrementalist work. It was a button or a slider. There were pull-down menus and VR (virtual reality), which is just about the dumbest thing I can think of.

It’s not interesting to me to fiddle around fussing with stylizing. Styling things – and this is a big argument in the design community world – are we stylists? No, we’re not. We’re inventors; we’re protean. I’m glad to see that CHI is driving back towards that kind of muscular thinking.

For example, the engagement CHI has now with sensors and sensor networks is very interesting to me. I don’t think we have time to fool around with menus and buttons. There’s a lot of stupid stuff that’s fundamentally wrong in the world of industrial design and interaction design that we’ve been persistently trying to make better, and we ought to just move off of it, do the next thing.

TA: On that note, I’m going to let you go and do your next thing. I can’t thank you enough for all of your insights and for what you’ve said today.

BL:  My pleasure.

TA: No, no, all mine. Thank you!