Design Education: Interview with Ethan Resnick, Student at NYU Gallatin School

By November 27, 2011Posts

Design Education is a series of interviews that explore the expectations and experiences of today’s designers. Ethan Resnick studies design with a focus on systems at New York University’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study.

You’ve worked with design legend Khoi Vinh and big names like 20th Century Fox. Given your experience, why did you decide to go to college?

I get obsessed with new ideas fairly regularly. Just since coming to college, I’ve been thinking about machine learning. Before that, I was thinking about how we might counteract our cognitive biases to overcome the limits of human rationality. About a year ago, I was thinking about what business models could ensure a strong future for the news industry.

My point is I have no clue what I’ll be interested in five years from now. And I’ll probably be interested in something different five years later.

The only things I do know, based on my prior interests, are that:

  1. My future obsessions will likely involve designing systems that facilitate learning or the spread of information
  2. I’ll get so drawn to them that I’ll want to pursue them exclusively, which will mean changing careers or starting my own ventures.

I decided the best way to position myself to jump at new interests as they come up was to get a strong foundation, which meant a college education that balanced breadth with a focus on this type of design. The connections and degree that come with such an education factored in too.

Going straight into the professional design world would have been very exciting. I love the challenge and complexity of the web, and I’m grateful that it’s given me a way to explore information design and the design process, but it would have made going back to college later much harder, which is ultimately more important as I don’t see the web as a long-term career.

In your opinion, what qualities and skills cut across disciplines and should be core to design education?

All designers must be able to do three things:

  1. Understand the situation or problem at hand.
  2. Create potential solutions.
  3. Evaluate the success of each solution to pick the best one.

To understand the current situation, a designer must know what makes people tick and be able to research their situation as the project dictates. Accordingly, I’d build a lot of people study into any curriculum, through classes or workshops in applied psychology or cognitive science and in interviewing, ethnography, and other research methods.

To come up with ideas, a designer must know good brainstorming and prototyping techniques. I’d also encourage designers to expose themselves to as many different languages, disciplines, and means of representation as possible, like writing, drawing, and photography. Each one leads to a different way of seeing the world, and together they create a more complete or truer perspective.

To evaluate potential solutions, a designer must first answer the question: “What makes a design good?” I think schools should lead this discussion and stress values like appropriateness and durability.

I also think every designer should learn the history of the discipline they’re working in, as history provides useful context and can be a great source of inspiration.

Beyond that core group of principles, the challenges designers tackle are so different across disciplines that it’s hard to find universals. Systems thinking, communication principles, a sense of form, and statistical reasoning or data analysis are all paramount in some realms of design, but almost irrelevant in others.

You’re pursuing a program of individualized study. What other programs were you considering?

I considered programs with a lot of academic freedom, because I wanted to make sure that I would be able to follow my passions in school—not have to pursue my passions and school.

I also wanted a school that offered a wide range of courses, because I think breadth has a lot of value. That’s why I ignored art or design-specific schools. They also focused a lot on visual work, which isn’t the design I’m most interested in.

What advice would you give to someone choosing a program?

My first piece of advice would be don’t necessarily rule out non-design schools or programs. If you’re willing to learn the ropes and practice on your own, you can create an education that supports great design work at a flexible university.

In my case, I’m excited to explore NYU’s offerings in things like information systems, cognitive science, philosophy, communications, ethnography, art history, computer science, and teaching. NYU also has an awesome HCI-related research labs and the mind-bogglingly cool ITP Program.

My second piece of advice would be to put a lot of weight on the quality of a school’s teachers and students. Good teachers and thought-provoking classmates are what make going to college more valuable than just reading Wikipedia.

To evaluate teachers, you can look at their ratings on Rate My Professors and see their average salary on College Prowler. Try to understand the school’s value for potential teachers. If it’s appealing, you can bet the good teachers will be there.

To evaluate other students, average SAT scores are a decent metric, but you should keep in mind that the SAT is such a gameable test that higher scores may just mean the students had more money for prep classes. So, it’s also important to try to see some student work (design or otherwise).

My last piece of advice is to figure out exactly what you want. What do you mean when you say you want to be a designer? Answer that and then do your homework carefully. A Fiske guide or online student reviews can reveal a lot of problems not mentioned in the school’s promotional materials.

I frequently hear complaints that recent graduates don’t have critical skills like communicating with clients, thinking strategically, researching, and business analysis. What sort of soft skills have you found valuable so far?

I think the skills you mentioned are essential for design. If a person’s not using them, they’re not designing. It’s that simple.

Client communication is incredibly important. In that regard, what I’ve found most valuable is:

  • Framing sensitive issues appropriately so as to not provoke defensiveness.
  • Writing an email that respects the client’s time by calling out things they need to act on.
  • Setting clear expectations about the project’s flow or each party’s responsibilities.
  • Defending my work when I think it’s right, but also picking my battles. Some take more energy than they’re worth and each tires the client, making them less receptive in the future when it may matter more.

Another thing I’ve found valuable is being open to criticism. For me, this becomes easier when I look back on my old work and realize how bad it is, which reminds me that my new work probably is too.

How did you develop these skills at a younger age?

A lot them resulted from my upbringing. Strategic thinking and asserting one’s position were required in my family. I was also lucky to go to schools that focused on critical thinking and expression.

My upbringing aside, a key step was listening to respected designers. Many of my ideas about client communication and professionalism come from the original Boagworld podcast, and more recently from Mule Design’s Let’s Make Mistakes. Those podcasts, along with a few classes I took, also taught me about research techniques. And I did a lot of reading.

After I knew which direction to head, it was just a question of practice. For my writing, I’ve done a lot of editing.

How are you looking to refine these skills while in school?

I plan to do more design work, interact with clients, and take classes that I hope will make me a better strategic and creative thinker.

Would you encourage other young designers to pursue professional work before they’ve had formal training? How?

Fundamentally, I don’t see any reason why a lack of formal training should stop a designer from entering the workforce.

If you’re a young designer with good skills and a portfolio, but self-trained, I think you should go for it, and I doubt you’ll have any problems finding a job either.

If you don’t have those skills, I think you should build them first, which may mean going to design school. If you decide not to go to school, I’d start by working on personal projects and reading as much as you can.

Foundational books like The Vignelli Canon and Principles of Beautiful Web Design are a good place to start, and Jason Santa Maria also keeps a great list.

From there, you can move to doing pro bono work for charities or cheap work for local businesses. Cheap is essential. When you’re not charging a lot, you buy yourself the right to screw up.

Beyond that, I’d encourage you to go to meetups, seek criticism of your work, and reach out to other designers you admire on Twitter or via email. They’re almost always willing to respond and they give amazing advice.

About Ethan Resnick

Ethan Resnick is studying design at New York University. He’s currently developing a new approach to responsive web design. Ethan has worked with Khoi Vinh, 20th Century Fox, and Report LA. Follow him on Twitter or on the web at

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