Past IDer: Kim Erwin

by New Idiom


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Kim Erwin talks about being a professor and ID’s role in the future of communication design.

Please quickly introduce yourself in a sentence or two. Where are you from? Where are you now? When did you graduate from ID and which program?

Born originally in NYC, I moved to Chicago when my father took a full time faculty position at IIT. I spent many years in campus housing at 31st and State.

I started ID just after Pat revamped the program, and Larry Keeley was teaching his first design planning class.

Married? … to the inspiring and talented Tom Mulhern

Children? … two boys: Joey and Dakota

Politics? … yes.

Religion? … of the Star Wars variety

In which ways and dimensions do you think ID changed your career?

Well, it saved me from a career in law.

I worked through undergrad in an interesting editorial job, writing and researching first amendment and right-to-privacy issues (I was essentially paid to watch the Senate). Now that was an education, and it also taught me how to write. My undergrad in philosophy (also known as pre-unemployment) taught me how to reason. And it all pointed towards law.

I bought the LSAT book and decided I just couldn’t care about that stuff. I knew I wanted a career that was about change. The only other one I could think of was design. And ID was the only school that made sense.

You have been teaching at ID for a few years now. What made you decide to teach and what have you learned from the experience?

It’s probably misplaced, but I really, truly care about communication. I’m actually troubled when great ideas, organizations or findings fail to take root because they aren’t understood well or don’t communicate powerfully. And I really feel for people inside organizations today—you have no idea how much information is thrown at them. Thrown badly. And their jobs depend on making sense of it.

So I’m delighted at the chance to get upstream of the situation, to where students are building their skills, and to teach them to view communication as a separate piece of practice worthy of its own work stream.

Students challenge me to rethink everything, which I do every semester. So teaching keeps me up at night. But it’s a different kind of learning than what I get in my practice—more enduring and more intense. Like microwaving ten years of projects (and throwing away the paychecks).

What are the skills learned at ID that you use the most in your current practice?

I use every analytic Vijay ever taught me. And I can’t help but think in systems. But most of all I use the information design and prototyping skills I learned here. Design makes things come alive, and that’s incredibly powerful in a business environment where most ideas are trapped inside bad Powerpoint presentations. Demonstrating ideas, rather than talking about them, is my secret sauce. And I learned those skills at ID.

For what’s its worth, I never, ever use a four-box model. Just on principle.

What hard times did you have at ID while a student, and what got you through them?

That’s martini talk. Meaning I need one to talk about it.

If you could have changed one thing about your time at ID, what would it have been?

I would have gotten more sleep.

What other advice do you have for current and/or future ID students?

Unless you are a dyed-in-the-wool designer, take foundation classes. It’s important to be able to do design, not just talk about it.

ID is constantly evolving, something that you’ve (no doubt) witnessed from your time as a student to your current faculty role. Could you talk about your observations? (perhaps where you think ID should be headed)

I’m only in touch with my tiny corner of ID, and so not qualified to comment on its evolution.

But I would love to see ID overhaul the way our profession communicates and reinvent how we use our communication tools. I mean that from both a research and a curriculum perspective: I think ID could teach students to be the most effective, novel and cutting edge communication practitioners on the planet.

It’s the next user-centered frontier. Consider this: in its downtime, our society is habituating to an entirely different style of information delivery: random access (as opposed to linear, thanks to search engines), bits rather than full stories, multiple perspectives (rather than a few dominant points of view, thanks to blogs and wikipedia). And now images + words + video carry equal weight, and are equally accessible and searchable—that’s a first.

But we still produce long, linear, primarily written, boring presentations. Why? It’s not what we value in our own lives, and yet it’s what we routinely produce.

Someone, or some organization, is going to lead this revolution into the halls of professional practice. It ought to be ID.