Lisa deBettencourtNew technologies appear on the market almost every day. How can designers keep up-to-date with those that are useful and learn how to assess those that may not be? These are just some of the answers the foundation course “Information Technology and Creative Practice” within the Master of Professional Studies in Digital Media program are designed to answer, under the creative guidance of Lisa deBettencourt.

“Everyone who goes through the program is required to take the course, so I have a whole range of skills in each class,” deBettencourt says. “From students interested in designing for film, video, or digital media who already understand how design and technology intersect to those who are just getting started. My job is to find a balance between covering the basics and getting really detailed.”

How Technology and Design Intersect Today

deBettencourt tackles this challenge by dividing the course into two distinct sections. She begins with a brief history of both information technology (IT) and design. She discusses where IT came from, the contribution of the field’s key innovators, and how technology has developed. On the design side, deBettencourt presents key moments in the history of architecture, industrial design, interior design, and graphics, with students learning about key designers, their philosophies, and how they have affected the way we use things—from trains and cars to clothing, telephones, and computers. She then brings the class into the present by talking about the explosion of ways in which new technologies and design intersect today.

Creating Solutions for the Future of Humankind

“Look no further than the iPhone as something that has revolutionized our lives,” deBettencourt says. “This device has an entire ecosystem. It’s not just a ‘smart phone,’ like the ones that came before. You can also look at the Tesla and how design made electric cars desirable and cool, and the emergence of devices like the Fitbit that are designed to keep you healthy. Then there are sensors for the home, like Nest, that completely changed how you manage the temperatures throughout your house.”

In the second part of the course, deBettencourt encourages her students to think creatively about the future needs of the earth’s growing population and to practice a range of creative design methods as they explore new ideas.

“This is when it gets messy,” deBettencourt says. “There comes this transition point in the class where we start to look to the future and get practical.”

As the weeks go by, students take more risks, become more vocal, and more creative.

“Students have come up with ideas like self-driving buses that know who is on a route thanks to apps using GPS,” deBettencourt says. “Some of my Chinese students reported on a service that helps them find comfort foods when they get homesick. And my favorite crazy idea was to turn libraries into a hub of sharing a host of other things beyond just books—using crowdsourcing and leveraging the sharing community.”

At times, deBettencourt draws upon her professional experience as vice president of design at Confer Health, an organization creating innovative technologies for consumer healthcare. But for the most part, she likes to hold back on personal examples, instead using her professional experience to design and teach the course. One area she feels strongly about is that products that designers work on be useful.

Applying the Appropriate Technologies to a Problem

“Just because we can do something with technology doesn’t mean we should,” deBettencourt says. “Today, engineers create cool things and we tend to rush to work out how to use them without questioning whether they are useful or not. The best scenario is when a particular problem is identified and designers are brought in to determine the best way to solve the problem, applying the appropriate technology in user-friendly and accessible ways.”

deBettencourt’s students are a mix of U.S.-based and international students from China, Kenya, Eastern Europe, Argentina, and Egypt, which leads to rich discussions. Some students come with extensive work experience, and deBettencourt often asks them to present their experiences to the class. In fact, deBettencourt considers good presentation skills, coupled with empathy, as key to being a successful designer.

“If you can’t share your ideas, see things from your client’s point of view, and take creative feedback, you will fall apart,” deBettencourt says. “So my students do a lot of presenting in class, because that is the first thing they have to do when they meet with clients.”

deBettencourt ends the foundation course with a discussion on ethics to give her students food for thought as they continue on their study and career paths.

“I preach a little bit about how designers vote with their choices, how they promote certain things by deciding where to work, who to work for, and what to work on,” deBettencourt says. “I promote going after real, hard problems to solve, rather than following where the money is. Designers working on new technologies can really make a difference. Whether that’s helping get water to remote tribes in Africa or fixing healthcare in the United States, I encourage them to think about bringing their skills to make a difference to humans and the planet, not to chase money so they can have a nice car. Again, just because we can, doesn’t mean that we should.”