Q+A with Shrankhla Narya, MFA candidate in Design
Thu. May 21, 2015
Describe your design practice.
Shrankhla Narya: My practice as a designer is rooted in the belief that future designers will have to critically examine the theoretical, philosophical, and social aspects of design. My formal education in engineering, social science, and aesthetics has allowed me to develop an interdisciplinary approach towards design and examine its relationship with human needs and environments.
I believe that human-centered design, backed by in-depth research, can open doors for innovative solutions to real world problems.
What attracted you to the graduate Design program at UT Austin?
SN: The graduate Design program at UT Austin was an excellent mix of research and skills. I wanted to spend two years doing a course that would not only allow me to do studio work, but would also let me conduct research in areas that truly interested me. The program at UT Austin has been an excellent mix of making and thinking. The fact that we can take electives from any department makes it all the more valuable in terms of the variety of thoughts and experiences that we are exposed to.
What is your current research focus?
SN: My current research work seeks to investigate alternative narratives of technology use that are not driven by the prevailing consumerism of the privileged quarters of the world. I am beginning to streamline my research to investigate and suggest technological interventions for underprivileged people, currently focusing on day laborers in Austin.
Although I acknowledge that policy change and changes in the social structure are very likely the best methods of empowering marginalized communities — in the absence of enlightened legislation — I believe that technological interventions, deployed with an understanding of the social context, can support and complement this process of empowerment and inclusion.
Projects such as Krama and MissU and my ongoing research with day laborers in Austin can be taken as responses, in their own contexts and via their own perspectives, to the larger question “Who do we talk about when we talk about users?” Whether dealing with the most vulnerable sections of the society or engaging small and isolated communities to better understand the many dimensions of inclusion and exclusion, my work describes encounters with technology informed by different cultural, economic, political, and linguistic constraints.
What issues were you trying to solve in your Krama project?
SN: Krama is Sanskrit for progressing step by step towards a desired goal. This project is a speculative system for the future. Krama's aim is to build an alternate economy for the lower caste people (regarded as untouchables) in India by fostering upward mobility for them, both socially and economically. The lower caste people in India have faced extreme discrimination for centuries, and were denied access to public water wells, places of social gatherings, temples, and schools.
Krama creates 3D-printed DIY solar energy kits and portable water purification units for them and helps them learn how to produce resources for themselves, eventually leading to the possibility of an alternate economy for them to function in.
SN: MissU is an app that allows for communication through subtle visual cues displayed on physical objects around the receiver. The idea was born out of my need for long distance communication with my mom, where the time difference between our geographic locations and her lack of exposure to technology and English were the primary hindrances. The app communicates with the night lamp at the receiver’s end (who does not need a smart phone) through arduino and wireless shields.
In the future, we wish to develop 3D printed lamp shades with screens to display the icons and change color based on the sender’s mood.
How has your research or work developed over your time here so far and what are you looking forward to in the next year?
SN: My work has undergone some significant changes since the time I joined this program. I was a fresh chemical engineering graduate from India with no prior work experience. The past 10 months have been an excellent learning experience, along with a rigorous process of unlearning. I have found the area that interests me most, which is at the intersection of interaction design and social design. Arriving at a research area that one can commit to for a long period of their life is never easy, but I am glad that I have been able to find something that brings together my interest in technology and certain questions about our society that have troubled me for a long time.
I will be spending the next few months talking with day laborers in Austin and organizations that work with them. I hope to take my first significant step towards understanding a culture that is alien to me.
Interview with Brent Dixon (MFA in Design, 2015) as he prepares to begin work at the United Nations
Thu. May 28, 2015
Describe your background and what lead you to the MFA Design program at UT Austin.
Brent Dixon: I was a round, jowly, and gassy baby. When I was two years old my parents put me in a baby beauty pageant, and I won "Champion Chubby." As a kid I drew on everything and did science experiments in my room. One time I set my bed on fire by trying to electrify Nickelodeon Gak.
Fast forward: After finishing my undergrad in journalism, I co-founded a web and mobile design shop with a couple of friends. We always designed our first prototypes around a table with our clients, using markers, paper, tape, and hot glue before making something digital. From there I started working in consumer finance, eventually using some of the same design processes to help create financial products for people with limited access to credit. I also led design workshops for business people, and realized how much I enjoyed teaching. A friend and I started a group that organized pop-up hacker spaces for kids, which brought me back to hot glue and science experiments that set things on fire. I came to the UT Austin Design MFA program because I wanted more of that in my life. This program opens up the entire university as one giant playground.
In how to listen: 2015 Design MFA Thesis Exhibition at the Visual Arts Center, you displayed your educational work with children and focus on bringing technology into the classroom in an easy way for teachers. How did you begin working with this age group and thinking about education?
BD: One of the best ways to learn is to teach. I wanted to learn more about things that will have a big impact on our future — technologies like synthetic biology, robotics, digital fabrication —but that felt far outside of my realm of expertise. Designing hands-on workshops for kids provided a system to distill these big topics down to something learnable, fun, and usually messy.
Organizing the workshops helped me meet parents, teachers, and other people working in education. Austin, in particular, has this amazing community of people working to bring hands-on, curiosity-based learning into classrooms. I had actually avoided schools early in organizing these workshops because I was afraid of red tape, but spending time with educators who teach 6 year olds to solder and use power tools opened my eyes to the universe of smart, inspiring people as well as the huge amount of work to be done in formal education.
For the how to listen exhibition, each designer contributed sound clips for a compilation of influences on your projects. Can you tell us more about your selections? Number 41 (a first-grade girl scratches a turntable for the first time) and 58 (a third-grade girl describers her experiments and inventions) and particularly good.
BD: Number 41 was from a one-day workshop at Travis Heights Elementary. We had an extremely amazing of artists, scientists, and educators who volunteered their time to lead workshops with the kids. Three of those mentors were from Dub Academy, an Austin-based DJ and music production school. They taught kids at Travis Heights about new and old school DJ technology. That clip was from a little girl learning how to scratch a record for the first time.
Number 58 was a girl from Walnut Springs Elementary, one of the schools I worked with during my MFA research. In addition to the inventions she describes in the clip (which are amazing) she also helped write a grant to get the school a 3D printer. Later in the interview she encouraged other kids in Austin, saying that if they wanted something like a 3D printer or a community garden at their school: "Just write a grant! You can do it! It's easier than you think!" I was blown away by her.
You recently accepted a position with the U.N. What will you be doing and how did this opportunity come about?
I'll be working with a new group designed to help Secretariat organizations use emerging technologies to address challenges. A mutual friend introduced me to the head of the group and we've spent the last six months brainstorming and getting to know each other. I'm extremely excited to get started.
Rising sophomores look back on their first year at UT Austin
Wed. May 20, 2015
"My favorite thing about UT Austin thus far is the size of the Department of Art and Art History. By the end of the year, all the freshmen faces become recognizable, and it begins to feel like a small Twin Peaks-esque town."
— Guneez Ibrahim (BFA candidate in Design)
"My favorite experience from this year has definitely been going on the Holy Week trip to Antigua, Guatemala. On our second day there, we were on a walking tour of the town, and we walked past a shop playing Livin' On A Prayer by Bon Jovi.
I said, "Bon Jovi?"
Jason Urban turned around and said, "That's basically our life this week."
So, even though his comment didn't make perfect sense to everyone that heard him, one of the themes of our week became livin' on a prayer for sure."
— Kendall Bradley (BFA candidate in Studio Art)
"My favorite experience during my first year at UT Austin was visiting the BOT Greenhouse with my drawing foundations class to sketch. The light was really beautiful in the early spring, and it was nice to discover a new part of campus."
— Abbie Weller (BA candidate in Art History)
“One of the best things about coming to UT Austin is being able to interact with people in all disciplines. It really helps you to approach your own studies from a unique perspective.”
— Seth Murchison (BFA candidate in Studio Art)
"Probably my weirdest, yet funniest, experience during my first year was when I was walking back to my dorm late at night and came upon two guys trying to film a skate video in a street intersection. The guy being filmed was very slowly going across the intersection while the other guy was clumsily skating in front of him and filming. Both of them were wearing sunglasses, khaki shorts, weird hats, dress shirts, and ties — and looked barely conscious."
— Madalin Beavers (BFA candidate in Visual Art Studies)
Students showcase products, art, and arguments during Research Week
Thu. April 30, 2015
From community-based social design to art exhibitions, symposia, and ethics in art education, department undergraduate students demonstrate the importance of research in Art Education, Art History, Design, and Studio Art.
Students presented projects and artwork during Research Week alongside colleagues across campus. Events included an exhibition of visual art for the duration of the week, presentations at the Longhorn Research Bazaar, and the Undergraduate Art History Research Symposium.
Third year Design students Alexandra Mann and Cassidy Reynolds presented sparkbuddy, a website that enables children to set health goals and connect with other children with similar goals.
“We probably spent around 75% of the semester researching and 25% of the semester formally designing,” described Alexandra Mann. “Good design is well informed within the context of each project. Its not possible to go through the full design process without gaining an in depth understanding of the ‘who, what, where, when, and how’ of your project.”
Natalie Gomez, Visual Art Studies undergraduate, presented a group research project entitled, Speak up! Should artistic expression in art education receive the same degree of legal protection as other types of freedom of expression?
When asked about the impetus for the research topic, Natalie Gomez explained, “It was an issue that we felt would be extremely beneficial to us and our peers as artists and future art educators.”
On Friday, April 24, seven Art History seniors presented their honors theses papers at the third annual Undergraduate Art History Research Symposium. The event celebrated the end of an intense semester spent writing a thesis paper alongside the students’ normal coursework. Art History senior Tracey Borders presented a paper entitled, Urbi et Orbi: Politics and Patronage in the Papacy of Boniface VIII.
“This process has helped me grow as an art historian and as a person,” said Tracey Borders. “It has been one of the most challenging experiences but entirely worth it. I hope to get involved in government after graduation, and the tools I have acquired through the research and writing of my thesis will be extremely useful for the career path I hope to pursue in Texas politics.”
The university’s Office of Undergraduate Research organizes Research Week every year with the School of Undergraduate Studies and the Senate of College Councils. Each year, Department of Art and Art History students participate in this university event and proudly present work resulting from hours spent in the studio, library, and in the community.
“There is no ‘education’ without research,” Natalie Gomez remarked. “Research is essentially a thorough inquiry and that skill is required of all students entering any profession.”