Institute with designs on how we live

October 12, 2001

The home of the Interaction Design Institute of Ivrea is an appropriate one, in the traditional cradle of Italy's most enlightened industrial design. It was in Ivrea, a small town north of Turin, surrounded by green pastures and woods and within sight of the Alps, that Adriano Olivetti developed an office machines and typewriter company far ahead of its time in the 1950s and 1960s. In the 1980s and early 1990s, Olivetti went on to design and produce some of the world's most beautiful personal computers.

Today, for reasons of business and finance rather than design, Olivetti is a pale shadow of its former self. But the striking modern building that was once its research department now houses an ambitious venture with a budget to match - €40 million (£ million) for its first five years. Its doors open this month for its first academic year.

The director of Interaction-Ivrea, Gillian Crampton Smith, describes the institute as an "international centre for postgraduate study and research in the extension of industrial design into the fields of interactive technologies".

Crampton Smith founded the department of computer-related design at the Royal College of Art and was its director for ten years. She says she was head-hunted for her new job and believes it is "a tremendously exciting project".

"We are the only institute in the world dedicated exclusively to interaction design. This means studying design in the context of human interaction, with computers, telecommunications, internet and other facets of modern technology."

She explains: "A classic example: why are most people unable to program recordings on their VCR, which is after all a common or garden piece of equipment? The answer is, simply, bad interaction design. Similarly, the design of a portable telephone should not only make it look pretty, but also make it easy and effective to use."

The first 25 postgraduate students and nine researchers have already arrived. When it is up to speed, the institute should have 100 students and researchers, half from Italy and the rest from other parts of the world. The official language is English.

Students are taught by an international team of academics and practitioners in specific fields. About a dozen are part of Interaction-Ivrea's permanent staff, and there are also visiting academics and experts.

At the end of a two-year course, students receive Interaction-Ivrea's own independent diploma. The diploma course, which includes courses with titles such as "Elements of interaction" and "Designing desire", costs each student €25,000 a year. This includes lodging and a PC, and grants and campus jobs are available. The researchers will work mainly on specific projects, in many cases financed by private or public institutions.

Interaction-Ivrea was conceived in April 2000 with financial backing from Olivetti and Telecom Italia. But Crampton Smith emphasises that her institute is controlled by an independent foundation and that other companies are interested in joining in. There is already an agreement for a European Union-financed joint research project with the Design Council in London.

Crampton Smith says the students come from a broad range of academic and professional backgrounds. "Many will go back into their fields with a new vision and understanding of design and its related disciplines. A designer will understand a lot more of the engineer's side of things, and vice-versa."

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