“The central idea is that information, and the underlying deep structures of information that constitute reality, only become meaningful through experience.”Head of Programme, MA Information Experience Design
What is MA IED?
Information Experience Design is a methodology that was pioneered at the RCA and continues to evolve here. IED is about designing new experiences of information for audiences, where ‘experience’ is defined quite broadly – it could be digital, it could be analog, it could even be living materials, or any mix of those.
The central idea is that information, and the underlying deep structures of information that constitute reality, only become meaningful through experience.
How do you make the chemical composition of the planets meaningful to an audience, for example? One of our students, Rong Shi, does this by translating their atmospheric data into sound, so you can actually listen to the chemistry of the cosmos.
Or, how do you communicate about cooperative coexistence, start conversations about new possible ways of relating to other species and our own species? One student, Nirit Binyamini Ben-Meir, cultivated a dynamic moss colony and let visitors interact with it, like a living game.
It’s all about composing something that is appropriate to the nature of the information. We have students working on moving image and film, sculptural works, large-scale installation, site-based performance, animation, games, VR and AR experiences, policy proposals, interactive theatre, visual artworks, biomaterials development, living artworks, public space interventions, sonic compositions produced collaboratively with nonhumans, wearables (for humans and nonhumans)… you get the picture.
Rong Shi's installation translating atmospheric data of the planets into sound.
What makes IED vital to our current moment?
An important common thread through IED practice and teaching is the idea that the world operates systemically, and so do we. In IED we lean away from the ‘hero’ model of creative arts, or the lone creative genius, or the grand single masterpiece displayed large in the white gallery space. These are illusions or stories that distort the true process of creativity: it is collective, active, and complex. It involves many, not few, and it emerges through interactions amongst many kinds of people and even non-humans.
This way of thinking supports a transition – for all of humanity, not just the arts – away from the illusion that we can know and control the future through mastery. Instead, by engaging with underlying systems and embracing their complexity, we can cultivate a more resilient world, a better future in that sense.
IED is interdisciplinary – in the backgrounds of students, the outputs they create and the theoretical frameworks that underpin it. What does this interdisciplinary approach bring?
As a post-discipline, IED is able to critically incorporate modes of research and practice from almost any field. The right methods of practice are selected based on the research questions you bring, and the kind of information that you’re dealing with.
“Our academic faculty are all very experienced in working across disciplinary boundaries, and indeed in breaking those boundaries in their own research and practice.”Head of Programme, MA Information Experience Design
Our academic faculty are all very experienced in working across disciplinary boundaries, and indeed in breaking those boundaries in their own research and practice. We also bring in experts from outside and have readings from lots of different areas, to keep the intellectual ground fertile, to keep our IED ecosystem biodiverse and dynamic.
Destabilising Common Grounds Workshop by Nirit Binyamini Ben-Meir
Why is an interdisciplinary environment such a fruitful and important one?
Interdisciplinarity is absolutely necessary for answering the complex questions that artists and designers, and all of us, now face. We can’t engage with just a few ways of thinking and doing things. We have to develop fluency in moving back and forth, translating between areas, finding common ground in our different modes of communication and practice. This allows us to find the most effective ways of saying what needs to be said. It also helps us access each others’ knowledge more easily, and share it more widely.
Because we work with information, IED practices need to be able to integrate diverse forms of data. Information comes in a thousand forms; you can’t just learn three ways of interpreting the world. If you do, you will end up seeing – and representing – a very limited view of reality.
Zelp by Francisco Norris
What brought you here, to being Head of Programme for IED?
While I was doing an MA in English Literature at the University of Georgia, I was introduced to poetry from Northern Ireland. I became fascinated with the complexity of it, the tensions, the conflict, the embedded histories – everything layered and irresolvable. Through this I realised that literature, or art, or even thought – can’t be ‘mastered’, not in the way I had been taught it could. I lost all interest in becoming an expert. I just wanted to explore challenging artworks. I applied for a few PhDs, all in Irish literature, and was offered funding at two places, and chose Ulster University for its proximity to the post-conflict zone that I was interested in.
At some point my PhD took a big turn from being about poetry to being about reforming the way we analyse poetry. I felt in order to do meaningful analysis you also need to build and create, that adaptation of work can be a way of doing this. I made a game about the conflict zone, somewhat provocatively inviting playfulness into some contested Belfast spaces that were not intended to be playful, (especially not for outsiders). That work led on to my first designed games, some interactive theatre writing and directing, and later on adapting the Belfast game for a radio documentary on BBC Radio 4. All of this blurred the line between research and practice for me, challenging the idea that there is actually a line.
“All of this blurred the line between research and practice for me, challenging the idea that there is actually a line.”Head of Programme, MA Information Experience Design
After my PhD I went on to what was then Falmouth University’s English department. I became very interested in what is changing in arts education, or what needs to change. I later joined Falmouth’s Entrepreneurship department, which was being established to develop a new kind of BA degree. We launched six degrees focused on building students’ capacity for dealing with uncertainty and complexity, and translating this into meaningful interventions. This was right before Covid, and was an interesting moment to have done it. But I missed art and design. When I saw the post advertised for the IED Head of Programme, it was an obvious flashing green arrow: they were going to let me do what I wanted to do, which was create a new kind of programme. In fact, the whole college was gearing up to do just that, with all its programmes. It was great timing.
How do your research interests inform your teaching on the programme?
My publications list is pretty eclectic; maybe that’s the polite way to say it’s all over the place! The common thread in my work is ‘art and the future of humanity’. What do these two things have to do with each other? That’s always the big question for me.
Right now, I’m writing two books. One is on Irish writing, including writing for theatre and games and TV, and how it’s dealing with the end of the world. The other book is about systems play, which is a phrase I use to describe the playful praxis of transforming systems through experimental design. This of course relates directly to what we do in IED: engaging with systems, seeing ourselves as embedded in systems, shifting our perspective actively, tapping into collective intelligence and so on – so that we can change things on a deeper level. Both books are with Palgrave and will be out in 2024.
Multiply by Maayan Weisstub
What makes teaching IED within an art and design school environment like the RCA unique?
The RCA is full of incredible amounts of talent, students and staff alike. I’m always humbled by it and find it so exciting. There are so many different ways of working and thinking, and the College makes space for those differences.
In IED, I also try to make as much space as possible for staff to do things their own way, and for students to do that. I think this is consistent with the approach across the College.
“The RCA is full of incredible amounts of talent, students and staff alike. I’m always humbled by it and find it so exciting.”Head of Programme, MA Information Experience Design
What do students do on the programme?
Our programme varies from year to year. This is because we engage with things that are relevant for that cohort’s interests, and with what’s happening in the world.
Last year we spent our summer term on a six-week immersive project designing for a climate-altered future. Students took on a new perspective; one of twelve different species that inhabit our local Thames River estuary ecosystem. They designed responses and interventions collaboratively, with feedback from advisors from several UK science departments, the United Nations and the Galapagos Conservation Trust. This was launched with an exhibition in Trafalgar Square for World Oceans Day 2022.
In the autumn we ran the collaborative Luminous project with LG Display, in which IED students had the opportunity to experiment with top-end display and sound technology to design cutting-edge transformative experiences. The outcomes of this were truly exciting, with the winner, Finbar Marcel, using an EEG scanner and a display-enabled form of brainwave communication—basically communicating via a gorgeous visual display, using just your mind.
This summer we’re running a summer school with IED students as well as external participants from India’s National Institute of Design, University of Applied Arts Vienna, Aalto University (Finland), Parsons School of Design (NYC), Imagination Lancaster, Plymouth University and Shenkar College (Tel Aviv). This two-week project looks at interspecies co-design, where we move from designing ‘for’ other species, to designing with them.
This September IED students will take part in a special showcase in the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Digital Design Weekend, as part of London Design Festival. The exhibition, Vibrant Matter, examines the relations between human and nonhuman matter more closely. Also in September, our incoming cohort of students will be involved in an immersive studio experience designed by IED tutor Nestor Pestana and Dr Barbara Brownie, exploring space travel and the future of human experience in, and about, space. This will be carried out with partner World View and with advisory input from NASA.
Cometabolise: a holobiont dinner (2021) by Baum & Leahy
What do your students go on to do?
Our students come from diverse backgrounds, and not surprisingly they go on to do really diverse things. We have many IED students go on to start their own studios or collectives. Amanda Baum and Rose Leahy met on the programme and went on to launch Baum&Leahy. The games studio Episod Studio, founded by IED graduates including Sindi Breshani and Juliette Coquet, created the award-winning game Race for the Arctic.
Other graduates use their MA as a platform for developing new research areas and pursuing PhDs. Shuning Diao is beginning her doctoral research and practice in York University’s Department of Philosophy in September. Some, such as Maayan Weisstub and Grace Pappas, work as practising artists on a variety of solo and collaborative projects.
We also have a number of students go into industry roles. Laura Dudek went on to become a UX Researcher at Intuit, for example. Francisco Norris started a company called Zelp, winner of the 2022 Terra Carta Design Lab prize for its unique wearable for cows, created to help cut CO2 emissions in dairy farming.
“Employers and partners often approach us directly, knowing IED students are bold, curious experimenters with insight about the future and confidence in engaging with it.”Head of Programme, MA Information Experience Design
Our programme has a strong reputation for talent. In the past three years, we have had IED students selected for Bloomberg New Contemporaries, two winners of the prestigious Lumen Prize, an Oram Prize winner, a student shortlisted for Saatchi Gallery UK New Artist of the Year, four students selected to have their works shown at King Charles III’s Coronation, and many other honours. For this reason, employers and partners often approach us directly, knowing IED students are bold, curious experimenters with insight about the future and confidence in engaging with it.
Race for the Arctic, Episod Studio