Karen Kornblum Berntsen is a professional designer and an Associate Teaching Professor in the Human-Computer Interaction Institute at Carnegie Mellon University. She has taught classes in interaction design, typography and the visual display of complex information. Berntsen has a BFA in drawing and printmaking, and an MS in interactive media. She has received numerous national and international design awards for her work, some of which was included in the opening of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago.
Recently, AMT-Lab Contributor Kate Martin caught up with Berntsen to talk about how technology informs her work.
Kate Martin: When people ask you ‘what do you do,’ how do you respond?
Karen Kornblum Berntsen: It depends who I'm speaking with. For people I am meeting for the first time I simply say that I teach courses in design at Carnegie Mellon. If I am asked to go into detail I talk about Human-Computer Interaction being a threefold discipline, made up of computing/psychology/design, and that I specialize in the design aspect of interfaces and interactions.
KM: How has your background in drawing and printmaking informed your career in user design?
KKB: My formal training in fine art taught me two things that have been essential to my success as a designer: 1) eye training and how to really see the world around me, and 2) how to communicate and process ideas through drawing. Something I have carried with me since art school is the ability to "think through the tip of my pencil." In order to draw clearly you need to think clearly. This has allowed me to stretch myself creatively and also to get buy-in for my ideas from clients.
KM: How would you define ‘user design?’
KKB: Honestly, the term "user design" is relatively new, very broad and constantly evolving. For me, the "user" part stems from a deep empathic understanding of the user's context, personal goals, and abilities. The "design" part encompasses user interfaces, technical limitations and possibilities, and clear thinking about the problem being solved. I would say that a goal of user design is to create experiences for people that are useful, usable, and desirable.
KM: How has your work changed since you started, and how have those challenges changed over time?
KKB: The most dramatic change was the shift from print to digital communication. Interaction design is user-driven, which has changed the way readers consume information. This is why it is so important for designers to understand users' goals and objectives.
KM: How does the constantly changing technological field affect your design process?
KKB: Things become obsolete very quickly, so I need to stay abreast or ahead of the latest technology. Interaction designers need to understand what technology does well and what human beings do well, and bring the two together in a way that creates meaningful experiences for users in a given domain
KM: What advice would you give to those currently designing websites and apps for arts organizations?
KKB: Content is king! Writing and designing for websites and apps means understanding how people read screens, which is closer to scavenging and sniffing than actually reading and absorbing. Most people come to websites or open apps to perform actions. Buttons and links need to be labeled in concrete, specific terms that have a strong "information scent," so that users can scan the screen visually and find what they need.
KM: Is there anything else about user design and the arts I haven’t broached that you think is important for arts managers to understand?
KKB: The simpler and more elegant the design, the more hours went into it. Looks can be deceiving. Don't mistake a simple solution as something that was simple to achieve.