the chance to
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to actually go and
Hybrid Thinker, Imaginative Realist
By Vanessa Silberman
Starting this fall, a small cohort of 9th-grade teachers and students in classrooms across the U.S. are participating in a bold experiment in education: the first phase of the Big History Project.
The brainchild of Bill Gates and David Christian, the project aims to make “big history”—a field of study that takes a holistic, multidisciplinary approach to the story of the universe—free and accessible to high school students and teachers everywhere.
In addition to drawing connections between the humanities and sciences, and hopefully instilling a fierce love of learning among students, the project also stands to deliver on the promise of online learning. The course is textbook-free and instead relies on engaging content and media, delivered through a modern software user experience. And who is leading the project’s design, user experience and technical vision? None other than Ian Sands PROD 95, co-founder of the vision and strategy firm, Intentional Futures (iF).
For those who know Sands, it shouldn’t come as a surprise. After all, he has been exploring the potential of technology to create meaningful user experiences for more than 15 years. He’s also a maverick with an entrepreneurial flair: As an Art Center student, Sands convinced faculty to let him chart his own academic path in interaction design when no such major existed. As a designer at Microsoft, he broke new ground when he created and led a design research group, aptly called Envisioning, which articulated the longer-term potential of Microsoft technologies through prototypes, scenarios and storytelling (e.g., the buzz-generating 2019 video).
As Art Center prepares to launch a B.S. program in Interaction Design next fall (and continues to explore innovations in online learning), the work of Sands is particularly timely and relevant. His systems-based approach emphasizing the entirety of the user experience—whether it’s a website, futuristic scenario or dynamic learning tool online—has made him a much sought-after interaction designer.
Charting His Own Path
Sands vividly recalls the moment he knew he had to attend Art Center. It was the mid ’80s, and he came across an Architectural Digest article about Art Center’s Transportation Design program. “The article was a huge turning point in my life,” said the Bay Area native. “I realized, I want to be a car designer.”
Fast forward several years, and Sands discovered that his design interests stretched beyond cars. While taking design classes at UC Davis, he was accepted by Art Center’s Product Design program. Once here, he embarked on an intense study of the ergonomic challenges presented by the physical world. But increasingly, he was drawn to the digital space. This being the early 1990s, the potential to create interactive experiences on computers was wide open. He took courses on various software applications in the computer lab and remembers a Samsung-sponsored project focusing on the interactive potential of TV displays as being particularly influential. Sands sensed tremendous opportunity for young designers to tackle “two-dimensional” design challenges, and by his seventh term, he set out to develop a portfolio that would show his strengths in the burgeoning field of interaction design.
Sands’ interest in interaction design faced a formidable obstacle, however: Art Center didn’t offer a major in this area. Undeterred, Sands and a fellow classmate, Brandon Sincock GRPH 95 (who recently joined iF), enlisted the support of then-Department Chair Marty Smith and faculty members like Norm Schureman PROD 85. With their blessing, Sands and Sincock created a self-made curriculum emphasizing computer software, 3D modeling, industrial design, motion graphics, graphic design and photography.
Sands’ enterprising approach to his education paid off. Within weeks after graduating in 1995, he was interviewing at a half dozen cutting-edge technology firms.
“Define It, Invent It... See It Through.”
One of these interviews was with Microsoft’s Advanced Technology Group, a predecessor to Microsoft Research. Much to his amusement now, Sands recalls that Microsoft was low on his radar (Windows 95 was still months away). “It’s funny, because I almost didn’t apply. Microsoft wasn’t like Alias or Softimage—these really hot companies at the time,” he said.
And yet the job sounded like the perfect fit: a design position focusing on scenario exploration and the future of interactive TV as broadband media became more prevalent. “It’s like the job was tailor-made to what I’d been doing at Art Center,” Sands explained. He also sensed a “go build it” attitude throughout the company, which appealed to his entrepreneurial side. “We were all empowered to explore our ideas and express them,” he said.
Sands accepted, and within weeks he was exploring the potential of interactive TV on behalf of this fledgling technology powerhouse. Today, we take for granted things like streaming videos enabled by lightning fast data connections. But 15 years ago, this technology was just getting off the ground. During this time, Microsoft wired a couple of communities with fiber optics, so data could be streamed at a speed allowing for full motion video, impressive even by today’s standards. “Our approach was fairly holistic,” he said. “We had to imagine the kinds of content that would be appropriate, and what the interaction would look like.” For example, Sands explored how remote controls could be used to navigate computer-like experiences on TV screens.
His explorations continued for several months, but as the Internet wave kicked into high gear in early 1996, Microsoft reorganized many of its teams, Sands’ included. Suddenly, his charge was to tackle the Internet from a user experience perspective, or as he described, “define it, invent it ... see it through.”
Within the course of a whirlwind year and a half, Sands helped launch three major Microsoft online businesses: Slate magazine, MSNBC, and the relaunch of MSN as it went from a proprietary site to a broadly available user experience. The launch of Microsoft’s first e-commerce site, Shop.Microsoft.com (today known as Microsoft Store), soon followed. His involvement included art direction, branding and information architecture—anything impacting the user experience.
Sands credits Art Center with giving him the confidence to succeed in such a dynamic and intense environment. “I knew I had the tools to do it and could voice my opinions on the strategy. Art Center taught me that I could handle the pressure and still do a good job,” he said. He later held a key role in the original Microsoft brand experience store, microsoftSF, in San Francisco’s Metreon Center, leading the design of interactive displays, video content and lifestyle areas showcasing different uses of the software.