I ran across this post from SVA’s new IxD program last week, the headline reading Students Design Neighborhood Currencies. It sounded awesome, of course, so I clicked through only to find that my idea of what a group of IxD students would be asked to design and the actual assignment were way different.

You see when I read “currency” I thought “exchange”, as in the trading of goods or services for some socially-accepted form of compensation, when what they actually mean was “money”, as in cold hard cash. In other words, while I thought they were being asked to design a system, it would appear they were just being asked to design an object.

Now don’t get me wrong, these objects are really beautiful – well researched, constructed with great materials, a really good design exercise (and probably part of the general ramp-up into a more specialized area of design that one might expect in their first semester at SVA), but I guess what I was missing here was the interaction in interaction design. While we’ve definitely found ourselves in a time where functionality and aesthetics are inextricably linked, designing systems is what interaction designers do. We think about inputs and outputs, motivators and compensation (not always the same thing), and above all social dynamics. We think 10 steps ahead, past how do people use currency to “how does this exchange shape our economy”;, and 10 steps behind, back to “why would people use this currency in the first place?”

How cool would it have been to see students think through other objects, services, or less tangible exchanges besides money that could be regarded as currency within a given neighborhood? The design exercise would have involved a mix of game mechanics, social intelligence, and a lot of research into the people that make up a neighborhood – their goals and their motivations, and the things they see as more important than “stuff”, or at least, could be convinced to use as an acceptable symbol for goods. I think we would have seen some interesting social commentary, and maybe even some speculation as to how economies based on a different type of currency would develop, survive, or fail. We might have seen rich Upper East Siders trading lunches and dinners, Midtown Executives accepting client leads, and downtown hipsters paying for coffees with Yelp reviews or some such nonsense. (Yelp reviews of course being merely an indicator of a company’s real net worth – the amount of internet traffic they get – great for a bubble but not sustainable.) And all of this documented, illustrated and described – a design exercise that may or may not necessarily end in a design “object”.

At least, it sure seemed cool for the three seconds I spent thinking about it while waiting for the page to load. When I saw how mistaken I was about the project I was nevertheless impressed by the work that was done, but I’m all the more curious to see how this program shapes up and what sort of projects they get into next. It’s worth bearing in mind how different my introduction to the world of Interaction Design probably was (all the more reason why I’m so interested in following this program) but more on that another time.