E Roon Kang. Image by Katharina Brenner

E Roon Kang lives and works in New York, where he operates the interdisciplinary design and research studio Math Practice, with a focus “studying, evaluating, and criticizing complex systems and [the] pursuit of efficiency.” He’s also an assistant professor of interaction design at Parsons School of Design, where he directs its BFA Communication Design program.

At Parsons, as with Math Practice, Kang comes up against questions of scale—of the student body, the part-time faculty (numbering at just below 100), and the number of classes that they run. He’s inherited a program that’s rapidly expanding and in flux, and is always striving to adapt to contemporary times. We talked to him about how he thinks about design today and what he sees as the future of design education.  

How do you see undergraduate education changing?

If anything, I would like to see design education being less about technical skills and more about graphic design as giving a structure to knowledge, or as a tool to give knowledge a structure and a form. But I don’t know how to make that happen yet.

In many ways, education needs to change. In the future, a lot of things will be automated. So a lot of the jobs that we currently consider the role of a graphic designer will fall under APIs. From a technological standpoint, education needs to change to meet those changes.

When you talk about design as the structure of thought, I feel like that’s a perfect way of articulating what design is. Who do you think is doing interesting thinking or writing in that space?

This is an active topic for many of the conversations I am having with my studio mate, Andrew LeClair who also teaches at Parsons, who I’m indebted for many of these thoughts. We talked about this very question a while ago. We thought Karl Gerstner had some similar ways of thinking about design, and Muriel Cooper also thought and operated in similar vein.

Poster for an MIT Architecture lecture series, 2016. Courtesy E Roon Kang.

Andrew and I proposed a research project together at Parsons, in which we would create a library of “hands-free publications.” In other words, printed publications that are designed by scripts, not by human hand, and not laid out in, say, InDesign. This goes back to the realization that maybe the core value that we provide in each of our design studios is not what’s traditionally called graphic design. But then, what is it?

We came to realize that in many of our projects, we act as the person structuring others’ knowledge. We find a good visual representation of this structure that can function as an anchor.

So, with that in mind, am I still a graphic designer? Am I an information architect? I don’t know. But these are the things that I’m more excited about doing, and that’s what I provide to my clients.

You mentioned that Parsons refers to itself as the most technologically forward undergraduate program. Which technological changes do you predict will have the biggest influence on education?

Personally I’m less excited about VR and AR and more interested in machine learning and AI, because that has already started to creep into the way that we design things. For example, I don’t see why someone, if they spent some serious time on it, wouldn’t be able to figure out some sort of automatic layout engine. Say, something where you can just pipe in a whole bunch of design examples throughout the history of mankind—every single page layout that has ever been produced—and let the algorithm study it and figure out patterns. Then the process of putting captions in images, for example, or creating multi-column layouts would just be a click away. It probably wouldn’t work for expressively designed books, but for the majority of books with utilitarian purposes, it’d be done.