GDES-315 spring 2017 · American University Design
Instructor: David Ramos ( · office hours )

This course explores ways of telling stories, organizing experiences, and creating meaning through interaction. Using hands-on projects, exercises, and lectures, students learn to design and develop successful projects for the web and interactive media. Subjects include user-centered design, information architecture, design documentation, prototyping and testing, graphic design for screens, and front-end web development.

Students learn how to produce designs that respond to user needs and social context. Interaction design theory provides a foundation for understanding users and their behavior. The class introduces research and usability testing as tools to inform design decisions. Projects take the form of documentation, prototypes, and HTML/CSS.

“People think it’s this veneer – that the designers are handed this box and told ‘Make it look good!’ That’s not what we think design is. It’s not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.” (Steve Jobs in the New York Times, 2003)

Topics include graphic design for the web, screen typography, documentation and prototyping, user centered design methods, HTML/CSS development, and responsive/mobile design. Students will test these concepts with several projects that require strong process and independent research.

We discuss how design and technology help shape society, and reflect on the responsibilities that designers and technologists face. The course examines the place of interaction design within the larger design profession.

Learning objectives

“We are designing verbs, not nouns.” (Bill Moggridge)

Students will gain fluency in:

Students will also become proficient at:


This course builds on skills students gain in GDES-220 Digital & Emerging Media Design I.


Class meetings will be a mix of demonstrations, discussion, critiques, and studio working sessions. There will be extensive self-scheduled project work outside of the classroom. The class schedule and assignments are provisional and subject to change.

Contact and office hours

An office hours schedule is published elsewhere on your instructor’s site. The best way to reach me outside of office hours is through email ( Please allow one weekday for an email response. It is department policy not to do critiques over email; plan ahead and take advantage of class time and office hours.

Projects and grading

70% Major projects
10% Portfolio or alternatives
10% Open projects
10% Quizzes

Expect quizzes on any reading material at any time; if you do the reading, you should do well on the quizzes. Participation modifies grade as necessary. These percentages will change if assignments and schedules change.

Tools and sources


There are two required textbooks, needed by the fourth class meeting:

Norman, Donald A. The Design of Everyday Things. New York, N.Y.: Basic Books, 2013. ISBN-13: 978-0465067107. (Please obtain the 2013 edition, not the 1988/2002 ones.)

Brown, Dan M. Communicating Design: Developing Web Site Documentation for Design and Planning. Berkeley, Calif.: New Riders P., 2011.

Additional resources

See a compilation of reference material on the separate Resources for IxD students site.

The AU Library provides access to online tutorials, which are especially useful for technical topics.

Required software + tools

Hosting accounts

You will need a website hosting account for this class (cost, about $5/month). You will also need to register a domain name (cost, about $10/year). You may want to buy portfolio hosting from a software-as-a-service provider.

Text editor for HTML/CSS

This class’ technical exercises focus on handcoding, which is the best way to understand how the web works. You will have access to a text editor in the Katzen labs. If you are working on your own machine, you will need your own software. Good editors include:

Do not use a visual editor.

Backup strategy

Loss of data is not an excuse. Back up your work. An adequate backup plan involves duplicating your work across three different storage devices, kept in two separate locations.

Process and submitting work

This course seeks to help students to develop their own working processes. Good final projects come as the result of diligent, structured work earlier in the semester. Do not leave work for the last few weeks. You will need to turn in your process work as part of your projects, so keep versions of your files and paper sketches as they progress. Projects not seen in progress during previous classes will receive a failing grade.

Late work will be marked down.

See instructions for submitting work.

In the interest of efficiency and equity, HTML-based projects will be evaluated using a current build of Chrome Canary on a Mac.



Students are expected to attend scheduled class sessions. Grounds for excused absences are illness, family emergencies, jury or military service, and religious obligations. One unjustified absence is allowed for the semester. Each additional absence will lower the course grade by one step (i.e. from A to A-).

Come to class on time and do not leave early. Excessive tardiness, early departures, excessive break time, and lack of participation in assigned class activities will count as equivalent to half an absence (2=1 absence). Tardiness over a half hour will be counted as an absence.

Grading scale

This course is modeled on the rigor of the graphic design curriculum at American University, which is in turn based on the standards of the graphic design industry. As such, students often find this to be a challenging course in which a significant amount of work must take place in the studio outside of class time. Your instructor will use the following grade scale when evaluating projects, with plusses and minuses.

In the classroom

Academic integrity

Standards of academic conduct are set forth in the University’s Academic Integrity Code. Please see me or consult the student handbook if you have questions about academic violations described in the Code or as they relate to particular requirements for this course.

Image and code citations: If you use any (including images and source code) from a source outside of the textbook and class demonstrations, insert a comment describing the material that you used, along with a URL for the original code. See class policy on citations and copyright.

Support services

American University offers an array of support services.