15 April 2008

Interactive designer Scott Mahoy, has over 10 years experience in the media arts including web design, motion graphics, animation and film/video production and post-production. He is currently Creative Director of the Russian Modernism distant learning course being developed by the Labyrinth Project at the University of Southern California's School of Cinematic Arts. Drawing upon his extensive experience in design and usability, he is creating an innovative eLearning prototype that immerses the student in a dynamic, multimedia-rich learning environment.

Steve Anderson of USC interviews him about his background, his philosophy, and his use of interactive tools.

SA: What projects are you working on now?

SM: My biggest current project is the Russian Modernism project for Labyrinth. It is free, open source, college courseware that will be available to students and faculty worldwide. It consists of three main components: interactive lectures by leading faculty, a multimedia archive and an adventure role-playing game. The same content appears in different ways in each of the three components. We chose to focus on Russian Modernism because many of the concepts, such as dialectic montage, intertextuality and constructivism, are crucial to understanding hypertexts, interactivity and multimedia. By emphasizing the connections between the so-called "old" and "new" media that emerged at both ends of the 20th century, this project serves as an engaging model of interactive learning that can be adapted to many subjects. I am also working on the "Jewish Home Grown History" project that will allow users to contribute their own immigration stories to a dynamic multimedia database. The database will intelligently reflect back the "official" history as well as other users stories.

SA: How did you start working with the Labyrinth Project?

SM: Before I started working with Labyrinth, I was living in the Bay Area, working in documentary filmmaking. I started doing some motion graphics and design work and then gradually moved into interactivity. My first project with Labyrinth was theDanube Exodus, a collaboration with the Hungarian filmmaker Peter Forgacs, which was a large-scale, multi-screen, interactive gallery installation. I was still doing motion graphics and visual effects work, but then I started designing all the touchscreens and interactive interfaces. From there, I worked onTracing the Decay of Fiction with Pat O'Neill and Bleeding Through: Layers of Los Angeles, with Norman Klein.

SA: What applications were you using?

SM: The first couple of projects I did with Labyrinth were DVD ROMs created in Director and I was working with Rosemary Comella, who did all the programming. Then, when we started the Russian Modernism project, the goal was to put it all online, so we started working in Flash. Early on, we also experimented with Flex, but found that it wasn't really what we needed. It seemed like Flex was primarily a way of makingshortcuts for people who work in really sophisticated application development, with heavy backend support, which we weren't really doing at that point. Coming to it from a design perspective, I also wasn't as drawn to it because it's oriented toward taking traditional programmers and easing theminto the environment using IDEs which programmers are more familiar with. The real value of Flex is that it's more robust and fundamentally data-driven with lots of shortcuts and pre-existing components that can be customized and re-used, so the development process is streamlined.

SA: What is your design philosophy?

SM: When I first started working in interactive media, I read a lot about human-computer interface design, the whole Apple Computer and Donald Norman approach, that emphasizes ease of use and user experiences that draw on pre-existing knowledge and expectations. And I've held on to a lot of that. I like it when users are able to access everything in a project intuitively and efficiently. I'm not talking about dumbing things down to the lowest common denominator at all. The content of the projects always drives the sophistication and complexity of the navigation, but my goal is to make it as easy as possible for people to have the richest experience I can imagine. That's very easy to say but very difficult to do!

SA: How has your design practice changed with exposure to new tools?

SM: I've been learning a lot more about the backend and how it impacts front-end design. I've been learning PHP and MySQL, partly out of necessity, but also because the more you know your tools, the more fully you can achieve your vision. I love collaborating with programmers and developers, but it's hard to get everyone on the same page even after you spend two days strategizing the project architecture and you think everyone is saying the same thing, but then it turns out you're not. It's also fun being directly involved at every level of the development process; that's where I feel like I am really in control of creating a completely fluid user experience.

You're Invited

Scott will teach an online workshop on April 21, 10:00 am. to 1:00 pm. PDT on Adobe Flex Shortcuts to Building Rich Internet Applications. He will deconstruct a Rich Internet Application created in Adobe Flex step-by-step. You'll be able to download components and code prior to the workshop and participate hands-on from your own desk. The workshop will explore design issues, interactive strategies, database functionality, and customizing of code and components using Flex. Register now.