Alexander R. Wilcox Cheek is an assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon University‘s campus in Doha, Qatar. Alex is also the Co-Founder & CDO Macromicro; Co-Founder of Classroom Salon as well as the founder & Local Leader IxDA Doha. Alex graduated with a BFA in Graphic Design from Rochester Institute of Technology in 2005.
Please briefly describe your current position in more detail, including your responsibilities and job tasks:
I do lots of things, primarily serving as a faculty member in Information Systems at Carnegie Mellon University, a program within the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences. And I’m in Qatar, where we have a campus alongside a number of other American and European universities. It’s a super interesting place. I teach design, design research, and design theory to future technologists. I think it’s important because these students will have a lot of power in shaping the role of technology in lives, and design helps to inform that integration — ideally directing it in a human-centered way.
Aside from teaching, I am involved in academic research. With colleagues from English and Computer Science, I co-founded a media annotation platform called Classroom Salon. It’s a digital environment that serves as a scaffold for classroom discussion. Students read and annotate assigned texts and then their work is visualized. The next day in class, the collective work can be projected on screen and help guide interpretation and analysis. For me as the designer, it was important that this digital platform wasn’t supplanting or interrupting classroom experience, instead being a catalyst for learning. Our next project is to build out a companion platform for introductory computer science classes.
In addition to this, I am the co-founder and chief of design for Macromicro, a data visualization start-up in Boston. With my colleagues, we help large multinational companies and organizations conduct workforce analytics with interactive visualizations of employee data. It was a breakthrough for us to be able to get a hundred thousand employees with dozens of attributes each loaded up in a browser and displayed in a single window. The visual design of it is the critical part helping users gain an entirely new perspective on their data, data that was previously housed in spreadsheets or siloed away in databases. It’s not the sexiest work in the world, but it solves real business problems. Our customers light up when they suddenly see and understand something new about their organization. Helping analyze complex data like this is where visual communication is having and will continue to have a profound influence.
Please briefly describe your career path, including the reasons behind job changes, since graduating from Rochester Institute of Technology:
I took a course with Bruce and wanted to pursue information design further. I found a master’s program at Carnegie Mellon which was a joint degree between Design and English. It’s no longer around, but it lead me into interdisciplinary studies: Rhetoric, CS, HCI, and then tying it all back together with Interaction Design. I always wanted to be a teacher, too, and feel lucky to have taken all these turns. I really love what I do.
Teaching design outside of a traditional design school was the most unexpected but in many ways is the most rewarding. Introducing our perspective and ways of practice to others is so critical for all of us in the design community. We talk to each other about how important our field is, but helping other people think about the things we do — human ecologies, systems, integration, beauty, usability, and everything else — only helps to advance our cause and make the world better.
How did your experiences at Rochester Institute of Technology (e.g., academic studies, extra-curricular activities, student groups) prepare you for your career?:
RIT gave me the most excellent foundation in design. I was able to play around CIAS, landing on the most pragmatic of graphic design areas: information design. I got to make maps, diagrams, documents, and forms, refining my attention to detail, clarity, and organization that I’ve never lost. At the same time, I got to do more expressive things like editorial design, screen printing, and calligraphy. These helped me become a tad bit more human.
Today, I teach design and technology in a humanities college. It sounds like an unusual combination at first, but it’s all in the pursuit of shaping human ecologies in impactful and ethical ways. I got my first sense of this through a sociology minor at RIT. I knew it related to design somehow but the dots didn’t connect until years later. Now it makes sense. I remember Vincent Serravallo’s classes well.
What resources (internships, summer opportunities, work experiences, or individuals) have influenced your career choice(s)?:
Bruce, Lorrie, Rog. They gave me design, but Heinz was the one who made me a design teacher. I was fortunate to teach with Heinz in one of his final years. I think about him every day and even quote him to my students from time to time. (It doesn’t always translate).
What advice would you give to a student interested in your field?:
Be good designers and don’t be timid about it. Design can be enormously powerful when it’s applied well. If you don’t see that impact yet (I wasn’t convinced as an undergrad), try taking design to another field of study, perhaps through a graduate degree. Use your design lens as a way to bring about positive change. Your influence might not necessarily be in the tangible forms of design you’re used to practicing; it’s our mindset that sets us apart, not our skills. It’s not magic what we do and we aren’t unicorns. We just happen to see things differently and, with the help of others, we know how to make things happen. If you can use that talent — that ability to envision and reach future states — to help advance a cause, help a client do better work, help strengthen a community, or help people be more engaged in the world, then I think you’ll be able to sleep well at night.
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