Peering into the face of a 2,000-year-old mummy, Alison Nichols jump-started her future.
It was 1993, during the sticky Atlanta summer. Nichols was recently divorced. She had three young children, a degree in philosophy, and no desire to return to her past career as an insurance adjuster.
“I really was thinking, ‘I’ve got to go to work. What am I going to do?’“ recalled Nichols, sitting at her desk in the School of Literature, Media, and Communication’s Digital Media office.
Nichols noticed a news article about computer kiosks at the William C. Carlos museum at Emory University. It discussed the ability to digitally unwrap a mummy “and compare mummies with those in museums around the world,” she explained.
Kiosks, computer terminals offering location-specific information to users, can now be spotted in a variety of public locations, including hotel lobbies, airports, malls, and museums, but they were a novel idea at the time. Nichols packed up her kids and took a trip to the museum. But when they arrived, there were no kiosks to be seen. Nichols was told she had misread the article, which had actually discussed the future of museum kiosks, not the present.
In talking with the director of education at the museum, Nichols was encouraged to apply to a new master’s program launching at Georgia Tech that fall: Information Design and Technology (IDT, now Digital Media.) The landmark degree was Nichols’ best opportunity to get the needed training to create a kiosk for the museum.
“Are you crazy?” Nichols thought at the time. “I’m not mathy. I’m not an engineer. My degree is in philosophy.”
But there was no denying that mummy. At the last minute, mere weeks before the first semester of the first IDT class began, Nichols made a late application to the program and a personal plea to faculty Kenneth Knoespel and Pete McGuire to consider it. They agreed to accept her application.
Nichols started a new life as a graduate student in a program she says was ahead of its time.
“I just find it amazing professors who put the program together had the awareness they did,” said Nichols. It had required months of advance planning and forethought at a time when many people thought the World Wide Web was just a phase.
To Nichols though, the technology was transformational. She spent her time designing how information would be displayed on the kiosk computer screen for the Carlos Museum. There were no tools or methods at that time for interaction design, so the team made it up as they went along. Nichols drew screens on a whiteboard and used Post-it Notes, blueprinting each screen for programmers to build.
When the site launched, it was the third museum website on the web, after the Krannert and Smithsonian. The launch drew the attention of CNN. Her work was featured on CNN’s science and technology Saturday program, and she was interviewed by Miles O’Brien, a popular news personality.
“It was all so new and novel that just the fact you could get this image [was enough.] Nobody cared even if you had to wait five minutes for it to download,” said Nichols.
She graduated in 1995 as a member of the first class of Digital Media master’s students. In the year after graduation, Nichols helped launch 70 small art museum websites for the New York-based Association of Art Museum Directors before joining IBM’s Interactive Media studio in Atlanta as one of its first information architects. She credits her IDT training for allowing her to move the conversation away from simply designing a visually beautiful site to designing one that is also functional for users.
Her time at IBM connected her with a range of clients, taking her from the hectic, noisy floor of the New York Stock Exchange to the still, silent stacks of the Vatican library. She worked there for more than a dozen years, eventually managing up to 40 people, which included a number of GT Digital Media alums.
Her continued connections to Digital Media grads kept her aware of the program’s growth. She found she just couldn’t stay away. In the fall of 2012, Nichols began work as the Associate Director for Graduate Studies for Digital Media – the same degree program that selected her to be one of its inaugural graduates twenty years ago.
“There’s so much talent and creativity here,” said Nichols. She said graduates are well-rounded, and faculty are supportive of students wishing to explore a diversity of interests, no matter how arcane. In February she returns to IBM Interactive as a managing consultant, working to recruit and mentor students.
“All that helps me see the bigger picture, the value of working collaboratively, and the attitude that if I don't do it, who will?” said Nichols of her laundry list of digital firsts stemming from her time at Tech. “It's better to move forward and do the best you can with what is known at the moment than wait for all the i's to be dotted.”
Or for the mummy to be unwrapped.