Last month I had the opportunity to sit in on a midterm thesis review by MFA students concentrating on interaction design at California College of the Arts in San Francisco. Hearing about and critiquing their work got me thinking: what’s the value of a graduate education in design—especially for people interested in careers in UX, UI, and product design?
To learn more, I spoke with several recent design grads now working in UX/UI and product design. They attended schools like the Art Center, Carnegie Mellon University, University of Washington, and RISD—and now they’re at places like Cooper, Flipboard, Amazon, and Google.
Speaking with these designers gave me 3 high-level reasons to pursue a master’s in design and some useful advice for people entering grad school.
3 reasons to go to grad school for design
1. You want to gain fundamental skills in new disciplines
Several of the designers spoke about entering grad school with a clear plan for skills they wanted to develop in school.
Gretchen Mendoza, MDes 2011 CMU, entered grad school with 8 years of experience as a graphic designer. Her master’s program helped her build fundamental skills in design methods and processes including:
- Service artifacts
It also helped her develop her philosophy on the value of design work:
“This is powerful work that can change businesses and affect people’s lives. It has made me care much less about aesthetics, professionally, and much more about the ability to make our work both valuable and meaningful.”
Yuin Chien, MFA in Media Design 2011 Art Center, studied engineering and computer science as an undergrad, but knew she wanted to develop her design skills in grad school. In the foundation year of her 3-year program, she studied typography, motion, and creative strategy, and found each topic challenging but rewarding. She was able to combine her skills to become “a fearless maker, rapidly prototyping ideas using different media.”
Sometimes, developing new skills that augment existing skills can be a revelation. Hyunju Yang, MFA in Media Design 2010 Art Center, entered the program with strong skills in motion graphics, but when she saw how animation could be combined with interactivity and physical computing, it was “almost magical.” Yang said:
“I had never created interactive media before, and it literally changed the way I perceive all digital media. I started to care about the audience, and the user, for the first time.”
A common thread among the designers I interviewed was that critique sessions helped them hone their presentation skills, defend their ideas, and accept feedback.
2. You want to pursue personal projects
While some design programs are structured around group project work, others encourage students to develop their own design practices and body of work.
Students must develop an independent thesis project in their final year, so they have a lot of time to explore an area of interest. Often this is an intimidating and challenging process. Students sometimes get lost along the way, but with hope they find their way out by the time of the thesis show. Chien remarked, “The thesis year is about personal expression and concepts, and looking back, I miss it. It’s a really valuable time.”
Jackson Wang, MFA in Media Design 2008 Art Center, appreciated having this time to work for himself after years of work for hire:
“It’s great to have the time to explore something I’m curious about personally, not just do work for clients. I learned how to dig deep on researching a topic.”
3. You want new ideas, new viewpoints, and new ways to think about design
Shiba Sheikh, MDes 2014 CMU, stressed how important her school’s culture was in informing how she approaches work today:
“In the end, I value people who share the same values as me, who are passionate about good design that shapes lives. School really prepared me to seek that. It is something now that will be with me for life.”
Melanie Wang, MDes 2013 University of Washington, appreciated how her grad design program helped her understand design critically, an approach that echoed her humanities background:
“I was really intrigued by the program’s focus on design thinking. I had studied English literature as an undergrad, so framing design as a form of critical thinking appealed to me.”
Mendoza echoed that sentiment:
“As a graphic designer, you can feel a little trapped at the end of the process. The CMU program opened my eyes to design as problem solving rather than design as product.”
The diversity of community input can be valuable too. Some programs stress studio culture, having students work long hours together in close quarters. In spite of the late nights, this can be the most memorable part of grad school.
Chris Hamamoto, MFA 2013 RISD, felt the most valuable part of his grad school experience were the many people he learned from, and with.
“I think my peers and the studio culture were the best part for me. It’s really great having people who are doing interesting things available to you for feedback. It’s also inspiring to see how those people work.”
Mentors came up in a few interviews. Yang remarked that one of her professors, Phil van Allen, had a lasting influence: “Some of his teaching still makes me think. Sometimes in design meetings at my company, things other designers say remind me of lectures Phil gave us.”
Sheikh thought Dan Boyarski’s “Time, Motion & Communication” course was the highlight. She said, “Not because I did well in that class, but because I struggled so much in it. He always brought us back to the pure joy of making and experimenting. It is an honor to have had such great mentors.”
What design grad school isn’t so good for
While grad school was a positive experience for most, the designers agreed on a few things their programs didn’t do so well.
In general, design grad school is not a good place to gain real-world, practical work experience. It’s difficult to learn what it takes to, say, ship real products.
Likewise, most design graduate programs are not a great place to learn about business or about navigating design in an industry context. Some departments offer a course on design and business, but it’s optional, and not enough.
As Mendoza noted, “It would be nice to see a curriculum that focuses less on innovation and entrepreneurship, and more on design leadership—including strategies for managing teamwork, communicating risks and demonstrating value.”
A few students wish they had pushed themselves more to learn topics that seemed intimidating or dry at the time, topics like business, usability research, information architecture, and programming. At the same time, “A two-year program is so fast, there’s not a lot of time for much outside your thesis,” Hamamoto said. “Although technical and theoretical growth happen in tandem it would have been nice to devote more time to more practical development.”
Grad school is a formative time and can be helpful for students who are proactive and self-directed. It challenges students to learn new skills, explore new ways of thinking, and push themselves.
Reflecting on her design grad school experience, Mendoza summed it up: “I couldn’t be working where I am today, thinking the way I do, or producing the current work without the exploratory training that I gained at CMU.”
Your options for graduate-level programs in design
Ready to dive in yourself? Universities and art schools offer a variety of graduate-level design programs. Here are a few examples based on focus.
- Traditional graphic design: Yale, RISD, CalArts, Cranbrook
- New design practices: Art Center College of Design, California College of the Arts, University of California at Los Angeles
- Interaction design and human-computer interaction (HCI): Carnegie Mellon University, Stanford d.school
If you want to focus on hardcore software and interaction design practices, you might want to pick a computer science or information systems program.
Most master’s degree programs last 2 years, but some schools also offer a 3-year track that includes a year of fundamental design skills building for students who come from non-design backgrounds.
What do you think?
Did you work through a grad-level design program? Was it worth it? And what was the best part?
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by Peter Cho
Peter enjoyed his time in design grad school at UCLA and the MIT Media Lab. Follow him on twitter @pcho.