MFA Program

First Year

A History of Design

A review of critical movements in design from the second half of the 20th century to the present is the focus of this course. We will consider how much of the craft that designers have valued historically is important for what we do today. Using insights grounded in history, students will evaluate what separates good design from “other” design in digital media, and review case studies of why certain products and companies have risen triumphant over others. Students will visit centers of design in the City and learn to use them as resources for research, exploration and experimentation.

Research Methods

User-centered design begins, by definition, with an understanding of users. In this course, students will learn how to model interaction by conducting qualitative and quantitative research into users’ behaviors, attitudes and expectations. By exploring ethnographic techniques, usability testing, log analysis, surveying, and other research methods, students will learn how to engage user feedback effectively at every stage of the design process. We will also address how to conduct secondary research into published literature and other sources that can inform thesis projects and beyond.

Service Design and Transformation

With the rise of the service economy, our opportunities as designers are shifting: more is being asked of us, and the nature of the challenges we want to and can help solve is changing. Our work may target individuals in the experiences that they encounter, or increasingly businesses in the structures they build to support service delivery, or even have a larger impact beyond the confines of one organization. To succeed as designers today, we need to be equipped with tools and approaches that work best in this service-oriented world. In this class, students should come away with a richer understanding of service design — what it is, when and where it is applicable, how to practice it, and why it is a valuable approach — and gain experience using service design approaches and tools to identify opportunities, define and frame problem spaces, develop innovative directions, and execute and communicate service solutions. Students will also become familiar with the roles that they may be asked to take on in various situations or service-related projects beyond the program.

Strategic Innovation in Product/Service Design

The design of interactive products and services differs from other forms of design in important ways. Developing the context for successful user experiences requires designers to think more holistically about the business models for the products they create: how the value proposition to customers and users unfolds over time; what’s being “sold” and where the costs of production and management occur; how to engage, complement, and benefit from other services that intersect with what is being offered. This course will help students in becoming more effective at understanding and describing the strategic decisions involved in the creation of interactive products and services, and to equip them with tools and methods for generating innovative options and making smart strategic choices.

The Fundamentals of Physical Computing

This class is a practical hands-on exploration of physically interactive technology for the designer. Students will learn how to interface objects and installations with the viewer’s body and ambient stimuli such as motion, light, sound, or intangible data. Starting with the basics using the open-source Arduino platform, the class will move through electrical theory, circuit design, microcontroller programming, sensors, and complex output including motors, video, and intercommunication between objects.

Slow Code

In Slow Code, students write homegrown code and share it with their local class- mates. Like the Slow Food Movement, the class advocates the benefits of using locally grown produce (code) and skillfully judging the origins of globally produced food (code-libraries/snippets). Students are given time to learn the craft, explor- ing how it relates to their unique skillsets and interests. At minimum, they learn how to code as well as use other people’s code efficiently. At best, the craft will grow its roots into their perception of systems, processes, and ultimately enrich their creative processes.

Crafting Interactions

Interaction design concepts can be hard to describe. And the best way to both communicate and improve your design is to prototype it quickly and often. This course examines how to integrate lightweight prototyping activities, as well as some basic research and testing techniques, into every stage of the interaction design process. A range of methods will be covered, from paper prototyping to participatory design to bodystorming. Students will learn how to choose the appropriate method to suit different dimensions of a design problem at different stages in the process and the pitfalls of each approach. The course is highly collaborative with hands–on prototyping and testing. Working individually and in teams, students will create rapid exercises, with one prototype developed or iterated each week, with the goal of evolving toward more robust ways of expressing ideas in rich interactive form.

Smart Objects

The ubiquity of embedded computing has redefined the role of form in material culture, leading to the creation of artifacts that communicate well beyond their static physical presence to create ongoing dialogues with both people and each other. This course will explore the rich relationship among people, objects and information through a combination of physical and digital design methods. Beginning with an examination of case studies, students will gain a sense of the breadth of product design practice as it applies to smart objects. Through a combination of lectures and hands-on studio exercises, we will investigate all aspects of smart object design, including expressive behaviors (light, sound and movement), interaction systems, ergonomics, data networks and contexts of use. The course will culminate in a final project that considers all aspects of smart object design within the context of a larger theme.

Framing User Experiences

Products are no longer simply products; they live within complex business and technological ecosystems. To fully understand the user experience, designers must be highly flexible communicators, facilitators, mediators and thinkers. Whether designing a dialysis machine, a mobile phone app, or a water filtration system for the developing world, design is as much about framing user experi- ences as it is about the creation of new artifacts. This course focuses on the relationships between objects and their contexts, how to identify human behaviors and needs, and how those behaviors and needs converge to create user experiences.

Design in Public Spaces

Interfaces are embedded in nearly every aspect of our daily lives—from grocery shopping to banking to reading books. How can we integrate technology with the physical world to create better interfaces and more useful, playful and mean- ingful experiences? This course explores how interaction design fundamentals apply to physical spaces by surveying branded environments, retail stores, museums, urban settings and corporate venues with specific user goals and design considerations in mind.

Introduction to Cybernetics and the Foundations of Systems Design

This course presents frameworks for modeling interaction in terms of structure and context, augmenting traditional discussions of form and syntax. We will collaboratively address questions that are fundamental to design practice: What is a system, and what are the different types? How do we interact with systems, and what are the different types of interaction? Systems may act independently, interact with other systems, learn, and even converse. What do such systems have in common, and how can we describe them? How can we measure their limitations? The course explores the integral structures and coherent processes for the design of effective artifacts, communications, collaborations, and services. Students will apply frameworks for steering design processes and/or design outcomes based on their own interests, encompassing domains as broad as education, health and wellness, and sustainability.

Entrepreneurial Design

Entrepreneurial Design provides a real-world setting for students to: launch, iterate, seek out advice and feedback from others, and learn to make their own decisions. The course takes a broad definition of entrepreneurship (from coffee shops to tech startups), and focuses on the emerging opportunities that come from living and working in an increasingly networked world, while challenging the students to think of themselves not as designers but as creators.

Thesis I: Thinking

This course launches students in developing a course of action for a thesis area of investigation through a series of readings, discussions and probes. Students evaluate what comprises an appropriate thesis topic and its requisite components over the thesis year. The course is taught in three parts:

  • The Advanced Fundamentals of UX
  • The Advanced Fundamentals of Graphic Design
  • Writing Basics

Second Year

Thesis II: Development

Design problems invariably grow out of real human needs–the needs of a community. Thesis consultation focuses on advising and shaping the thesis project with critiques from the student peers, advisors, and where needed, the community. The students will work directly with a mentor to develop their project into one that is equally rigorous in concept and execution. With the support and guidance of a faculty advisor, and evaluations from a panel of industry experts, students will come away with a market-ready product or service.

Design and the Service Experience

Throughout our lives we encounter services that span industries as varied as health care, banking, transportation, and retail. In fact, the service sector makes up nearly 70 percent of the U.S. economy, yet frustrating service experiences still abound. This course will examine the increasing need for the improvement of services and the development of service innovations.

Working individually and in groups, students will address the challenges and the opportunities in designing for the service sector through methods such as blueprinting, service enactment, and front- and back-stage processing. By employing these methods in combination with interaction design approaches, students will be able to gain an understanding of service ecologies and learn to choreograph human-centered, responsive, and memorable services. 

Public Interfaces

Public spaces have traditionally been designed to support the social, places for culture, education, work and leisure; we more and more turn to our digital devices to fill these same roles. This course will explore the multi-modal physical world and the role that interaction design and the digital design process have in reactivating and finding new opportunities in the spaces that we inhabit. We will investigate new possibilities available to us through leveraging technology, and working closely with architects, lighting designers, and acoustic designers to create a fully integrated experience that engages people through all of their senses. This studio class will be heavily focused on prototyping and charrettes, and on developing skills in rapidly iterating design concepts. Students will use their thesis projects as a starting point and develop ideas as adjuncts to the projects, or as the main project itself.

Design Management

Once a product or service is designed, it needs to be managed. Whether as
an entrepreneur, a design consultant, or an in–house designer, integrating the creative and business sides is rarely easy. This course will illustrate how to mediate between the two, empowering students to merge the design and busi- ness aspects effectively. We will examine design in its real–world, contemporary contexts (rather than silos such as product design, web design, or mobile design) to realize its broad potential and reach.

Future Wearables

Current handsets are immersive, and perhaps too much so. There's an additive, enhanced product that may suggest a better experience—wearables. First-year graduate students in the “Future Wearables” course will develop lifestyle products that are an enhanced addition of a core device or a standalone device. They will be encouraged to emphasize displays in new places, new inputs, haptics, and staying local. The challenge is to deliver appropriate data in an unobtrusive way.

Urban Fictions

Current technologies that digitize our cities such as the omnipresence of mobile phones, their created "data trails," and the access to information in the form of data will influence our urban behaviors in ways that are unforeseen and yet unprecedented. The devices themselves and the networks they run on have become ubiquitous personal computing devices that help us navigate and interact with the city while, at the same time, create increasingly revealing behavioral traces wherever we go. Throughout the course students will be guided through hand-ons data visualization exercises of a variety of datasets that they, as a class, are creating through their daily routine in the city. Inspired by this experiential understanding of their own patterns and behaviors, students will further speculate around the future impacts of this data- and knowledge-ubiquity by telling data-driven future “interaction stories,” exemplified by scenarios and storytelling.

Leadership, Ethics and Professional Practices

Creative business practices, ethical standards and effective networking are the cornerstones of this course. Through studio tours, students observe examples of successful practice. Case studies will illustrate the importance of creating viable and responsible business models. Through studio tours, guest lectures, case activities and small group activities, students will observe and critique examples of successful, flawed and failed practices. Upon completion of this course, students will be equipped to describe and cite examples of creative business practices, ethical standards and effective networking in the business of design management.

Narrative and Interactivity

A well-told story transcends any particular medium, and at a very basic level, defines a satisfying interaction. The study of narrative offers designers a tool for exploring the user journey and understanding that journey from different perspectives. This course will explore aspects of narrative such as plot, setting and point-of-view, and train students to use narrative as a way to frame and evaluate interactions.

Content Strategies

The Web has made everyone a publisher–and content is a critical component of user experience. This course will explore content development as an aspect of creating user experiences, and will pay particular attention to its relationship to information architecture. Students will examine different approaches to audio, video, and especially text, exploring ways that content can improve user experi- ence (while looking out for legal and copyright pitfalls). We will also address the basics of content management and examine how to develop a large-scale editorial strategy that can be used to guide the creation of websites with millions of pages.

Selling Design

All the talent, experience and expertise in the world can’t advance your career if your client buys the wrong design or waters down the right one. Creative gifts, hard work and luck are part of any career, but even more important is the ability to coax others to accept and help you produce your best ideas. Persuading deci- sion makers to buy good design is essential whether you’re running a startup, building a product, or improving an organization’s in-house website and publica- tions. What skills will help you make a genuine difference in the world by recog- nizing and promoting your own and your colleagues’ best ideas? “Selling Design” will help you begin to become not just the talented creative person you already are, but also an accomplished design professional who can collaborate and work persuasively with colleagues at all levels, from creative directors to budget direc- tors, and from clients to investors to C-level executives. Through interviews with and presentations by successful designers and entrepreneurs from many walks and phases of the creative life, we will learn what it takes to pitch, recognize, combine, push and build on good ideas—and avoid bad ones.

Thesis III: Presentation

Selecting the appropriate format for a fully functional thesis project is critical to the project’s success. It must include proof of concept that demonstrates the depth of research and application, and also demonstrate the research, strategy and artifacts that have been gained through second-year coursework. Each student must present a thesis project to be approved by the thesis committee and the program chair.