“The MFA in Products of Design is a departure from other product design programs, since it challenges the presumptions of design and encourages a rethinking of what it means to manifest value in the world.”
Products of Design
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It started with the recognition of what a complex and amazing time for design we’re currently living in. Designers have never had more powerful tools of creation—visualization and CAD software, manufacturing capabilities, materials science, digital prototyping. We also have unprecedented communication platforms, information sharing, open source participation, ambitious research initiatives. One could reasonably argue that as designers, we are at our greatest potential in the profession’s history.
At the same time, we are facing some of the most daunting challenges in that history: wicked problems around health, education, poverty, depression, war, toxicity, gender equality, labor practices, natural systems collapse, climate change…the list goes on and on. We hide the true costs of product production, we mask the consequences of their manufacture, and absolve ourselves of stewardship as soon as we’ve launched those products into the world. Designers have been complicit in contributing to many of these problems of course, but if we believe that the tools of design have the power to truly effect change—tools such as strategic, lateral, and systems thinking, research and prototyping, empathy, transparency, iteration, and co-creation (effectively “design thinking, design making, and design doing”)—then we’re in an incredibly privileged position: We’ve got this immense horsepower, right when the world needs it most. We have to seize the moment.
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The program is grounded in three acknowledgements. The first is that the classic practice of industrial design has radically changed. You can see this in the adoption of new and wider processes and practices (from Kickstarting to management consulting, from business design to product-service pairings); you can see it in its broadening participants (crafters, DIYers, social entrepreneurs, and others using design languages, tools, and methodologies…and vice versa); and you can really see it in its outputs. The outputs of design, or the products of design, have exploded. An artifact can take the form of a set of instructions, for example, or an advocacy campaign and design intervention. It can be a craft, hack or mod, a short run, manufacture on demand, mass-produced object, speculative objects, or piece of design art…and there are myriad more forms yet to be discovered. Acknowledging the challenges of production and consumption, this program recognizes that we can’t keep making things the way that we’re making them. It follows that we can’t keep educating product designers the way we’ve been educating them.
The second acknowledgement is that we are now broadly recognizing that we are no longer living in a world of objects and things, but in a world of flows and negotiations. We can’t simply point to a “problem,” then create a “solution” for it, because we understand that that problem is not static. It’s moving, it’s systemic, it’s relational—in many ways it’s a living organism. We need a design approach and a vocabulary that recognizes the dynamic nature of problem spaces and design opportunities, and we need to change the way we endeavor to create offerings, as opposed to solutions. This will require new fluencies, a comfort with complexities, and skills of negotiation in the broadest sense.
The third acknowledgement is a drum that I’ve been beating for a while now—that designers think they’re in the artifact business, but they’re not; they’re in the consequence business. When we approach design from a consequence point of view, we see cause and effect differently. We ask “why” more often. We don’t put needless, toxic, dehumanizing objects into the world, or ignore carbon or health or labor conditions. Design is about power through scale, and that power is more likely to be used for good if consequences are considered from the start. We also need to change our intent in design, moving the point of departure from “what do I want to make?” to “what do I want to do?” Once that flip happens, the most fitting products of design often reveal themselves quite easily. But most importantly, when we start with intent instead of the default presumptions of commerce and mass production, we turn our potential from creating garbage to creating value.
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People love stuff. I love stuff. Stuff is never going to go away. But we all recognize that the way we think about, design, manufacture, use, and trash stuff is fundamentally unsustainable, and that we need to explore other ways of satisfying the imperatives of economics and growth. This program is about product design, but it employs lenses that refract new, emergent thinking in the world of design. We are encourage fundamental, life-affirming value beyond commercial value. We start with systems thinking, a return to the hand, services, interactions, metrics, and the notion that products are props, reflections, and shadows of our experiences. These are some of the new perspectives that help in nurturing a design professional who will be confident, powerful, and effective in the decades ahead.
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My background in the practice of industrial design antecedes the rise of digital tools. We started in the shop, then did some sketching, then some research, then met with the client, then back to the shop, then did some drafting, then went back to the shop. We tested with users, then made more explorations. It was iterative and integrated. Designers who spend the first part of a design project strictly researching and hoping for insights are squandering precisely the unique talent that made them designers in the first place—the love of making things. I am persuaded by Frank Wilson’s proposition that the hand and the brain evolved together; that the hand isn’t just a specialized part of our anatomy. And I think that the hands have things to say that the intellect can’t touch (literally!). So Making is fundamental. It’s also fun.
Rigor and an understanding of how the world operates is essential for a design to have any chance of succeeding, so Structures are also fundamental. Course work in framing user experiences, systems and scale, interaction design, strategy, ethnography, entrepreneurship, science, research and integration, sustainability, environmental stewardship, and business is necessary to provide the fluencies required of a thoughtful and employable design practitioner.
Lastly, design requires and communicates stories, so Narratives are essential. The program has coursework in videography, graphic presentation, history, and even a course on point of view. In my 18 years of experience as a design educator, I’ve too-often witnessed a graduating designer’s inability to communicate the intent, process, rigor and result of their design explorations. Fostering these narrative skills is a top priority of the department.
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The experience of the program is immersive, rigorous, and fun. Almost every course is project-based, so students are constantly making and experimenting and throwing things against the proverbial wall. A majority of the classes take place in the evening, enabling students to conduct real-world research and engagement during working hours. Some of the courses also take place in professional design studios in addition to the department at SVA. The Design Research and Integration course, for example, is taught at IDEO; the Material Futures class is taught at Material ConneXion; other teachers periodically hold classes in their studios, so the students experience New York as a learning laboratory.
There are no grades—students are here to do great work, and we communicate progress through critiques, reviews, products documentation, and meetings and consultations.
The faculty are all working professionals who are passionate about design and fearless in their approach to making a difference. Their diverse worldviews will provide fertile soil for the students, and the students will return the favor with challenging, daring, and provocative work. John Thackara, faculty-at-large and a critical advisor on the program, said “build the box, not the contents.” Well, the box is made of people, of course.
We have dedicated areas for food preparation, a focus on health and mindfulness, and spaces for individual work, contemplation, and collaboration. We want our students to have balanced lives; they will spend a lot of time outside the department, complementing their coursework with the vital experiences unique to NYC and its surroundings.
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We’ve had great interest from working designers, a few years out of school and looking for more meaning in what they do with their acquired skills. Designers at this stage are often disillusioned by pumping out toxic garbage, but they haven’t given up on their belief in the power of design. These kinds of people are precious, because they’ve got the skills in place, and they’ve got the passion to put them to more meaningful use. They just need a nurturing, challenging place to discover new opportunities in the world of design, and to really dig deep into what they uniquely have to contribute. Here I’d say, “We want you back.”
We are also looking for extraordinarily creative individuals who actually should be in design. The skill sets and vocabularies required of a design person are rapidly changing, and there are now many many places for creative people to contribute to the enterprise of design. We are looking for people with deep, comprehensive skills in a couple particular areas, and who hunger for ways to integrate those skills into something bigger. That’s the thing—we’re in the business of training people to become great designers—sure. But we’re also in the business of empowering creative, strategic, and fearless people to do great things in the world of design. Designers crave influence from the edges, so we welcome people with excellent chops in something vital, who are intensely curious about making a difference and who are enamored of the fact that design deals in scale; that a single action can multiply out to great effect.
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This is an age-old but still urgent question. I’ve seen students accepted into a graduate program with almost no prior skills or knowledge of design. Sometimes they do well, but it’s almost impossible to impart a diligent, full helping of skills in a two-year masters program. Alternatively, I’ve seen seasoned designers returning to grad school looking for a place to experiment, find their voices, learn current methods and practices and really take the enterprise of design to a deeper place. Sometimes these students have success, but often they spend way too much time on remedial skill building and not enough time on research, thinking, or, ironically, making.
This program is keenly aware of these dichotomies, and acknowledges that while many students’ motivations for attending grad school are to increase their knowledge, indulge their personal passions, and experiment in ways unavailable in the working world, they are also coming to improve their skills and increase their market value. With its emphasis on Making, Structures, and Narratives, the program provides training appropriate to what the world is demanding of designers right now. The curriculum has been carefully created with consultation from major design firms, education experts, critics, media leaders and internationally recognized design thinkers. Clearly, we need to provide both education and training; the trick is to address and synthesize them simultaneously—principally through project-based work—so that the learning takes place through the doing. We all know that that’s a potent recipe, and there literally couldn’t be a more appropriate place to do it than in design school.
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Many have said that “most of the jobs for future graduates do not yet exist.” While true in some respects, there are nevertheless core competencies that must be delivered on in a graduate program. We see graduates of the Products of Design department emerging with the skills and fluencies to occupy top positions in both design consultancies and in-house design departments. We see many of them going on to create entrepreneurial enterprises of their own—often hatched with colleagues from their graduating class. And we see graduates finding their way in the world of design that provides new perspectives and new kinds of value for businesses, non-profits, NGOs, and other organizations who are having difficulty navigating the changing terrain around their offerings.
We are adamant about emboldening design leaders to be ambassadors for the positive impact of the practice. And this department provides the school, the city, the professional faculty, the lecturers, field trips and design events to deliberately strengthen the bonds between every student and a grand palette of professionals making a difference in the working world. For years I’ve witnessed graduating designers spending all their time putting together their portfolio—not meeting people, not engaging with the design community, and essentially waiting for the right job to come along. I often respond that their real job at that moment is to “find the most fascinating people doing the most fascinating work, and to make them hire you.” Connective tissue to fascinating people and enterprise is one of the things that we provide to the graduates of the MFA Products of Design department. That’s part of our job.
Got a question not addressed here? Email us at productsofdesign[at]sva.edu and we’ll get an answer back to you right away.