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MIT Better World

By Ken Shulman

The department’s design major, launched two years later, has been similarly appealing, enticing students studying such disciplines as computer science, mechanical engineering, and biology to also earn a bachelor of science in art and design.

“Almost all our students are familiar with the scientific method, which they learn at an early age,” says Paul Pettigrew MArch ’88, who returned to the architecture department in 2016 as manager of special projects. “They take a sequence of science classes where they apply the scientific method repeatedly in different contexts. We take the same approach in teaching design. We teach a design process: ideate, iterate, prototype. If a student learns that process, they can apply those principles to any number of disciplines.”

For many undergraduates, design studies offer a novel approach to creativity, one that complements their studies in other departments. “Design as a field of study is very young,” says Janice Tjan ’22, a mechanical engineering student who added a double major in design her second year. “But as a process it’s very old. A lot of mechanical engineering students are now taking design classes or minoring in design just to get that perspective.”

For Daniela Carrasco ’18, who majored in computer science, design at MIT first served as an outlet to make art and build tangible objects. “I wanted to use tools other than the tools you find on a computer,” says Carrasco, who today designs software at Adobe. “But what I really learned was how to be creative. Before my design studies, I thought creativity was something nebulous, something you are either born with or not. At MIT, I learned that creativity is a skill, just like math, that you can practice, learn, and perfect.”

A very techy program

Design at MIT is taught differently than at most universities. Few art or design schools expect a similar level of technical, material, or computational expertise in their students. And very few university design programs are as rigorous or demanding. “Of all the majors, design majors turn in their theses later than anyone else,” says Tjan, who for her senior thesis worked to improve hearing aids. “The design process requires so much time. There are so many questions to answer, and often it can feel like you’ll never be completely satisfied with those answers. Design is really blood, sweat, and tears.”

“This isn’t just about aesthetics,” says Skylar Tibbits SM ’10, associate professor of design research who directs the design minor and major programs and is one of the creators of the undergraduate design program. “It’s about learning to think and create in a whole new way. These are the best and brightest of MIT undergraduates, who study computer science, engineering, physics or chemistry on one side of the campus but are also super talented in arts and design. Left brain and right brain. Mind and hand. This is the pure ethos of MIT.”

For Jierui Fang ’20, who majored in design with minors in computer science and biomedical engineering, the real value of design education at MIT is versatility. “In the professional world, rules and roles are often in flux,” says Fang, who worked on biomedical device software after MIT and recently completed her first year in a master’s program in design at Stanford. “Technical ability and concrete skills are important. But the ability to adapt, to speak other people’s languages, and to gain perspective in an unfamiliar environment is even more important. That is what I learned studying design at MIT.”

MIT’s minor and major in design and its expanded offering of undergraduate design courses have made design available both in the department of architecture and throughout campus. Students have responded: the total number of students enrolled in design courses at MIT has increased nearly three-fold since 2016. Currently, there are close to 70 students majoring or minoring in design at the Institute. More than 200 undergraduates enroll in design subjects each semester.

The MIT design program has established a collaboration with the École cantonale d’art de Lausanne in Switzerland. MIT’s program also has numerous partners in fields including furniture, software, luggage, and lighting who help connect the research and instruction at the Institute to industry. For example, Jaye Buchbinder, head of product development and sustainability at furniture maker Emeco, was an industry collaborator in 4.041 Design Studio: Advanced Product Design taught by Jeremy Bilotti SM ’21, a course where students learn to identify client needs and design manufactured products such as furniture.

“At the end of the class, the student projects weren’t just pieces of furniture,” Buchbinder says. “They were new ways of thinking about what design is and how we manufacture. The curiosity the students—and teachers—showed in that room made us excited for the future.”

Design students at work

The design minor and major build on the 150-year-old Department of Architecture’s history of pioneering design research and scholarship, offering students even more ways to engage with the discipline. “I can show prospective students a list of graduates with a major or minor in design, all of whom are working at interesting jobs or attending graduate school,” says Pettigrew, who also teaches 4.021 How to Design Anything, a course that introduces students to fundamental design principles and processes. “Students and particularly parents find this reassuring.”

Leslie Yan ’22, who majored in mechanical engineering and design, says working in both disciplines at the same time has made her a better engineer and a better designer. “The storytelling and presentation techniques I learned in design classes inform my engineering choices,” says Yan, who is going to work for Microsoft on its Surface line of consumer devices. “And my engineering training helps me make more timely and efficient design decisions.”

Carrasco, who says she would have majored in design had the major been available when she was at MIT, believes her training in design helped her land her job at Adobe. She believes her dual expertise in engineering and design bring added value to her team. “It’s not all that common to find a software engineer who also has design experience,” she says. “Having insight into the other side—the design side—helps you bridge the gap between those sides. Everyone benefits.”