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MIT Better World

By Ken Shulman

If timed correctly, it can be a solid point of departure—a moment when a few small strokes or shades can launch the design and manufacture of products ranging from mobile phones to solar panels to software. If executed prematurely—or too late—it can be a point of no return. This is the point that most interests Maria Yang ’91.

“There are literally an infinite number of designs you could create to address a need, and it’s not always obvious which are right to pursue,” says Yang, associate professor of mechanical engineering. “Designers have to be creative to imagine a space of possible designs, and thoughtfully explore this space. Essential to this process is iteratively making prototypes—a sketch, a foam model, or a 3-D-printed object—and testing them.”

Born and raised in West Lafayette, Indiana—her father is also an engineer and college professor—Yang spent her childhood first knitting and crafting, and then, after cajoling her mother to take her to the hardware store, building telegraphs and dismantling transistor radios. During her doctoral studies in mechanical engineering, she took time to work as a designer at Apple, Lockheed Martin, and a startup incubator that helped companies create first-generation prototypes. “I was always torn between engineering and design,” she says, “and later, between working as a designer and teaching design.”

On the MIT faculty since 2007, Yang teaches introductory and graduate-level product design courses to engineering, business, and industrial design students. “Most of these students fit the classic MIT student profile, with highly developed analytical skills,” says Yang. “But they also have a healthy creative quotient that doesn’t often get a chance to express itself. Studying product design teaches you to be comfortable with ambiguity. And it teaches you to consider the end user, no matter where you are in the design process. These are incredibly valuable skills to have, particularly for engineers.”

At MIT’s Ideation Lab, which she founded and directs, Yang leads research on early stage design, and particularly on the role of visual representations and prototypes in that stage. She invites Boston-area designers to the laboratory to participate in controlled studies in which she and her students observe them at work. The research has yielded some surprises, including a strong indication that the early use of digital design tools like CAD (computer-aided design) can in many cases inhibit a designer’s creativity. “Technology is powerful, but sometimes it can make you less flexible, especially in the early stages of design,” she says. “I find it fascinating that some of our undergraduates still opt to use paper day planners. They say they like being able to flip between pages.”

Yang acknowledges that every designer has his or her preferences, priorities, and quirks. Her research aims to identify certain core practices that can benefit all designers. One of those practices is quantity; she believes designers should suspend skepticism and compile a long list of solutions, however improbable. Another is the prototype. “So many of us have this romantic notion about design,” she says. “Someone has a great idea and then a team of hardworking engineers somehow makes it happen. The reality is very different. And that reality starts with making something real. That, and coming up with a good idea. Because no matter how good you may be at math or engineering, it’s hard to make a bad idea into a good product.”