Characteristics of incoming students

As in most fields, undergraduate students enter design programs with varied motives for pursuing degrees, uneven training, and mixed perceptions of the field. A number of students will enter with design experience through previous study, high school design camps, or employment. While some students have a specific disciplinary goal in mind, others do not know enough to make these decisions. Other students may believe they can jump right into major societal issues without much background knowledge. Increasingly, master’s applicants to design programs do not have any design background. Additional coursework may be necessary to close the gap between students’ prior experiences and the demands of a design curriculum. Institutions will determine whether such coursework is prerequisite or taken concurrently with core requirements. However, Core Topics should be addressed by all curricula, regardless of student readiness or specialization.

The main implication of the varied formal training and experience of incoming students is that some may have to take appropriate courses to give them the requisite knowledge, which means schools have to prepare and teach advanced students in elementary topics.

Characteristics of graduating students

When design students graduate, the knowledge and skills they possess depend on several variables: the level at which they studied, the amount of design study required by their specific curriculum, and opportunities for practice while in school.

The first level of design study is tertiary education, including two-year technical degrees, three-year diplomas, and four- or five-year bachelor’s degrees (e.g. BA, BS, BFA, BDes). Graduates of these programs may find entry-level positions in companies, consultancies, non-profits, government, or other organizations, depending on the professional orientation of their programs. To move up in responsibility, most will require deep professional experience or advanced training.

The next level of study is the master’s degree, which internationally serves different purposes. In some countries, the professional master’s (MFA, MDes) serves as a terminal degree and qualifies graduates for jobs as design practitioners. Professional master’s curricula engage students in advanced work and may enroll people with or without previous design degrees. Initial master’s degrees (MA, MS, MPhil) may focus on non-studio themes — for example, design history, theory, criticism, or management — and serve as bridges to doctoral study. Successful master’s programs in design increasingly specialize in a type of practice or philosophy, preparing mature graduates for particular types of work or leadership roles. Because master’s students range from design professionals to change-of-career students in their first design study, the content and structure of curricula vary with intended outcomes. Some programs deliver instruction through a studio-based, project-driven pedagogy in work that mirrors practice, while others rely on a seminar format for some instruction. In other cases, design is paired with another discipline, such as business, anthropology, or criticism. Therefore, it is expected that graduates of master’s degrees in design to show deep competencies in some areas and bachelor’s-level breadth in others.

For those who want to become researchers or university professors, the PhD is generally required. The research profession, whether in academia or another research context, is primarily concerned with the development of new knowledge that informs design as a discipline. Some of this work develops and tests methods for better understanding by people who use research findings. Other types of research advance underlying design principles, theories, and perspectives, including those that consider the ontological nature of design in something that has been called the pluriverse. Finally, some research examines a quickly expanding range of design activities, including new kinds of problems and opportunities that arise from emerging technologies, new production processes and materials, and accelerating social concerns.

An important activity of designers with PhDs is educating undergraduate and graduate students. As faculty, PhD graduates must possess the content depth and methodological knowledge to prepare future researchers, as well as skills for maintaining their own research and publication careers. As research professionals in practice, they must generate and communicate findings that guide decision-making in companies and organizations.

In the broadest sense, expected characteristics of all design graduates include the following:

Graduates should recognize that problem framing is subjective; that it privileges some things over others in uncertain situations and requires participation and negotiation with others in setting goals. Although many disciplines are excellent at problem solving, designers start by problem finding, by getting at the core issues. The critical characteristic of Design is its focus on people and their experiences as opposed to optimization of productivity and economics. Graduates should identify areas of friction in how information, products, services, and systems perform, designating leverage points where design can produce better outcomes for people.

Work typically requires teams of experts with mutual respect for different kinds of knowledge and skills. Graduates should gain working knowledge of adjacent disciplines and the ability to give and receive constructive feedback. These interpersonal skills should translate to work with internal and external stakeholders and inform arguments that champion design issues.

Professional and ethical responsibility

Graduates should harness the power of design in service of high-level goals, mitigating possible adverse effects. Their work should be accessible, reflecting concerns for differences in people’s physical abilities, cultural affiliations, and points of view. They should make compelling cases for ethical and inclusive practices with organizational and community decision-makers and integrate these issues fully in all aspects of assignments.

Commitment to life-long learning

No curriculum can anticipate all knowledge and skills required across a fifty-year career. Graduates should be life-long learners who have a growth mindset, always observing, questioning, and learning. They should attend lectures, take courses, and read. They should also keep up with changes in technology and materials. And they should actively pursue opportunities that demonstrate willingness to apply new knowledge and perspectives to practical work.