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The Stamps MDes: FAQ

General
Considerations
Financial Aid
Applying

General

What is Integrative Design at Stamps?

The Stamps MDes program is based upon a comprehensive, cross-disciplinary approach that brings together students, faculty, specialists, and other concerned parties to address complex problems by integrating multiple viewpoints, methods, and areas of expertise. It is a creative, humanistic practice that can find rich opportunities, generate new knowledge, imagine productive futures, and invent noble and compelling solutions to thorny issues. At Stamps, we see design as process oriented—a way of integrating diverse stakeholders in envisioning, creating, and achieving common goals. It is through the act of designing together that integration happens. It is design as a verb rather than a noun

What is a wicked problem?

A wicked problem stands in contrast to a “tame” problem; it’s a social and/or cultural challenge where solutions are not true-or-false, right-or-wrong, but instead are better or worse. It may have unforeseen outcomes, is multi-causal, involves changing attitudes and behaviors, and is socio-culturally complex. And the definition of the problem itself depends on who is doing the defining.

Providing universal access to clean water is an example of a wicked problem area, which ultimately needs to be contextualized, reduced, and articulated as a manageable problem set. During the design process, a team could collaborate with lawyers, politicians, theologians, hydrologists, activists, corporate executives, environmental scientists, labor unions, physicians, international aid agencies, processing plant technicians, as well as a diverse public. In the end, “solutions”—products, interfaces, processes, graphics, experiences, structures, etc.—are developed with an understanding of the larger system, that are sensitive for the competing demands of broad stakeholders, and that make a meaningful contribution to the broader problem.

See: H.W.J. Rittel and M.M. Webber, “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning,” Policy Sciences, Vol. 4, No. 2, June 1973, pp. 155–69.

How is the Stamps MDes in Integrative Design program different?

While common elements are shared with a handful of other progressive graduate programs, the Stamps MDes program is unique with its combination of 1) a focus on integrative design with collective, team-based, studio work along with collaboration across a broader community of professionals and stakeholders; 2) the deliberate incorporation of diverse design specialties to create a cross-disciplinary student design team; 3) a focus on tackling wicked problems, rather than “re-design” projects; and 4) a two-year curriculum structured entirely around this wicked problem, which changes over time between cohorts. And the University of Michigan is perhaps unparalleled as a massive, heavily-funded research institution with a voracious appetite for cross-disciplinary work.

What is the current umbrella topic and wicked problem?

Healthcare and well-being in the 21st Century will be the umbrella topic for the first two cohorts. This arena accounts for some of the most important and pressing human concerns, be they emotional, social, psychological, physiological, or spiritual. Students must examine present and near-future contexts in which design can meaningfully intervene in hopes of affecting useful, useable, and desirable outcomes. The University has a vast range of experts, programs, and partners across sociology, psychology, public policy, architecture, natural resources, engineering, entrepreneurship, and public health as well as with hospitals and medical product corporations.

Does the program include external partners with real world problems?

Yes. Aspects of the design problems will be framed in concert with any number of our external partners, which include faculty and staff from across the University, companies, non-profits, organizations, and members of the community that are stakeholders in the wicked problem area. They act as consultants, clients, sponsors, and co-designers with the MDes cohort and faculty.

The program has commercial sponsors, does that mean it is commercially oriented?

No. While the program does have relationships with corporate entities, student efforts are not confined to commercial outcomes. The program’s faculty members have a broad range of interests and experiences, and they support a range of design intentions: profit-centered, philanthropic service, experimentation, and critical voice. Overall, the committee looks for intellectually curious students that are interested in a collaborative experience and who have the promise of delivering bold and valuable design work that makes a contribution to society and the design profession. To that end, the nature of the students’ interests may be within and across any of four fundamental fields of design: commercial, responsible, experimental, and discursive.

What is an MDes degree as opposed to an MFA?

The Master of Design (MDes) designation is increasingly used within US and international design education and better recognizes design as a particular form of creative professional practice distinct from the Fine Arts. It reflects a curricular focus on the preparation of advanced students for careers as design practitioners, design educators, and design researchers. The Master of Fine Arts (MFA) designation is traditional within graduate arts programs and reflects a bias toward independent creative practice leading towards careers in the arts.

Is there a Design PhD program at the Stamps School of Art and Design?

There is currently no Design PhD program within the Stamps School, but one is being developed. Students that have an interest in pursuing a design-related doctoral degree at the University of Michigan are encouraged to explore the Design Science Program, a Rackham Interdepartmental Degree Program (IDP) . This is a “research-based” program as opposed to a “practice-based” program, so students are required to complete a more-academic, written doctoral dissertation as opposed to creating a physical product or designed artifact. MDes students that wish to continue to a PhD within the Design Science Program after the MDes will receive 18 credits toward this doctoral degree.

Is a thesis project required?

Yes. Students are required to complete a design-based thesis project, which will be team-based or may be more individually developed, but has been planned to contribute to the team’s overall goals. Additionally, students are required to complete a written thesis paper.

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Considerations

Does the committee have a notion of the ideal candidate?

Rather than an ideal candidate, the committee is looking for a strong team. As such, admissions decisions are dependent upon the makeup of the entire pool of applicants. We are seeking potential students from diverse backgrounds across the design disciplines (e.g., product designers, visual communication designers, architects, user-experience designers, including industrial, graphic and interaction designers) that wish to transform their career path. It is crucial that candidates already have specialized skills that they want to integrate with those of others to deliver design solutions for complex problems. We may consider qualified candidates with education and experience related to the specific umbrella project where candidates have experienced design process in a professional setting, and wish to expand their knowledge of design while building on their prior education.

Do I need to have experience or knowledge of the umbrella theme or wicked problem?

While each cohort’s curriculum centers on a particular wicked problem, it is not necessary to have any prior proficiency with the topic. With such expansive and complex issues, one’s relevant expertise would represent only a small fraction of the possible subject matter. The cohort must decide how it will research, define, reduce, and approach aspects of the problem. The “beginner’s mind” offers a valuable perspective, and it is not uncommon for a designer to be immersed in a completely new arena where they have to figure out how to navigate through it. 

Is the program right for me if I already know what I want to design?

We want students to be available to harness their existing passions and skills. If prospective students have a very strong idea of what specific artifact (product, service, interaction, graphic, experience, system, etc.) that they wish to design, they may be missing out on two key components of the program. First, the MDes is team-based and collaborative, and as such major decisions are made in concert as opposed to unilaterally. Individual students will have to work with the team to determine the team’s output and how best to achieve this. Second, knowing what artifact is going to be designed before knowing the problem is an adulteration of an informed, humanistic design process that demands significant work in understanding and framing before designing and doing. If a student is passionate, for example, about designing cars, the team’s suite of design solutions may not include a car (indeed it may be antithetical). But, if the student can understand their passion more broadly as “transportation,” then it is likely that this could be addressed to some extent as part of the design solution.

Is the program right for me if want to work independently?

No. The program is team-based and collaborative. There will be some independent course work, but mostly in the seminars. Studio work is completed mostly as a team, where individual efforts contribute to the whole. Depending on the nature of the group and individual interests, students may petition faculty for specific independent activities and projects, though these would be seen as a way to later connect with overall group efforts.

Will all of the project work be focused on the wicked problem?

Students have freedom with electives and have several seminars that may connect to the wicked problem only peripherally.  However, the main thrust of the program — the studio work — will be to address design interventions that meaningfully address the wicked problem.

What do students learn (and not learn)?

The Stamps MDes program is structured to provide students with two years of experience building cross-disciplinary design skills, working on client-based, open-ended and complex problems that integrate both theory and practice. They will have engaged deeply in project-based learning and creative collaboration to prepare them for more ethical and entrepreneurial roles in today’s unpredictable environment. In addition to developing and testing solutions, they will explore the practice of design including processes of decision-making; collaboration and team management; the materials and techniques of production; and the technical and aesthetic requirements of the field. Students are not trained to do become differently-disciplined designers, for example a graphic designer will not be taught how to become an industrial designer. Instead students will work closely with other designers (and many other stakeholders), understanding their approaches and capabilities while applying their own particular skillset toward common problems.

Students will:

  • think critically, analyze, and engage complex, real-world problems
  • find, evaluate, and use appropriate research resources
  • understand collective and collaborative approaches to working
  • demonstrate effective communication skills
  • prepare to participate in, or lead, cross-disciplinary teams
  • explore environmentally-sound and socially-responsible design solutions.
What career paths are pursued by program graduates?

Graduates will be capable of following any of several possible paths including: working and leading within industry as part of cross-disciplinary teams; pursuing their own independent research and entrepreneurial ventures; returning to previous careers/industries with greater insight and skills; and furthering their education within PhD programs. While skills in team-based, systems thinking around complex problems has broad practical appeal, the specialized emphasis within the current wicked-problem area makes students especially attractive to: corporate in-house design teams; design consultancies; research and development teams; and non-profit institutions working within developed and developing countries. Throughout the program students will engage closely with a host of specialists and institutions that will extend students’ professional network.

Do you accept students without undergraduate degrees in design?

Yes, under certain conditions. We may consider qualified candidates with education and experience related to the specific umbrella project where candidates have experienced design process in a professional setting, and wish to expand their knowledge of design while building on their prior education. Those with non-design backgrounds should contact the program director before applying.

How central is the role of research?

Research is essential in most design processes, but especially when working on problems of greater complexity. One of the challenges is to make efficient and effective research choices, because design research includes a very broad range of possible approaches, contexts, and goals. Faculty requirements, client demands, student-team agreement, as well as individual student interests could determine the framing of the research. A fundamental skill that graduate students develop is the facility to self-determine how, when, and to what extent to employ different modes and methods of primary and secondary research in pursuit of their goals.

How long does the program take? Can I do it part-time? Can I finish faster?

The program takes two years (4 sequential semesters with a summer course in between) to complete, beginning in the fall semester only. It is not possible to finish sooner. Students must enroll as full-time students. Typical, part-time employment is not possible given class scheduling and work load, however some students will hold assistantships and others may engage in small free-lance projects while in school. Students should absolutely not plan on any outside employment during their first semester.

Will I have a faculty advisor?

Students will have a faculty advisor throughout the program. We ask applicants to provide input as to who that will be in their application.

How many students are in the MDes graduate program?

There will be approximately 6 students in each cohort; approximately 12 students total between both years of the program. This may grow as the program develops.

What do students do over the summer during the first- and second-years?

In the summer between the first- and second-year, students will collectively engage in a fieldwork studio course that may occur away from the University. The intention is to more deeply engage with stakeholders, and not be limited by geography. If travel is required away from the University, the program covers the additional costs beyond tuition.

How much coursework is independent versus collaborative?

Students will be required to work both independently and collaboratively throughout the two-year program. Seminars and particular elective courses typically require more independent work and output, while the studio coursework and projects has been designed specifically to demand more group interactivity. Team-based, collaborative research and design are hallmarks of the program. Depending on the nature of the group and individual interests, students may petition faculty for specific independent activities and projects, though these would be seen as a way to later connect with overall group efforts.

Will I have a personal studio space?

The studio is an open plan with moveable walls, partitions, furniture, and storage to facilitate collaboration and a wide variety of activities including lectures, stakeholder meetings, class meetings, and individual work. Each graduate student will be assigned a specific desk within the graduate studio space. Just across the hall from the studio are the graduate wood and metal fabrication shops (though students will have access to the many other facilities located at the Stamps School on Bonisteel Boulevard: e.g., digital fabrication, ceramics, fibers, sculpture, printmaking, digital media, wood, and metals). Students are able, and highly encouraged, to work in the studio so as to leverage the interaction and influence of their fellow graduate students and faculty, which also have their own studio space within the same facility.

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Financial Aid

Are there fellowships or teaching assistantships that defray tuition costs?

Yes. Financial assistance is merit-based and very generous in comparison to many other graduate design programs. Students can receive full tuition, discretionary funds and other support through any combination of: Rackham Fellowships, Graduate Student Instructor (GSI) positions, Graduate Student Staff Assistantships (GSSA), and Graduate Student Research Assistantships (GSRA). At the current scale of the program we are able to give every student a “full ride”.

Can international students receive financial support?

International students are eligible for exactly the same financial support as domestic students. 

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Applying

What is the faculty looking for in an applicant’s portfolio?

The portfolio should demonstrate at minimum, fundamental design skills. The projects selected for portfolio inclusion should help convince the committee that the applicant can “hit the ground, running.” While a breadth of projects may be shown, the committee suggests that applicants include at least one project that begins with an idea/problem/opportunity and where each stage toward a final design solution is shown. This helps convey the thinking and design process, rather than just final outcome. If all stages are not shown within a single project, it is encouraged that as many of those skills as possible that are associated with the stages are visible somewhere in the portfolio. The committee is aware that undergraduate- and corporate-projects do not always best represent the applicant’s specific design interests, so projects similar to the desired thesis topic are not necessary. While students may include non-design projects like portraiture, photography, and sculpture, these definitely should not be included at the expense of projects illustrating fundamental design skills.

Applicants without undergraduate degrees in design should demonstrate in their portfolio what they can contribute to the team in terms appropriate to their prior education and experience related to the specific umbrella topic and wicked problem. Those with non-design backgrounds are advised to contact the program director before applying.

How important are the applicant’s Creative Work Statement and Personal Statement?

The Statements are just as important as a strong portfolio (and for career-changing applicants without extensive portfolios, they are probably even more important). While the successful portfolio demonstrates that an applicant has sufficient technical capabilities, the content of the work could be quite different from current interests, especially if graduate school is understood as chance for new directions and exploration. The Statements are the opportunity to communicate what the applicant cares about, what concerns they have for the discipline and society, what special insight or inspiration they bring to bear, and what contribution they wish to make to the field. Unlike undergraduate education, which can be relatively homogenous across institutions, successful graduate education hinges upon a good fit between the applicant’s specific interests and the concerns and capacities of the faculty and institution. To this end, the Statement should address why Stamps is believed to be a good fit for the applicant and his or her interests and professional trajectory. What we do not want in the Statements are merely recapitulations of your resume and background; the Statements should point forwards rather than look backwards.

Must I know what my thesis project will be when applying?

No. Students are required to complete a thesis project and paper in their final semester, but the specific choice of emphasis within the umbrella theme is not expected upon application. Given the complexity of the problem and the rich intellectual environment of collaborators, faculty, and peers, it is hoped that students will gain new understandings and perspectives. It is certainly possible for students to enter with very strong passions in specific arenas—and the admissions committee wants to know these—but in the spirit of a collaborative, team-based approach, there should be an intellectual openness to new possibilities.

English is not my native language; how important is language proficiency?

It is important to be able to converse well in English, as the program is team-based, integrative, and user-centric. Students must effectively communicate with each other, subject-matter specialists, and the individuals that will ultimately inform the design problems and solutions. Coursework demands that students discuss theoretical and technical readings, as well as offer critique of fellow students’ work. In our experience, passing the language exams with minimum scores is barely sufficient to fully engage with the required reading, writing, and discussions. The most competitive international candidates exceed the minimum scores. In addition to written essays for seminar classes, all graduate students are also expected to write a substantive thesis paper in English.

Click here for detailed information on Required tests for Non-native English Speakers from U-M's Rackham Graduate School.

Do I have to take the GREs?

No, but if you have, please include your scores in the application. While verbal, mathematical, and analytical skills are generally important for designers, high exam scores do not necessarily predict design student success. A high quality portfolio and cogent Statement are the most important application components.

What if I have team-based projects that I want to include in my portfolio?

Having experience working in teams is valued, as this is a common mode of design practice and a focus of the program. The committee adamantly requires that any portfolio project that was part of a group effort be labeled as such along with the specific role that the applicant played. Presenting a team-based project without appropriate attribution is ethically problematic.

Do I need to have an admissions interview?

No, you do not need to have an interview in order to apply for the program. Once the admissions committee has reviewed applications, students may be contacted for a telephone or Skype discussion to better understand applicants and for students to better understand the program.

Can I visit the campus?

Please do. Each fall, there will be an on-campus open house event where students will have the opportunity to meet faculty, see the facilities, and experience the broader campus. Beyond this, students should click here to coordinate an independent visit, though students are highly encouraged to come during the open house, as there will be more faculty and students available to meet.

How competitive is the admissions process?

Admission acceptance rates are similar to other selective programs - around 10%.

What if I have additional questions?

Request information, schedule a visit, and learn about information sessions for our MDes program:

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