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What is Integrative Design at Stamps?

Stamps' Integrative Design program uses cross-disciplinary research methodologies and design methods to bring together students, faculty, specialists, and  community stakeholders to address complex problems that require multiple viewpoints, methods, and areas of expertise. Integrative design is a critical, creative, collaborative, and humanistic approach 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 in collaboration—a way of engaging diverse stakeholders in envisioning, creating, and achieving design goals. It is through the act of designing together that integration happens. It is design as a verb as well as 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 lay stakeholders
  2. the deliberate incorporation of diverse design specialties to create a cross-disciplinary student design team
  3. a focus on tackling wicked problems with innovation, rather than “makeover” conceptualization
  4. a two-year curriculum structured entirely around this wicked problem, which changes over time between cohorts. And the University of Michigan is arguably unparalleled as a massive, heavily-funded research institution with a voracious appetite for cross-disciplinary research.
What is the current umbrella theme and topic?

The 2020-2021 topic for Cohort 6 is “Making Justice,” which can be read in two ways. First, how can the process of making (fabricating, designing, producing, visualizing) integrate concepts of justice (inclusion, equity, diversity, access)? Second, how can the social process of justice (in institutions, civic spaces, legal systems) benefit from integrative design? Thus, making justice is itself an integrative topic, asking how the value generated through integrative design can be democratized, flowing back to the makers--the community of stakeholders, including the student designer. "Making justice" as a topic centers MDes students (and faculty) around the power of integrative design and its evolving cross-disciplinary research approach to facilitate access to equity by communities perennially affected by inequity in its varied social, environmental, political, and socioeconomic forms.

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, sponsors, and collaborators  with the MDes cohort and faculty.

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

No. While the program may 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.  Overall, the admissions committee looks for promising,  intellectually curious professionals interested in deep collaboration. Successful candidates demonstrate capacity for delivering bold and valuable design work that makes an original contribution to the design profession — and aims to yield social and environmental justice. 

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 professionals in industry or design scholars in academia. 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 a thesis project required?

Yes. Students are required to complete an integrative design thesis, which may be team-based or individually developed, but has been planned to contribute to addressing the wicked problem. Additionally, students are required to complete a written thesis paper and make a public presentation.


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, interaction designers, etc...) 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 theme where candidates have experienced the 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 theme and topic, it is not necessary to have any prior proficiency with either. 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 topic within the scope of the umbrella theme. 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 coursework, 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 umbrella theme/cohort topic?

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

What do students learn?

The Stamps MDes program is structured to provide students with two years of experience building cross-disciplinary research skills, working on self- and group-initiated inquiries of open-ended and complex problems that integrate both theoretical and applied research. 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 what it means to design in the 21st century and gain experience utilizing strategies for decision-making; collaboration and team management; the materials and techniques of design production; and the technical and aesthetic requirements of the discipline. Students are not trained to 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 skill set 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 have broad practical appeal, the specialized emphasis within the current umbrella theme 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 theme where candidates have design experience in a professional setting, and wish to expand their knowledge of design while building on their prior education.

How central is the role of research?

Research is essential in the design process, but especially when working on problems of great complexity. One of the challenges is to make strategic, viable, and effective design decisions based on evidence gleaned from the appropriate use of cross-disciplinary research methodologies and design methods of which there are broad ranges. Faculty requirements, partner 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 workload, 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 team of faculty advisors in the first year of the program: two co-primary advisors and a secondary advisor who is the graduate program director. We ask applicants to provide input as to which faculty they may want to work with in their application.

How many students are in the MDes graduate program?

There have been approximately 5 students in each MDes cohort; approximately 10 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 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.

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). 

Can international students receive financial support?

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


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 the 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 theme and cohort topic. 

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 a 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 collaborative environment of stakeholders, 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 speak and write 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. GRE scores are not required.

However, if you have taken the GRE and would like to submit your scores, please feel free to do so. 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 collaboration is 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.

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:

How can I check the status of my application materials?

As long as you officially click "Submit" by the deadline, Rackham will continue to process application materials (transcripts, recommendation letters, etc.).

The best way to check to see if your materials have been matched to your application is to log into Wolverine Access, select the “Students” tab, then click on the “New & Prospective Business” link. Due to the high volume of documents received by Rackham, we ask that you allow 10 business days to view your application and materials.

You can confirm the receipt of the following via Wolverine Access:

  • Test Scores
  • Transcripts from institutions that awarded the Bachelor's, Master's, Professional, and/or Doctoral degree.
  • Recommendations can be tracked through the online application system, ApplyWeb Account, activity page, or in your Wolverine Access account.

Documents that will not be confirmed in Wolverine Access are:

  • Application PDF forms
  • Written Essays (Statement of purpose, creative statements)
  • Resumes / CVs
  • SlideRoom Portfolios
  • Transcripts for Community or Junior college, non-degree study, and/or study abroad coursework.
Will application materials be processed after the deadline?

As long as you officially click "Submit" on your Rackham application by the deadline, Rackham will continue to process application materials (transcripts, recommendation letters, etc.) after the deadline.

Can I “reuse” application materials that I submitted last year?

There are many items within your application that you are permitted to "reuse" from last year:

  • Letters of Recommendation: Once you have submitted your SlideRoom Portfolio, contact Stamps Graduate Admissions staff and ask to reupload your recommendations from last year. You may be asked in the Rackham application to identify the 3 recommenders - please do so, then notify your recommenders that we will be using their letters from last year.
  • Transcripts: A week after you officially submit your Rackham Application, let Stamps Graduate Admissions staff know if you would like Rackham to move the transcripts over from last year.
  • Creative and Academic Statements: Please review these to make sure that they still reflect your current creative practice and intentions.
  • CV: Updates are likely needed; please revise and submit.
  • English Language Test Scores (if applicable): If you submitted your TOEFL scores last year and they have not expired, you do not need to resubmit your scores. TOEFL scores are valid for 2 years from the date you took the exam.