Skip to Content

MDes FAQ

Learn more about the Stamps Master of Integrative Design program.

M Des Fall2020 Group 1580

Graduate Programs: MDes

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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 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 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.

  • 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 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 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.

  • 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.

Graduate Programs: General

  • What is the student to faculty ratio?

    The Stamps School has a large faculty: 40 full-time tenured or tenure-track faculty, 30 full-time lecturers, and 20 affiliated faculty. There are approximately 20 MFA and MDes graduate students. If you include all the faculty, the ratio is more than 4 faculty to 1 student.

  • Where can I find the schedule of courses?

    The Stamps course schedule is available online.

  • 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.