Backpack design by CMU design students Rachel Ciavarella, Morgan Fritz, and Chris Henley
This is the first installment of D-School Futures, our interview series on the evolution of industrial design education. Here we have answers from Wayne Chung, chair of the industrial design program at Carnegie Mellon University's School of Design.
How different is industrial design education today than it was ten years ago? Will it look very different ten years from now?
ID education today is requiring us to shove ten pounds into a five-pound bag. This sentiment has always been true for most ID educators. But it feels especially true today due to the proliferation of design positions available: IxD, UX, service design, experience design, etc. ID graduates all want to be playing a significant role in these areas. Consequently, the tools of trade, skills and type of output require augmentation and additions to the course exercises and projects. Add coding, electronics and other physical and digital interaction skills, and you have a lot to cover.
Some of the more overt differences are evident in the visual output for the digital environments. The other significant change has been that at the upper level of their education, designers are tackling wicked problems. These are societal issues that can only be addressed through systemic proposals—not just a single object or product solving a singular problem. And to make your argument for these wicked problems, a full contextual story has to be communicated. This storytelling is best done through a well-choreographed video that shows your research, analysis and insights. So you can see how the list of "required" skills is ever expanding for an ID student. But one of the things that hasn't changed is the core thinking of designing for interaction. This has always been at the CMU's forefront—whether for physical or digital.
As for ten years from now—I'm quite deficient in predicting the future. But by looking at the prior trend of our discipline being pushed into new roles and realms of business, medicine and society, it's clear that the role of design (not just ID) has to take a bigger responsibility in how the world is being shaped in physical and behavioral ways. And one of our best assets is the ability to get disparate disciplines working together toward something bigger than just the next shiny thing. Designers will not only be mastering their craft but energizing others to work communally toward complex goals and solutions.
Wayne Chung and student work by Rachel Inman and Matt Finder CMU design students Josh Finkle and Erik Glaser at work
What would you say to a prospective student who worries about the relevance of an ID education in an increasingly digital world?
ID students are highly sought after in the digital design world because of their unique educational experience. Our curriculum is built on the interactions between human and product—whether physical or digital. And mentally, the student is in this constant high-level to low-level perspective shift so that he can make the right decisions. Astute designers pull out to see the big picture, which enables them to make appropriate material, aesthetic and surface design decisions.
Also, I'm biased—I believe that understanding how the real and natural world works is a benefit to designing in the digital world. Designing for the real world can translate to how a user should or could interact in the digital framework. This makes many industrial designers very sensitive to the overall experience as much as the formal details of an interface.
There will always be hardware driving, sensing or interacting with people in the physical domain. We all have to live in the physical world that has weight, mass, materiality. And ID is in a sweet spot for dictating how this product and digital environment is mitigated.
Radio designs by CMU students Josh Newby (left) and Kevin Kan
What sets Carnegie Mellon's industrial design program apart from ID programs at other schools?
The people and place make the difference. We are fortunate to have the right staff and faculty matched with incredibly bright and creative students who recognize that it takes other people to make a positive difference in the world. Great stories, experiences and discussions come from your studio peers, project teams and collaboration with other disciplines. There is this mindset of excitement about being, doing and caring about the folks and work around you. It's typically never just one thing or person that makes our place wholly unique. CMU is an incredible platform of educational, extracurricular and tangent activities that enable students to be involved with everything from robotics and human-computer interaction to medicine, automotive design and fashion, to name just a few.
What's the job market like for recent graduates of your program? Is now a good time to embark on an ID career?
This is a perfect time for ID and design. Our graduates have been placing in all of the high-tech companies like Apple, Microsoft, IBM, Google, LinkedIn, Facebook and Pinterest. Add in traditional ID consultancies and corporate ID and R&D departments at companies like Whirlpool, Audi/VW and General Motors, and our record for placement has been excellent.
If you had to give just one piece of advice to an incoming student in your program, what would it be?
Stay creative while you learn your craft—whether it is digital, analog or a new way of thinking. Other disciplines are claiming "design" as their competency. In their own way, everyone designs and uses design. So I'm glad for the proliferation of the term because it increases the importance and awareness of our field. But a studio designer's core competency is tangible creativity. The ability to dream of the impossible and make it visible and tangible through iterations of new processes, methods, tools and thinking will be our fundamental identity.