This post is part of our new "Getting Accepted" series, a guide to prepping portfolios and getting into the best design programs across the United States. For our first edition, we're focusing in on The School of Visual Art's Products of Design (PoD) MFA graduate program, which has an upcoming application deadline for their 2021 program on January 15, 2021.
An unexpected feature of SVA's Products of Design program is their no-grades policy, but what might be more surprising is the reasoning behind it. "We want maximum risk," says PoD Chair Allan Chochinov. "And if students are worried about getting a good grade, they're probably going to take a bit more caution, a bit less audacity in their prototyping, with results and fewer daring ideas." The decision was also made in order to build trust between the students and faculty, so the program can ultimately feel like a true collaborative environment. As made clear from their grading system, this MFA program is not the place to make safe design decisions—it's a space that asks you to exercise your nerve.
The Products of Design is a 2-year MFA program in the heart of New York City that also exposes students to faculty with real experience in the design world and projects that cater to the problems designers are tackling today. Expect educational challenges that ask of you to form your own values and stick to them throughout the design process, while also gaining knowledge in the tools and techniques needed to get the job done well.
So who is this program for? SVA Products of Design is a great fit for students who want to use their design skills for the greater good and are looking for a program whose values match their own. "We are definitely not agnostic. Certainly in the world right now, we're in a pretty desperate situation, but I think we've been in a precarious situation for a long time. Our point of view is: because everything appears to be broken, we have work to do," Chochinov notes. And because they strive for their students to go out and create change, they're looking for a particular type of applicant. A good fit is an open-minded individual with a clear point of view who isn't afraid to defend their own ideas, but also thrives in collaborative environments.
We recently chatted with Chochinov to hear more about what it takes to get into SVA's Products of Design program and what students can expect to get out of their two years there.
Core77: I was wondering if you could expand on the typical backgrounds of PoD students are and what they're interested in.
Allan Chochinov: We are looking for exceptions. We take good designers and help them to become great designers, certainly. But what I'm also interested in is working with people who aren't designers, but ought to be designers.
Typically those people will find us through a discovery, an insight, or even a frustration—that ultimately design could lend a hand in terms of completing a project at scalable. Design is a kind of mass production: do something once, and multiply it out more-than-once. And that can be a stapler or a fitness app or a service platform for nurses. Doesn't matter what it is, it just happens more than once. And when people discover this idea of scale, and that it's called design, they start to discover design education. When you work with people who don't have backgrounds in design but have this revelation—that 'it's the practice of design that can add muscle to the bone of their vision or their purpose—it's exciting because it's like they found this key that unleashes power.
So we like the backgrounds of applicants to be as varied as possible. We want as many countries, as many languages, as much diversity in the applicants that we can possibly harness. We've had people who are 22 and we've had people over 50. And, you know, often the it's the older students who tend to have the youngest spirit!
SVA Products of Design graduate Sowmya Iyer's Inside/Out Bag is a circular economy shopping bag with a prepaid shipping label printed on the inside. Once the consumer makes a purchase and receives this bag, they turn the bag inside out, place old clothes they wish to donate into it, and mail it back to the store or thrift store.
What kind of industries do your students often go into?
I always joke that 'everyone's hired as an interaction designer, no matter what they do!' since those are the kinds of jobs at the top of most job postings. (And we are very mindful of that, so we make sure that the students get plenty of work and portfolio pieces around interaction design, UX/UI, and design for platforms.)
And although lots of students end up in consultancies, of course, more and more of our graduates are starting their own thing—which may be more prevalent because the job market is pretty tight right now. We've also had a really high number of students who have built very successful freelance careers, so much so that we held a dedicated 'freelance career panel' a couple of years ago where they could share their secrets for sustainability. They really are living these amazingly diversified design lives.
And then, obviously, many students move into areas around social innovation. Not every designer is going to end up in those spaces—sometimes design is just about making something wonderful or beautiful that didn't exist before. But clearly there is work to be done, and I'm not sure if there are really any systems that you can look at from a social innovation viewpoint that don't come down to people, policy, politics, and purpose. (My personal feeling is that public policy design will actually be the most powerful and impactful kind of design moving forward; I think that's already becoming very obvious.) And so I really want designers to be educated and trained in that area. They may not turn into like policymakers, but they need to understand the language, the vernacular and methodologies of people in the worlds of design and politics, healthcare, education, and the environment.
PoD graduate Antya Waegemann's thesis project included several projects tackling the issue of sexual assault. Hark is a speculative over-the-counter rape kit, available at any major pharmacy. Small and discreet, the kit is designed to be approachable and comforting for victims of sexual assault.
What type of skills should accepted students expect to come in with in order to excel, and what are they going to learn that they might not know already?
If applicants have creative backgrounds, particularly in design, then we look for some of the obvious things: that they have 2D/3D skills, prototyping and 3D modeling, drawing, research methods, and some design history. We're also really, really big on graphic design. The older I get, the stronger my belief in graphic design. It's just the thing that can help you the fastest, and the thing that can hurt you the fastest, so the student who has a design degree but no graphic design experience, we'll ask them to take a graphic design course before they get here over the summer. And we've worked with some amazing graphic designers to put those courses together, so we actually have some recommendations that are both in-person and online.
For students who don't have a design background, it's three buckets we need them to fill: We are big on 'making' so one is a shop class. It can be a furniture class, or a prototypging class—just something that will help them become familiar with hand tools, power tools, etc. We also want students to take a graphic design class that focuses on the fundamentals—typography, grid, hierarchy, composition—old school graphic design. And then drawing, which is probably the only thing that every design educator agrees on in how powerful drawing and 'thinking out loud is.' For those who don't have any drawing experience, we suggest a few things: One might be a life drawing class, and another might be a perspective drawing class. But lately we've really been pushing cartooning, illustrating, and storyboarding, because the drawing of user scenarios and user journeys is so critical to the design of services, systems and, well, really everything at this point. So that's a very fun thing for people to learn before they come into the program, as well as being a highly marketable skill. We might also suggest sketchnoting. That's also a very powerful skill, particularly in working with teams, in generative meetings, and when presenting to clients. If you can sketch note, it's like a superpower—I don't know if employers should double your salary here, but it's worth a lot! So we try and draw attention to it and nurture those talents.
Actually, I remember we had a student at the job fair one year. (Every year, we have over 35 companies visit the department and interview the students—each student picks their top 10 and meets with those.) What he did was go the websites of these companies—you know, frog and IDEO and smaller and larger firms—and he would look at like their mission statements, and then he basically did an illustrated sketch note of how they presented themselves to the world...on the back of his résumé. Each one different and custom. I mean, imagine how impressive that was. It certainly distinguished him from any other resume that company was going to receive that month! And of course they were completely blown away by the gesture. (He did in fact get hired at IDEO.org, for the record!)
What are the ultimate takeaways students get from their 2 years in the program?
The strongest thing that our students graduate with is confidence—the confidence to say yes to a project that they've never done before (which is in the definition of any designer, of course), but paired with the ability to get really smart really fast, to take significant risks, and then to the present their ideas with both authority and humility. (I am proud of the number of times people in the industry compliment our students on their presentation skills.) Every single one of our students emerges from the program with a systems approach—understanding that ever product of design can be understood through a continuum of product, service, system, and platform. We are obsessive about this.
"We want students to end up with confidence and bravery and daring, that they can say yes and actually follow through on what's required to answer a challenge. But we also want them to be really mindful about the new ways design actually happens. That it's about community. It's about equity."
And certainly biggest challenge is to create something that is net-positive, where you're actually creating more value than destruction, right? That you've considered unintended consequences (with the humility to understand that you actually can't predict all unintended consequences). That you understand co-creation and that you're designing with people, not for them or at them. That you understand intersectionality, and that you understand that any situation is made up of many, many stakeholders.
The other thing we should talk about is business. You really can't play if you don't understand business. And we're very proud that we have four business courses that are very explicit around teaching how money, management, and leadership works. We use a lot of case studies (like they do in business school), we teach two dozen business model frameworks, we teach leadership and strategic management, we teach venture capital on how to talk to investors and entrepreneurs. (One of our courses is called Service Entrepreneurship.) We teach these things because if you don't speak the language of business, you just can't be in the meetings where the decisions that are going to affect the parameters of what you can design are made.
Our business teachers are killer. We actually had a student—a Canadian student named Kevin—who had an undergraduate degree in business. I was sitting in on Toshi Mogi's Business Fundamentals course (we teach in many professional studios around the city, and this one is taught in frog Design's big fancy conference room in DUMBO). Anyway, I was sitting in one of his classes, and at the coffee break, I leaned down and I said "So, Kevin. You went to business school, right? Is a lot of this redundant?" And he turns to me, grins, and says, "we don't have courses like this in business school." And that just really put a smile on my face. The fact that business could be taught from a full-on design perspective is pretty great.
So we want the students to end up with confidence and bravery and daring, to say yes and to actually follow through on what's required to answer the challenges of our day. But we also want them to be really mindful about the new, collaborative ways that design actually happens; that it's about community. And that it's about equity. And that the materials of design are changing—that design is as much made of data and information architecture as it's made of user experiences. That it needs to be centered around design for justice, and that it responds to disability studies and liberatory design practices. We are proud that we have design courses explicitly in every one of these topics.
PoD design graduate Victoria Ayo's thesis project "BIRTH REBORN: Using Design to Address Barriers to Equitable Maternal Care for Black Women" included a project named Kin, a virtual doula care app that leverages members of a mother's care team by connecting them with doulas.
To any prospective student looking to apply next year, what should they be doing right now to prepare their applications? What kind of projects do you want to see from an applicant?
Our application deadline is January 15, but we're also happy to work with applicants before they apply. I think a lot of schools treat applications like it's a test, but it's not a test for us. If it makes sense for you to have a life in the world of design, and you don't have a portfolio, then you should contact us in September or October, and say "Listen, I'm really interested in this program. I think it's time to go back to grad school, I know I have this background in business or marketing or theatre or history or whatever it is, but I don't have a portfolio. So what should I do?" And then we will actually work with you to help you put together a body of work that shows things like creative problem solving, bravery, creativity, personal expression, and point of view.
I remember we had one applicant who had a background in advertising, and he was completely miserable with his career. He literally said to me, "Allan, there is nothing I have done in the past two years that I'm proud of enough to put in a portfolio," and it completely broke my heart. He knew what a portfolio needed, but he just didn't have it.
We worked with him to help him put together a written and eflection on the projects he had undertaken. We ended up accepting him. And he turned out to be one of the greatest students we've ever had. He was just really, really unhappy in his life in that world, grad school was this amazingly freeing and cathartic experience. And in the end, it gave him the portfolio that he wanted—that he needed—to go do the kinds of work that he wanted to do in the world.
So I would say, contact us early. We will have a Skype with you. If this were a typical school year, we would invite you to visit and come sit in on a couple classes. But you know, we're on Zoom right now, so that might be even easier, especially for people outside of NYC. So reach out, tell us your story, and let us help you find your future.
If you are a skilled designer recently in school, show us risk. We want to see your weirdest, most daring work—some speculative design, some futuring. Certainly include beautiful pieces of industrial design or furniture in your portfolio if you got 'em, we do enjoy those things. But we see a lot of portfolios that are very traditional ID portfolios. We want something that's going to make us say, "Wow, I can't believe they got away with this."
If you're long out of school, showing professional work can be really tricky, because of non-disclosure agreements; people can work somewhere for three years and not be able to show one thing. And I have to say, we really feel for that. So again, I'd say, call us. Get in touch and say "Listen. I've been at Apple or Google, or wherever it is, and I'm not allowed to show my work. I can describe my skill set and tell you about some of my experiences thought," and we just say okay, let's talk. And that's what we have to do because we understand the realities of professional practice.
Finally, side projects. We LOVE side projects. Show us some screens of an app you mocked up, or a dashboard, or a 100-day project, or some caper on Instagram. Please include that stuff. (We also really look at the hobbies-and-interests section on a résumé; please don't leave that out!)
Each year, MFA Products of Design students work with MoMA to design products manufactured by the Museum of Modern Art and included in their Wholesale Catalog and museum stores. Above is a spread from a recent catalog, featuring seven of the most recent products.
Are there any examples of applicants who came close but they missed the cut, and if so, what were the deciding factors?
Oh, I love this question. I can actually answer this question really quickly: The ability to play with others. We have had some unbelievably skilled applicants who just look amazing on paper, and who's portfolios were just incredible. And then when you're interviewing them, it becomes so clear that they could never work in groups, that they could never accept critique from a teacher or classmate, and worse, they couldn't be part of a supportive family of colleagues. (These tend to be people who love grades, for the record!) And those are heartbreaking because you think, this person's completely amazing. It's sort of like dating, you can tell within like 30 seconds. And then the rest of the interview is trying to disprove this gut feeling that you have that this person may not be able to be with people for the two year duration. You know, the social aspect of being in a graduate program is huge with small, intimate groups of around 18 people per year. So you have to be able to play well with others.
"If you're only applying to an application portal, I don't think you've done your homework."
Grad school is similar to the process of finding a new job in that when you go into an interview, it should be as much about you interviewing them to see if it's the right place for you as it is that you're the right person for them. For anyone who's seriously considering the Products of Design program, what kind of questions should those people be thinking about when researching the program?
It's so funny that you say that, because in any interview we always make sure to leave some time at the end to answer any questions you may have. And when an applicant has no questions, it's very puzzling. This is sort of 'Interview 101' right? Any article in any magazine will tell you: In any interview, make sure you have questions.
They should also do their homework. I'm a big believer in design education, and all design schools are great. But certainly all design schools are different. On our homepage, we have seven foundational principles you can read up on. We are very deliberate about what we believe in and how we instantiate those beliefs in pedagogy and department culture. (You should find out what those things are in other programs, if you are looking across different schools.) Don't just look at the apply page; really go through the site and find out who all the faculty are, what all the courses are, what the extra-curriculars are, and how the syllabi and projects support and reflect both the mission of the department and the individual vision of the student. You are looking for fit, and you should insist on it.
Then the other thing is that you need to pick a place that's going to build some new muscles. So really take a look at the kinds of things that you're going to be immersed in. For example, exposure and sensitivity video storytelling, or to Arduino and smart objects, or to designing with Figma—you may not want to specialize in those things as part of your daily design practice when you leave school, but if you don't know how these things work or how to navigate and evaluate these platforms, there are going to be limits to the areas where you can find success, agency, and happiness.
Look at how well-rounded a program is in terms of giving you exposure and fluency in the different languages that make up the world of professional design practice—as opposed to a program that will give you a narrow superpower. The best part about design is you can do so many things with it. So look for a two-year experience that's going to open up the most number of possibilities for you in a very, very long life ahead. You know, sometimes I'll say to students, you're going to be working for decades and decades; right now you have two years to set those decades in motion.
SVA's Products of Design Graduate Program is now accepting applications for 2021, with an application deadline of January 15, 2021. Take what you've learned here to finish your application! Apply now at https://productsofdesign.sva.edu/.