Redesigning a Design Program: How Carnegie Mellon University is Developing a Design Curricula for the 21st century

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School of Design, Carnegie Mellon University
Faculty engaged in twice-monthly retreats and used the same approaches to brainstorming and synthesis that they teach their students.

In the past 20 years, the field of design has undergone tremendous change. Design’s universality as a powerful approach to problem solving and its potential to serve as a catalyst for positive social and environmental change are finally being recognized. Increasingly, designers play key roles in many domains such as business, government, not-for-profit sectors, and grassroots activism.

Design also has an important part to play in one of the biggest challenges confronting us in the 21st century: the transition to a sustainable society. This transition can be viewed as a ‘wicked’ design problem that can only be addressed through the collaboration of people from myriad professions, disciplines, and all walks of life.

This challenges educators to reconceive design programs and curricula to prepare students with the flexibility, knowledge, and skillsets needed to address the problems confronting society in a globally interconnected and interdependent world.

Framing the Problem

The design school at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) is one of the top-ranked programs in North America and alumni take up challenging positions within well-respected design firms, companies, and not-for-profit organizations around the world. I joined as the Head of the School of Design in 2009 and shortly after my arrival I led a complete review of our programs. Our curricula had not kept pace with the unprecedented degree of change described above and the faculty and I felt that a new kind of designer was needed for the 21st century.

Design is ubiquitous—we live the majority of our lives in the designed or ‘built’ world, and design is connected to many of the large problems confronting society. However, its very ubiquity gives it the potential to play a key role in the resolution of these same issues. Design is inherently a problem-solving process and fundamental skills of the designer are the ability to look for meaningful problems, frame them within appropriate contexts, and design a process for developing and implementing a solution.

For this reason, designers are increasingly called upon to work in transdisciplinary teams on what the design industry refers to as ‘wicked’ problems. These are ill-defined, complex, systemic, and purportedly unsolvable problems. Such problems have multiple constituencies with conflicting agenda and are comprised of seemingly unrelated, yet interdependent elements, each of which manifest as problems in their own right, at multiple levels of scale.

An example of a local design problem that is connected to a larger regional/global wicked problem might be the design of a better system of bike lanes in a city. Designing transport alternatives that reduce our dependency on oil is connected to the global energy crisis, global warming, pollution, and the controversial practice of fracking at the regional/local levels. In a 2001 essay written after the events of 9-11, physicist and environmentalist Fritjof Capra connected the problem of global terrorism to the United States’ wasteful energy policy. Solving for wicked problems like this requires new knowledge and skill sets. Firstly, designers must be able to ‘see’ the wicked problem(s) and its myriad manifestations and interconnections. Secondly, they must be able to work effectively within transdisciplinary teams to solve for them. The design and implementation of a strong local biking network involves issues related to urban planning, government policy, and catalyzing behavioral change as well as communication—all arenas for design.

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School of Design, Carnegie Mellon University
Faculty explored numerous ways in which topics related to social and environmental issues could be introduced into the curricula.

The faculty at CMU had to ask themselves what new information had to be introduced into our curricula to prepare designers to work effectively on problems like those described above. We also wanted to develop new programs that responded to the demand from other disciplines and professions to be equipped with the tools and processes of design. New curricula introduce students to the elements of a holistic/ecological worldview and provide a grounding in living systems principles, ecology, indigenous/place-based wisdom, alternative economics/politics and climate change to name a few. Students also work extensively in groups (often with students from other disciplines) in order to develop the ‘posture’ and skill necessary to collaborate effectively with those from other professions and disciplines.

Shifting a Culture

I felt that significant programmatic and curricular change needed to be based upon an internal culture shift that challenged faculty to acquire new knowledge outside the field of design and take up new postures and ways of working. Facilitating cultural change is slow but vital work: leaders are often charged to produce quick results via a ‘top–down’ process, but unless people work collaboratively over time, a transformational solution is unlikely. This way of working builds trust, encourages people to let go of their old ways of working, and challenges them to examine their assumptions and beliefs.

We developed several objectives that informed a slow, iterative, multiyear change process. We wanted to cultivate a collaborative culture that was committed to change, consensus-driven, and willing to think in long horizons of time (planning for the next 25+ years). We were also committed to empowering the next generation of tenured faculty to lead and charged the senior tenured faculty to serve as mentors.

To launch this process, I asked the full-time faculty to attend bimonthly retreats held at the end of the day from 4:30 until 7:00 pm. These were supplemented with twice yearly full-day retreats.

Retreats provided faculty with the opportunity to voice concerns, fears, and aspirations and formulate objectives. Most importantly, it created a space in which we could think meaningfully about the school’s future. Retreats employed the same design facilitation, brainstorming, and analysis approaches that we teach our students. Faculty worked together in different formats and configurations to identify areas of mutual interest and complementarity.

In hindsight, I realize that the value of the first year was not the ideas and solutions we developed but rather the cultural transformation that resulted. After two and a half years of working together this way, the faculty developed a (mostly) collaborative, consensual group process that became the basis for profound change.

At the end of this phase, in January of 2013, I charged a smaller group with designing new curricula and programs at the undergraduate, masters, and doctoral levels. This group was comprised of five members of next-generation tenured faculty who were also leaders of programs and disciplinary tracks within the school. The associate head of the school and myself joined the group representing senior tenured faculty.

Our group met several times a month between January and April of 2013 to develop a theoretical framework that would unite programs at the undergraduate, masters, and doctoral levels; new masters and doctoral programs; and revitalized curricula for all degree programs.

The results were presented to the full faculty for feedback in May of 2013. Feedback was then incorporated and a comprehensive proposal for new programs and curricula (that also met Middle States Accreditation) was presented and unanimously approved at our university’s college council at the end of May. The new programs launched in August 2014.

A New Pedagogical Framework

The School’s new pedagogical framework is intended to unify programs and encourage a greater level of practical and intellectual exchange between students and faculty at the undergraduate and graduate levels. On a philosophical level the framework acknowledges that the ‘designed’ or ‘built’ world is always embedded within the social world and both of these are always embedded within the ‘natural’ world or environment.

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School of Design, Carnegie Mellon University, 2014
Figure 1. This framework provides the philosophical underpinning for all programs and curricula and places all design within social and environmental contexts.

The built, social, and natural worlds are nested, interconnected, and interdependent spheres in which countless continual interactions take place. For this reason, we say that we are “a school of design for interactions among people, the things they make and use, and the environment.” Placing the design of products, communications, and environments (both physical and digital) within the greater contexts of society and the natural world compels students to frame design problems within ethical and environmental contexts.

At a pedagogical level, the undergraduate tracks in products, communications, and environments lie at the center of the framework. These three areas of new, emerging, and nascent design theory and practice—design for service, design for social innovation, and transition design—represent areas in which projects and research are situated.

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School of Design, Carnegie Mellon University, 2014
Figure 2. The pedagogical framework places design within larger social and environmental context and provides three areas of new, emerging, and nascent design focus.

These areas are related and complementary and can be situated along a continuum in which spatiotemporal contexts expand and deepen. Design for Service is a well-established approach to solving problems within multi-stakeholder ‘ecologies’ and shifts the focus from discreet products and communications to the quality of interactions and experiences between service providers and customers. Design for Social Innovation is an emergent field that expands design contexts to address problems in the social, cultural, and economic domains, often outside the context of the business and consumer marketplace. Transition design is a nascent area for design research, practice, and study where speculative, long-term visions of sustainable lifestyles fundamentally challenge existing social, economic, and political paradigms. These visions serve to inspire and inform the design of short and midterm solutions.

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School of Design, Carnegie Mellon University, 2014
Figure 3. Continuum of Design Approaches.

Providing Flexibility and Choice within Programs and Curricula

Designers have a key role to play in the transition to a sustainable society and will contribute to solutions in the commercial, nonprofit, and government sectors. As designers step into these new and diverse roles, correspondingly new knowledge and skill sets are required. Among these are the ability to frame problems within more appropriate and responsible contexts; to facilitate action and work effectively within transdisciplinary teams; and to formulate visions of sustainable lifestyles and the road maps to get there. Our new programs incorporate these skillsets. They are also designed to provide more flexibility and choice at the undergraduate level and multiple degree pathways for both designers and nondesigners at the graduate levels.

Our undergraduate program has always offered two tracks: communication design and product design. To this we’ve added a new track: environments. This new track acknowledges that communications and products often come together in complex ecologies within both physical and digital spaces. Students in the environment track develop a deeper understanding of user relationships at different systems levels as well as the complex array of technologies that inform new products and experiences. Undergraduate students can also choose between a single focus or specialty or customize their degree to combine any two of the three tracks offered.

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School of Design, Carnegie Mellon University, 2014
Figure 4. Two sample pathways (out of dozens) show how an undergraduate student can choose their depth/breadth of study.

Programs at the graduate levels (masters and doctoral) were redesigned in a modular format that provides multiple degree pathways for students with and without design backgrounds. An important objective was to make the problem-solving approaches and tools of design more accessible to those from other disciplines.

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School of Design, Carnegie Mellon University, 2014
Figure 5. The redesigned programs offered at the graduate levels.
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School of Design, Carnegie Mellon University, 2014
Figure 6. Program pathways were redesigned to make design tools more accessible to students from other disciplines.

Transition Design: Design for the 21st Century

A centerpiece of the new programs is Transition Design: a proposition for design practice, study, and research that advocates design-led societal transition toward more sustainable futures. Transition designers can come from all walks of life and use the tools and processes of design to reconceive entire lifestyles as well as society’s infrastructure (policies, energy resources, transport, manufacturing, economy and food, healthcare, and education systems). Transition Design focuses on the need for ‘cosmopolitan localism,’ a lifestyle that is place-based and regional yet global in its awareness and exchange of information and technology. Transition design students acquire a deep understanding of the interconnectedness of social, economic, and natural systems in order to conceive solutions that leverage the power of interdependency and symbiosis.

The transition design framework outlines four key mutually reinforcing and co-evolving areas of knowledge, action, and self-reflection: Vision, Theories of Change, Mindset/Posture, and New Ways of Designing. Transition visions stimulate new thinking and cause designers to look for knowledge in new places. New knowledge leads to shifts in mindset and posture and all three of these areas will give rise to new ways of designing.

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Irwin, Tonkinwise, and Kossoff
Figure 7. Transition Framework.

Transition design integrates new knowledge from outside the design disciplines, advocates a shift to a new, more holistic and ecological worldview, proposes more open and collaborative postures, and a deeper understanding of social systems. All masters and doctoral students take a transition design seminar and undergraduate design studies courses are informed by transition design theory. Both DDes and PhD students have the option to undertake research in transition design and two full PhD fellowships in transition design will be offered beginning in the fall of 2015.

Concluding Thoughts


Carnegie Mellon University
Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in the United States.

In my experience, it is rare for a program like ours to attempt such sweeping programmatic and curricular change. There is always the danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater and we were firm in our resolve to remain true to the program’s historic roots and preserve its strengths and fundamentals. The ability to design a holistic solution in the form of values-based programs and curricula would not have been possible without the following:

  1. A culture shift that was based upon a willingness to initiate and embrace change and a commitment to a collaborative, consensus-based process.
  2. Slow design: cultural change is inherently a slow, deep process and simply takes time. It took an enormous commitment of time and energy on the part of the faculty as well as a leap of faith in a process whose outcome was unknowable but whose objectives were clear.
  3. Thinking in long horizons of time: the process required everyone to think in longer horizons of time and envision a desired state that many of us would not be a part of. The curriculum challenges students and faculty to design and think beyond the socio/economic/political paradigms we are currently embedded within.
  4. A commitment to a new educational paradigm: teaching students to design for society and the environment requires educators to step out of the role of ‘expert’ and into a posture of co- and life-long learning.

The launch of new programs and curricula in August 2014 marked the end of a five-year design process and the beginning of a new one: the ongoing process of course correction, ‘tinkering,’ integration of feedback, and refinement—all characteristics of 21st century design. We will be monitoring progress via formal and informal feedback with parents, students, alumni, employers, and research partners and our culture now includes a process for ongoing discussion and iteration.

While the solutions we are implementing at The School of Design are distinct to our locale and history, we hope that the process described here may prove to be a valid approach for other programs that wish to shift to a values-based curriculum that encourages graduates to become catalysts for positive social and environmental change.