Design in a major key

MIT’s design minor and major programs give rise to polymath students with design skills they can apply to any field.

Annie Zhang ’20 was nearing the end of an eight-month co-op at Apple in 2018 when she checked her email inbox. An MIT faculty member had just written to say the Department of Architecture would offer students a chance to major in design in the fall. “As soon as I saw it, I said I’m doing that,” says Zhang, at the time a second-semester junior majoring in mechanical engineering with a minor in design. Back on campus, Zhang declared a second major, even though it meant spending an additional year to complete her studies. “This is the major I wish had been available when I was a freshman,” she says.

Design — in all its manifestations — permeates every part of MIT. Almost every department offers courses or instruction in design — courses tailored to fit each department’s core curriculum and character. And students from majors including computer science, physics, and biology often enrolled in design studios in the architecture department. It’s a perfect example of MIT’s ethos of “mens et manus” — “mind and hand.” “Linear thinking and holistic thinking are not separate,” says Hashim Sarkis, dean of MIT’s School of Architecture and Planning (SA+P). “Scientific method and design method are not separate. They are enmeshed.”      

The design minor

To accommodate the swell of interest, the Department of Architecture launched MIT’s first undergraduate minor in design in 2016. The minor requires students to complete three studios and three additional courses selected from three design categories: objects, information, and art and experience. The new minor was popular from the outset, consistently placing among MIT’s top five and as high as second.

“Students were looking for subjects where they could engage in creative and technically challenging hands-on projects in a studio setting while considering the broader, sociocultural impacts of design,” says Terry Knight, William and Emma Rogers Professor of Design and Computation in the Department of Architecture, who helped spearhead the development of the design minor and the major in art and design, and who serves as design minor advisor. “In response, we developed the minor in design. And following the swift success of that program, we introduced the major.”

Skylar Tibbits, associate professor of design research in the Department of Architecture and coordinator of MIT’s design minor and major, believes the programs provide a perfect complement to the traditional MIT curriculum. “The methodology students use in our design studios is so different from the rest of their education here at MIT,” he explains. “In design, we imagine things, we test things, we work collaboratively. Often there isn’t a right or wrong answer. This process attracts some of the best and brightest of MIT students — students who graduate as polymaths with design skills they can apply to any field.”

For design minors, the studios proved just as challenging as computer science problem sets. “They were definitely among the hardest courses I took,” says Joshua Graves ’19, a mechanical engineering major who minored in design. “It wasn’t just the technical rigor. It was the level of expectations, set by the teachers and the students. You had to design and create something, revise it, and then present it to your peers, to professors, and to visiting designers.”

Design and designers in the world      

Part of the popularity of the design minor — and the new major — stems from the growing visibility of design in industry, technology, and popular culture. “Until 10 years ago, the word design was associated with urban planning, buildings, products, and maybe fashion,” says Paul Pettigrew, director of undergraduate and alumni outreach in the Department of Architecture.

“Now the field has expanded into user interface, graphic interface, game design, and dozens of other categories. In addition to spreading the word about architecture and design to incoming MIT students, Pettigrew corresponds with SA+P alumni around the world. “Some of them are in graduate school,” says Pettigrew, who is one of the instructors in the introductory 4.021 (How to Design) studio.

“Others are in all sorts of positions in the work world, from mechanical engineering to information design to building design. Designers are on the cover of every major magazine, even business magazines. Design has gone from being an unknown commodity to a pop phenomenon.”

Megan Fu ’19, a computer science major who minored in design and in neuroscience, says exposure to MIT’s design community made her both more marketable and more effective. “Even though I wasn’t an architecture student, my studio projects were evaluated as if I were,” says Fu, who works on adult learning and digital skills projects as an associate product manager at Google. “I learned to think about the end user. To interact with people. Most of all I learned to iterate. And iterate. And iterate. I strongly feel most managers today should have some background in design.”

The design major

In fall 2018, the Department of Architecture relaunched Course 4B — a bachelor of science in art and design (BSAD). The major combines studio-based learning with seminars and lecture-based subjects. The course of study includes either 4.031 (Design Objects and Interaction) or 4.032 (Design Information and Visualization). Students learn the fundamental principles of art and design — principles they can apply to careers spanning from information design to 3D art.

“In most design programs, students graduate with skills in a single area,” says Tibbits, who helped draft the BSAD curriculum. “Our program approaches design in the broadest sense. We’re looking to graduate neuroscientist designers, biology designers, physicist designers, computer science designers, and more.”

These broad strokes drew students from diverse departments to the design major. “The program is extremely demanding,” says Jierui Fang ’20, who started at MIT as a biological engineering major and who graduated with a BSAD and minors in computer science and biological engineering. “But it’s also open-ended. You can make of it what you need to. I know several design majors here at MIT. And we’re all on different paths.”

Annie Zhang, who returned from her co-op at Apple in 2018 to declare her BSAD major alongside a major in mechanical engineering, also appreciates the flexibility. “At all my internships, I’ve found I have the design skills to hold my own with designers from all the top programs,” she says. “But being exposed to engineering and technology at MIT enabled me to probe even deeper into the design process. Seeing through both lenses made me so much stronger as a designer. And as an engineer.”

A global collaboration

Design students at MIT have access to designers and influence from all parts of the world; visiting faculty have included Thomas Heatherwick, Ben Fry, Christophe Guberan, and Bo Won Keum. Since 2019, students majoring or minoring in design can enroll in a collaborative studio course that links MIT to the Ecole Cantonale d’Art de Lausanne (ECAL), a prestigious art and design school in Lausanne, Switzerland.


In this year’s collaborative studio, 4.043 (Advanced Interaction Design), students in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Lausanne were connected through an electronic hub to work jointly on interactive computer objects and games. The long-distance collaboration is particularly relevant in light of the Covid-19 pandemic. “At ECAL, they are fascinated by how technology is changing design,” says Marcelo Coelho SM ’08, PhD ’13, an MIT lecturer who teaches the course. “We’re more interested in the opposite. It makes for an incredible partnership, with design as the common language.”

In addition to giving graduates a leg up in their job search, Coelho believes that collaborations such as the one with ECAL — and the entire BSAD program — will help prepare MIT students to meet complex global challenges in the coming decades.

“We’re training the people who will help design our world for the next 50 years,” he says. “We seek to enable them to design that future, rather than design the present or past. Whatever the future might look like. That’s what makes the MIT program so exciting.”


Story originally published June 23, 2020 by Ken Shulman/MIT School of Architecture and Planning for MIT News.