Celebrating the First Year of the Environments Track


Overview of the Environments Track 

The Environments Track, the newest track in the School of Design’s undergraduate curriculum, parallels the Products (previously known as Industrial Design) and Communications tracks that have been focuses in the School for years. Commonly referred to as the E Track, the end of the 2015-2016 school year also marks the end of the first year of the Environments Track.

The overarching goal in the recent revamping of the School’s curriculum is to focus on design for interactions. Designing for interactions in digital, physical, and digital-physical hybrid environments is an emerging design field that brings products, communications, and technologies together in an ecology beyond what the School of Design traditionally has taught.

Terry Irwin, Head of the School of Design, states that “because we are a school of design for interactions, we’ve been noticing for some time that everything we design comes together in systems. We interact within constellations of products and communications; we are part of designing experiences for people in public places, in private spaces. What began to come to the fore is that most of the time we are designing for interactions within environments of some kind.” The E Track gives undergraduates the opportunity to focus at multiple levels of scale on these ecologies.

Because the E Track is so new and is set up to facilitate the exploration of cutting-edge technologies and tools, what is taught in the track’s courses isn’t set in stone. However, there are clear goals around what is taught; it’s more about human interaction and behavior in spaces than exploring different ways to produce forms at scale. According to Austin Lee, an assistant professor who has been deeply involved in the E Track’s first year, “[the track is] not just talking about learning traditional skillsets, like architectural technologies, to produce form. The focus is rather more on designing interactions in environments or using form to communicate design in an environment.”

The rising junior class is the first group of students with the opportunity to specialize in Environments. These students cite the ability to think on a broader scale and push current understandings of design boundaries as some of the reasons they’ve chosen the E Track. According to Deborah Lee, “taking the E studio mini made [her] think so much more on a broader scale and made [her] step outside of [her] comfort zone. … There is so much more consideration about human interaction and behavior.” 

E Track Schedule

Carnegie Mellon’s BDes program allows undergraduates to tailor their degrees with their specialty of choice. Students can choose one of the three tracks or combine two for a more integrated design education. All freshmen share the same studio and take foundation courses together that allow exploration within each area of specialty the School provides as well as an introduction to Design Studies, a series of courses that explores ethics, concepts, and conversations relevant to the design world.

In the fall of their sophomore year, students choose two studio “mini” courses to explore more deeply in the tracks of their choice. The spring semester of sophomore year and the junior year facilitate a deeper dive into their track(s) of choice before the students from all tracks reunite for senior studio courses.

Why Environments?

The E Track sprung of out multiple moves within the design world towards designing for interactions within complex systems. A recent technological innovation that is becoming increasingly ubiquitous is connected smart homes and their use of the Internet of Things IoT). Combining products and communications, things like Nest Home Thermostat shape digital-physical hybrid environments. Off-the-shelf sensor kits that allow users to monitor the temperature of their home from abroad or keep an eye on their security system speak to the growing impact that environment designers will continue to have (e.g., Samsung’s SmartThings, Phillips Hue Lights, etc.). 

Multiple faculty members within the School of Design have been working on environments for some time now. Stacie Rohrbach (a communication designer by training) and Mark Baskinger (an industrial designer) have been working on interactive museum exhibits with the Carnegie Museums, a genre of design that did not fit squarely within either of their disciplines. 

Peter Scupelli trained and worked as an architect in Milan, Italy and through his work in art installations with Gruppo A12 became interested in the merging of physical and digital spaces and interaction design. His work began asking questions about how to get people to engage beyond the screen when everything is becoming more accessible on the Internet.

Coming from industry, Austin Lee has watched trends in user interface design transform from skeuomorphic to flat to, most recently, three-dimensional. Especially with the advance of technologies like cinematic virtual reality or augmented reality, Lee speaks to a shift to a three-dimensional paradigm and the need for designers to be able to communicate in three dimensions. He points to focusing on a user’s sense of kinesthesia and the abilities of user interfaces to become context-aware as new ways of thinking about user interfaces.

Designing for environments is a new way of designing for integrated experiences that bridge multiple design practices. For example, a trip to the Apple store requires the deep integration of online, product, service, and in-store experiences. Scupelli adds that whereas products and communications design are much more about shaping the designed piece itself, “environments shapes an empty space and is shaped by the things around it...It’s a fundamentally different paradigm.”

Systems Thinking 

Embedded within each area of study at the School of Design is an emphasis on systems thinking and systems integration. This was especially important to the creation of the E Track, as environments designers must be able to understand complex systems in the physical, digital, and interstitial spaces. Students in the E Track learn to situate products, communications, and technologies in their contexts and consider the impact these designed pieces might have on an entire system.

E Track student Ji Tae Kim gives an example: “Where many people face a huge disconnect in their connectivity with their smart devices is when driving a car. This is the reason why smartphones and distractive car entertainment systems contribute to a quarter of automobile accidents in the United States. The self-driving car industry is one of the many industries where I could see environments designers becoming influential. [An] Environments Designer [might use] a digital platform to provide an intuitive experience for a driver to interact with the car.” 

In addition to thinking about systems of objects and technologies, students also learn about the complexity of wicked problems. This is a theme that runs throughout the school due to its focus on transition design. Holistic thinking, an important skill in transition design, allows environments designers to approach social and systemic issues. Jasper Tom, another rising junior in the E Track, is interested in an environments designer’s perspective on these problems. “The whole of an experience must be considered and guided. Overhauling or subtly changing social phenomena of always using disposable utensils and driving to bikeable areas can only be solved with thinking on a much larger scale. 

“Systems thinking in addition to Environments Design, thinking about uses and cues people receive from the space they occupy, can help drive that social change,” continued Tom. “With our approach being that of mapping out interactions in something being almost invisible, ‘space’, we hold an advantage over product and communication designers.

“Our designs will ideally have a greater influence on people because they're seemingly always connected with the space they're in.” 

Defining Environments

The E Track currently explores three types of environments: digital, physical, and a digital-physical hybrid. Austin Lee and Peter Scupelli co-taught the first studio and prototyping lab courses in Environments this Fall. Lee’s experience with the Tangible Media Group at MIT’s Media Lab has fostered his interest in “creating this seamless interaction between the digital and the physical”, and Scupelli’s globetrotting work with new media artists made it clear to him that “the physical and digital were going to merge and [he] thought it was going to happen really quickly”.

Gillan Johnson, a rising junior in the E Track, decided to focus on environments after finishing that first mini course. She was “really interested to explore and understand the relationships between physical and digital spaces and how the two of them interact with each other and how we as users interact with them. … Environments designers have a unique ability to enter a space and be able to understand how people use it, what affordances things have in the room, if the space is being used in efficient ways or not, and so many other things.”

In describing the importance of the E Track, Deborah Lee quoted CMU robotics professor Illah Nourbaksh, saying that "every physical action you take will have a digital consequence, and every digital act will push back into the physical world." She added that the E Track’s projects and processes “allows [them] to explore and experiment more … with form, functionality, and our human behavior.”

Process/Ways of Thinking

Inherent to an environments designer’s way of thinking is the ability to understand different levels of scale and what makes a space personal, public, or private. These ideas are not just about the physical or digital environments themselves but also about the human interactions and behaviors that determine each environment’s role.

Gillan Johnson says that the E Track students “are developing [their] ability to see (an object, a room, a piece of paper) not just from a superficial level but from various perspectives and understand why it is the way it is and what our relationship is to it,” adding that she has “gained a better understanding of how to look at a space through the lens of various users and try and gauge what interactions might be facilitated or restricted within that space.”

Ji Tae Kim believes “the knowledge [he has] acquired from this program will help [him] gear [his] understanding of scale, human behavior, and affordances towards creating user interfaces that [are] scalable and intuitive even for large corporate platforms.”


Tools & Prototyping

To understand these levels of scale and the behaviors that are facilitated or restricted within environments, Environments Designers prototype at varying levels of fidelity. Peter Scupelli references the rapid prototyping methods that interaction designers often use as essential to understanding what the final experience will be like. However, rapid prototyping at scale for Environments Design is extremely difficult, and Environments Designers often run into the same problems that architects do: “they don’t have a one-to-one scale they can experience; they have to create representations of what the whole environment is going to be like,” said Scupelli. “They have to learn how to make those models to scale or prototype the important touchpoints within the environment to user test.”

In their first year, E Track students have created models of objects at various scales out of physical materials to get hands-on experience. They also gained experience with virtual modeling systems and CAD software such as SketchUp, Cinema 4D, and AfterEffects as methods of visualizing and communicating their designs. However, the instructors remain firm in their stance that students need prototyping skills beyond the screen. Scupelli helps put this problem in perspective, saying that “if you make a virtual model, you have to imagine yourself in it. It’s not quite the same as being there. If you make a cardboard model of an ATM machine, you can put it in a really bad part of town and see what it feels like to try to take money out at night. If instead you have beautiful renderings of that same ATM machine, you’re not going to have the visceral response of what it feels like being in a bad neighborhood and trying to get cash out while looking over your shoulder.”

Because connected, accessible technology is becoming ubiquitous in so many types of environments; students also learn to understand how these technologies are incorporated into complex systems within environments. Coming from a tech industry perspective, Austin Lee is invested in pushing students to “think outside the box and design something beyond what’s happening today.” The E Track studios and labs provide students with tools and ways of thinking that help them predict what might happen in the next few years and design for those emerging technologies and issues. “If you look into the industry, the industry is changing so fast so it’s inevitable that you actually have to predict what’s next even if you’re in industry. So if you’re designing for something today, the things you design today will be obsolete within a couple of years.”

In addition to the craft skills that are involved in physical prototyping, students learn how to prototype their designed environments with various Internet of Things technologies. Off-the-shelf tools like Smart Things, Little Bits, and Arduino allow students to get the technology working quickly so they can focus on the design work. Austin Lee also points out that “Wizard-of-Oz demos” are common in E Track projects because especially in the university setting, “technical constraints aren’t something a designer should be constrained by. 

“Designers should actually motivate developers to push boundaries.”


To put these new tools and ways of thinking into practice, students take part in projects that have a good balance between open-endedness and constraints. Instructors facilitate projects that are relevant and practical while also being novel and exciting. These projects often cross disciplines, as environments design can encompass the integration of art, drama, architecture, music, technology, and more with a human-centered focus. 

One example of a project coming out of the E Track was done by Gillan Johnson and Alex Palatucci. They began prototyping a new sustainable design studio in SketchUp but quickly realized how time-consuming and limiting software could be. Scupelli and Lee introduced them to Velcro modeling, a way of prototyping that allowed the students to come up with many more solutions than they would have otherwise. The instructors provide students with an arsenal of tools for prototyping and exploring in the hopes that the students will allow something novel to emerge, and this project was one that excited not only the instructors but also students and faculty from the School of Architecture who visited the final presentations as well.

Scroll through our Gallery of Projects from Environments Studio 1: Form & Context

  • Discovery Panel in Context
  • Gestures

Discovery Panel

The Discovery Panel is a platform for students to share inspiration, collaborate, and present their work more effectively. This multi-screen display fulfills the absence of a dynamic presentation tool and facilitates helpful critique.

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  • Uploading process notes
  • Group meeting
  • Beginning group call
  • Live collaborative work


Mirror is a solution for collaboration between two students in different places, ie studio and home. It is a glanceable tabletop interface that can be used for live collaboration on Adobe files and other process work.

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Phipps Redesign

Examination of the environment at the Phipps Conservatory for inspiration, and a proposal to improve this environment. Process: http://cperrye.tumblr.com/tagged/A3 Final: https://drive.google.com/file/d/0BzZCcv3TTaGCWVZSZ0swTV9uOGs/view?usp=sharing Reflection: http://cperrye.tumblr.com/post/135421199787/a3-reflection-phipps

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  • Conflict Kitchen

A3: Environments Experience Design Story

I created a redesign for the Conflict Kitchen environment. I began by analyzing the digital and physical spaces. I then considered what possibilities exist for the space and made a design story to express what I feel should be changed.

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Paper Planes

Most of the ideas generated in the brainstorming process are never used, simply because they do not fit within the scope of a project. In this augmented studio environment, students are able to take the good ideas they have that they won't be using and release them into the ether in the form of floating paper planes. These planes move between studios, and can be opened and read using an augmented reality app.

  • ArtCat Icon
  • Intro to ArtCat
  • ArtCat in Gallery Space


ArtCat helps to create an immersive museum experience for young kids, introducing them to art in a fun and interesting way.

  • Shuffle Projection Model
  • Using Shuffle Mobile App
  • Viewing 2D Space from 3D Perspectives
  • Working on Shuffle Remotely

A4 Designing the Studio of the Future

In this project I collaborated with another student to design a system within our studio space that aided environments designers in their process of combining digital and physical prototyping tools. The final product consisted of a Projection/Application software system called Shuffle that created hybrid environments of physical and digital mapping and prototyping, allowing for a more layered and informed viewing of a space that will aid future design decisions made by the user.

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  • Mirror Interface 1
  • Mirror Interface 2
  • Mirror Interface 3

Environments Studio A4

I proposed to create an interactive mirror display that acts as a looking glass into the studio for users to answer the essential question of whether or not they should go to studio through qualifiers including the amount of people in studio and the amount of work that is assigned. Watch the video here: https://youtu.be/79zYGOuF35k

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Feed the Fish

Projections of fish provide ambient information to initiate sharing food in and across studios.

  • Proposal Slide
  • Brick Diagram/Implementation
  • Effect

Phipps Conservatory ReDesign Concept

An environments proposal in which I implement an engaging, educational element into the current immersive botanical environment. Phipps Conservatory has very subtle hints of manmade factors, and it is important to stay with that trend.

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Green Heat: Studio of The Future

Green Heat is a concept for a smart, sustainable, personalized heating system. A user controls their personal environment with a small fan and heating pad which are powered by a pedal generator underneath their desk. The physical action of pedaling induces a natural increase in temperature and physicalizes the energy a person uses, making electricity a more tangible, valuable resource. My objective was to reduce energy use in a studio setting and eliminate the need for steam radiators.

Studio Learning Environment Redesign

by Lily Kim
Prototyping Learning Environments: Prototype the design studio as a learning environment of the future. Explore online, physical, and hybrid learning environments scenarios. (Partner: Lily Kim) See more: https://carolynyzhou.wordpress.com/a4/

Other projects from this first year included modeling tiny objects at various levels of scale using physical crafting skills and looking at apps from a contextual and environmental perspective. Students working with apps have explored new types of visual icons, the sonification of such icons, platforming to allow social interaction, and gamification, to name a few projects pushing the boundaries of what we know as app design.

Future of Environments 

Because environments design is so new not only to Carnegie Mellon’s School of Design but also to the design world in general, Design faculty are giving the track room to grow. There is no shortage of excitement about where the track will go, and despite the uncertainty, both students and faculty eagerly anticipate the future of the track. 

Ji Tae Kim says, “I once asked a professor about how he explains Environments Design to the rising sophomores. He then asked me if I wanted to know what I would be having for lunch tomorrow, to which I said I would hate to know. Then he left the studio telling me he would also hate to know as well. His metaphoric narrative truly summarizes my experience of taking Environments Design, I had no example works by upperclassmen to seek inspiration from, no guideline of what I'd be learning in the future, or even clear information about who would be teaching the class, but I was not worried about the future because I was enjoying the present moment, working on my Environments project and I hope to continue this experience and have more challenges thrown at me in the future.”

Gillan Johnson adds, “I'm excited to see where the track goes next and I'm very open to wherever it will go. I think I would like to, at some point, focus on designing environments for developing nations or areas that aren't specifically for the use of people who can afford certain products on their own. I'm really interested in merging environments with systems design as well.” 

Similarly, Jasper Tom is “looking forward to learning about [augmented reality] and other such technology, to make sure that tech changes in society end up being ‘good.’” He hopes to “shape technology in a beneficial way for society that will connect people instead of isolating them.”

After focusing on form and context and Interaction Design in their sophomore year, E Track students will begin to apply the skills they learned to Transition Design, Design for Services, and Design for Social Innovation. The junior year E Track studios will tackle more wicked problems and social questions, like issues of privacy and data. 

Here at Carnegie Mellon’s School of Design, we emphasize human-centered design and the interdisciplinary nature of design work. The Environments Track is about integrating many disciplines and technologies to create environments that stem from a deep understanding of human needs and behaviors. Students learn to design for people other than themselves at multiple levels of scale. As all three of the tracks (Products, Communications, and Environments) continue to evolve, faculty and students alike push the boundaries of what we understand to be Design.

More info on our Environments Track >>

Date Published: 
Monday, June 27, 2016
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