Program Framework

The School of Design has established a program framework that responds to recent changes in the field of design—and to the escalating business, social, and environmental challenges that we face in the 21st century. The framework is intended to encourage designers to take a holistic view of the impact of our decisions, and serves as a unifying vision for research and study across all levels in the program.

Design for interactions.

Design for interactions is an overarching theme or orientation that runs throughout all coursework and research at the School of Design. Rather than focusing on an artifact’s form and most basic function, design for interactions considers the quality of design-mediated interactions between people, the built world, and the natural world. Design for interactions grew out of the research and teaching at the School of Design over the past several decades, and remains a core component of how we approach design today.

Design tracks.

Our three design tracks describe a student’s area of specialty within the broad discipline of design, particularly as it occurs in the built world—the world of what we humans create. Students in our undergraduate program can choose to study the design of products (industrial design), communications (graphic design), and environments (both physical and digital).

Areas of design focus.

Students learn to design within three broader contexts, or areas of design focus: Design for Service, Design for Social Innovation, and Transition Design. These areas of focus represent ways of framing and solving problems that can lead to moderate change (service), significant change (social), or radical change (transition). Moving from the human-built world at the left side of the framework to the natural world at right, the scale of time, depth of engagement, and context expand to include social and environmental factors—and change that occurs over increasing long periods of time.

These focus areas have emerged within the last decade, and have provided designers with a multitude of new opportunities in which we may contribute professionally. Each area has a particular set of knowledge, skills, and methodologies, which students at the undergraduate and graduate levels of our programs learn and apply to projects in both coursework and research.

Design for Service — Working within existing paradigms

Design for Service is a relatively mature discipline that works within existing socioeconomic and political paradigms. Design for Service shifts the focus from the design of discrete artifacts and interactions to the creation and delivery of service systems. Service design solutions are based on design research methods, including observation and interpretation of users’ behaviors and needs within particular contexts.

Proposed solutions (also known as service propositions) are visualized as service blueprints, models, maps, and scenarios. Service design solutions reach users through many touchpoints over time, and facilitate experiences that provide profit and benefits for the service provider, as well as useful and desirable services for the user or consumer.

Design for Social Innovation — Challenging existing paradigms

Design for Social Innovation refers to the design of new products, services, processes, and policies that meet a social need more effectively than existing solutions. Social innovation solutions often leverage or amplify existing (and possibly underutilized) resources. It takes place through a co-design process in which designers work as facilitators and catalysts within transdisciplinary teams.

Solutions provide benefits to multiple stakeholders and frequently empower communities to act in the public, private, commercial, and non-profit sectors. Design for social innovation represents design for emerging paradigms and alternative economic models, and aims to create significant positive social change.

Transition Design — Proposing radically new paradigms

Transition Design is an emerging area of design practice, research, and study aimed at re-conceiving entire lifestyles to be more sustainable. It is based upon the belief that the transition to a sustainable society is one of the biggest design challenges of the 21st century. Complex problems such as pollution, poverty, loss of biodiversity, the economic crises, and privacy issues (to name a few), are interconnected and interdependent systems problems that exist at multiple levels of scale within the social and environmental spheres. Students of transition design study the dynamics of complex systems, and apply the tools and processes of design to affect these dynamics through their solution.

Transition design focuses on the need for cosmopolitan localism, a place-based lifestyle in which solutions to global problems are designed to be appropriate for local social and environmental conditions. Its objective is to foster a global network of mutually supportive communities that share and exchange knowledge, ideas, skills, technology, culture, and resources.

Transition designers combine the tools and processes of design with a new understanding of living systems, global connectivity, and community organizing. More information about Transition Design can be found at

Understand people, understand the practice.

Two additional areas of inquiry that are woven throughout our curriculum are design research and design studies. Through projects and coursework, students learn and practice a variety of design research methods—ways of understanding peoples' needs and behaviors that span the formative, generative, and evaluative phases of the design process. Students learn when to rely on different types of research, how and when to evaluate concepts at varying levels of fidelity, and how to move from observations to actionable insights that inform design and foster innovation.

Design studies is an academic discipline that addresses the ubiquitous nature of design and the complex activity of design practice. We offer courses in design studies that investigate the different ways in which design has been characterized and practiced, the contexts and systems in which design operates, and the responsibilities or ethics that accompany the growing influence of design. In all coursework, students are encouraged to reflect on the processes and practice of design to increase their awareness of how design happens, and improve their ability to articulate the value of design.