About our Research

A rich heritage of collaboration and problem solving.

Our program is situated in a top-ranked multidisciplinary research university—a unique place where design, arts, sciences, and humanities converge. Carnegie Mellon has long been known and revered for a cross-disciplinary approach to solving problems, and our programs promote an integrated design process that incorporates perspectives from each of these disciplines.

Students and faculty alike take on research in collaboration with other departments on campus, and often partner with neighboring institutions, like the University of Pittsburgh. Our faculty also participate in research projects with colleagues from institutions around the world. The School of Design is a member of Design for Social Innovation and Sustainability (DESIS), an international network of design schools working in the area of social innovation research.

There’s a decided transdisciplinary quality to our research. We offer joint master’s degrees with the CMU Department of Mechanical Engineering and the Tepper School of Business, and have faculty with appointments in a number of other departments.

Design as an agent of change.

Research within the school investigates design for interactions as an agent of change, and explores the ways in which people conceive, plan, and script behaviors. We study how new technologies restructure our everyday practices, and conceive of ways in which society can live and work sustainably and equitably.

Research is generally situated within three broad areas of designing for interactions: Design for Service, Design for Social Innovation, and Transition Design. Research projects are practice-based (involving critical reflection both on and through the process of designing) as well as historical and theoretical (articulating principles and methods in the field of Design Studies).

Design for Service

Design for Service is a relatively new multidisciplinary approach that focuses on the design of interactions between service recipients (customers or users) and service providers (companies or organizations). Designing for service focuses on an entire system of touchpoints that usually exist with complex physical and digital environments. Service system solutions are conceived to be profitable for the provider, useful and desirable for the consumer, and efficient and effective for both.

The move from designing individual artifacts to service systems represents a fundamental shift in both business models and the economy. Platforms for service interactions are evolving rapidly to satisfy an increasing number of needs.

The School of Design was one of the first programs to focus on Design for Service, and continues to be on the forefront of this research. In our graduate programs, Master’s Research often has a service focus.

Design for Social Innovation

Design for Social Innovation refers to the development of new processes, products, services, and policies that meet social needs more effectively than existing market or government solutions. By making use of the productive benefits of community relationships and local under-utilized assets, designers address quality of life issues. This type of design-enabled social innovation seeks to create systems-based solutions that enable communities to support themselves in an ongoing way; social innovations are good for society and empower the capacity of a community to act.

Design has always addressed these issues, but in recent years designers have become more proactive in engaging with communities of all kinds who do not have access to design expertise. Designers work with stakeholders through participatory means to facilitate or catalyze the process of innovation. The result is new or improved capabilities and relationships can lead to the better use of assets and resources.

Social innovation can take place in the public, private, commercial, and non-profit sectors as an alternative to capitalism. The School of Design is a leader in the field of Design for Social Innovation research, is a partner with the Heinz School at Carnegie Mellon, is a regular contributor to the Winterhouse Symposium, and is a member of the DESIS Network.

In our graduate programs, Master’s Research often has a social innovation focus.

Transition Design

Transition Design is a term the School of Design is introducing to describe design-led, systems-level societal change toward a more sustainable future. Transition designers will use the tools and processes of design to re-conceive whole lifestyles and develop the infrastructures, policies, systems (food, healthcare, education,) and energy resources to support a more sustainable society.

Radical change at every level of our society is needed to address the issues of climate change, loss of biodiversity and depletion of peak resources. Transition Design research focuses on the need for cosmopolitan localism, a lifestyle that is place-based/regional yet global in its awareness and exchange of information and technology.

Transition designers deploy a deep understanding of the interconnectedness of social and natural systems and conceive solutions that leverage the power of interdependency and symbiosis. We explore the role of design in negotiating between the transition our society is undergoing and the transition that it needs to make.

In our graduate programs, Doctoral Research often has a Transition Design focus.


Design Studies

Design Studies refers to the study of designs, designers, and designing, including design education, and the allied fields in other disciplines that designers need to learn about to be more effective when negotiating complex problems. Research in the field of Design Studies examines the nature of the design process, and critically evaluates how designs impact our societies’ futures. Design Studies has been a primarily theoretical domain, but is increasingly overlapping with design practice through the creation of thought-provoking critical designs and design fictions.

The School of Design’s PhD Program has been a leader in humanities-based ways of theorizing the nature and significance of designing, and the School continues to be a leader in the field of Design Studies. Faculty members are researching design philosophy, the nature of design research, sustainable design, living systems, design learning environments, and studio-based assessment.