Masters Programs for Non-Design Backgrounds

28 Sep 2008 - 3:11pm
7 years ago
5 replies
2670 reads
Robert Racadio

Hello -

I've been following this group off-and-on for the past few years in hopes of
getting enough info to see if this is what I want. Now I'm ready to get my
act together and the plan is to apply to a masters program in the next year
or two.

Since I'm not from a design background, what sorts of things should I work
on (personally and professionally) to be a strong candidate for
admissions? How do design-school admissions people evaulate non-design

I graduated from university in 2007, and since then I've been
working in team management and process creation/improvement at a chemical
distribution company. Fortunately (I think), this includes quite a bit of
IT-centered/technical communication initiatives.

If it helps, I'm preliminarily looking at programs IIT, CMU, and UW.

Thanks for any advice, and best regards.



29 Sep 2008 - 7:35am
Dave Malouf

There are alums of all those schools on this list. Hopefully one of
them will step up. My experience with grad programs in ID at least is
that they tend to have an extra year for non-designers so that they
can take "foundations" studios.

But regardless you will probably need some sort of portfolio to show
an admissions committee. Take continuing ed classes as much as you
can and turn the projects into portfolio pieces.

I don't know if other schools offer what Pratt does, but they have 2
classes for people considering their Masters of ID program to help
students learn about the program as well as develop a portfolio for

I would like to think that other schools do this in one shape or

Good luck!

-- dave

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29 Sep 2008 - 8:31am

David Malouf wrote:
> There are alums of all those schools on this list. Hopefully one of
> them will step up. My experience with grad programs in ID at least is
> that they tend to have an extra year for non-designers so that they
> can take "foundations" studios.

I'm going the technologist->designer-via-school route right now, and I
cannot stress strongly enough the importance of taking foundation
studios, especially if you do not have any sort of formal art/studio

Before entering grad school, I did the first year of undergrad design at
Carnegie Mellon, my skills (and perspective) really benefitted from two
semesters of fundamental 2d and 3d studio classes. Some of our grad
programs have a 6-week summer prelim program, but IMHO, that's just not
the same as 32 weeks of intensive studio time. Yes, it's an extra year
of school, but you'll be glad you did it.

jet / KG6ZVQ
pgp: 0xD0D8C2E8 AC9B 0A23 C61A 1B4A 27C5 F799 A681 3C11 D0D8 C2E8

29 Sep 2008 - 12:42pm
Jeff Howard

Hi Robert,

I can only speak to the CMU design program, but when I applied they
required a portfolio that consisted of a sheet of slides documenting
previous work.

This was six years ago, and most other graduate design programs I
investigated required the same thing, though I'd imagine the
requirement is shifting away from film toward digital submissions.
Either way, it seems important that you're able to show work
applicable to design that displays an interest in the field.

Your statement of intent will also carry quite a bit of weight;
explaining your interests and goals for study in Design.

I'd do a Dave suggests and try to put together a handful of
portfolio pieces, either from existing work or from independent
projects you embark on specifically for this purpose. You should also
read as much as you can on the subject. Start with Dan Saffer's book
Designing for Interaction and Jon Kolko's Thoughts on Interaction

If I remember correctly only a handful of incoming students at CMU
had a formal background in Design. Most came from other undergraduate
programs such as Economics, Art, Marketing, English, German,
Anthropology. I think one student used to build pipe organs. All
found their way to Design in one way or another. That diversity of
experience is valuable.

Carnegie Mellon holds a summer session for incoming graduate students
without a Design background. It's a series of one-week immersions
into photography, layout, type, form etc, coupled with a software
bootcamp to get up to speed with the Adobe suite of tools.

Check out Dan Saffer's CMU blog.

He documented his entire course of study in the graduate program,
starting with the summer boot camp. It might give you some ideas for
the kind of portfolio pieces to focus on for admission.

Good luck with the search.

// jeff

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29 Sep 2008 - 2:08pm
Rob Nero

Hey Robert,
It sounds like you have a good start so far...watching this list and really
thinking about applying to school before you actually apply. I wanted to go
to grad school for many years now, but it never made complete sense to me
until recently. And now I find myself in Malmo, Sweden, attending the
Interaction Design Masters at Malmo University. So first step, make sure you
are ready.

I wouldn't let your "un-design" background scare you off from applying.
Currently in my 2-year masters program, we have a very diverse background of
people in the class: business, management consulting, fine art, direct from
bachelors for interaction design, usability, programming, web design,
graphic design, and others I've forgotten. Some people are straight from a
bachelors, and then others have been working in between.

If you have the drive and interest in design and interaction, and you are
honest about how you represent yourself and what you know, that is sure to
come across in your admissions essay. So secondly, make sure you are ready
to dedicate your time to design. Nothing can be more frustrating than
working with someone on a project that isn't passionate about what they are

For my admissions, I had an essay, portfolio, and design challenge. Luckily
I have had the last 10 years of web design experience to draw on for my
portfolio, but I also included items from my photography portfolio as well.
Show things that you are passionate about (and that are hopefully somewhat
"design" related). The beautiful thing about interaction design, is that it
is all around us in various forms.

I don't know about the schools that you listed, but my admissions included a
design challenge. They gave me some background information on a fictitious
person and then posed a challenge to design something that supported the
person's needs. If your schools require this, it can be a really good way to
show your understanding of process and creative problem solving.

And of course, visit the schools and talk with professors and students to
get a better idea of what the school is about! Show them what you have so
far, and ask what would make you a better candidate for their school. Read
up and research what the school has done, and what their professors have

Good luck and have fun! Email me if you have any other questions.
Rob :)

29 Sep 2008 - 6:08pm
Susan Dybbs

Hi Robert,

Looks like you already have some great advise. Adding to the previous
comments - I recommend visiting the school(s) before applying.

A campus visit will not only show your interest in the school but it
will help you in your decision process and can help you identify what
to include in your portfolio. Meeting with the students, faculty and
admission staff will give you insight into the school's philosophy
and their admission criteria.

Best of luck,


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