ArtCenter/RISD/Pratt vs ASU/UIUC/UC!!!!

I am an international student who has done his undergrad in product design and has two years of work experience. I am having serious trouble choosing the right Grad program for me. I had applied to six well-known schools based on the information I could find on this portal as well as in some of the ranking lists… And fortunately/unfortunately I have been accepted in all of them. Now it comes down to deciding which one is the best fit. I am looking for a program which would help me hone my acquired skills and knowledge and eventually serve as a catalyst to kick start my career.

Accepted Design schools:

  1. Art Center : PROs: Top ranking, great resources and alumni network. CONs: very very expensive (even after getting a 20% scholarship)

  2. Pratt: PROs: good school, Student exchange at RCA in 2 nd year. CONs: very expensive, 3 year program.

  3. RISD:
    PROs: well-known program, good reviews, amazing alumni like Yo. CON: expensive, mix reviews from students.

Accepted Universities:

  1. ASU : Good University but couldn’t find much information regarding the MID program.

  2. University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign: PROs: Reputed University, good resources, 100% scholarship and a TA. CONs: mixed reviews about faculties and again a 3 year program instead of 2.

  3. University of Cincinnati:
    PROs: well known Coop opportunity, good faculty CONs: Different program than the rest. MDes with heavy focus on research. Not sure how much it would be relevant/useful in ID field.

Ideally school like Art Center or RISD would be my first preference. But the extravagant tuition fees are beyond my capacity… Especially being an international student from a very average financial background. Also in my country, maximum student loan which I am allowed to take doesn’t even cover half of the cost. Hence I am trying to find out more information about schools ASU, UIUC, and Cincinnati. Cincinnati itself is very good for ID but I am not very confident if “MDes” program (Research based) instead of a Grad ID course would be a wise choice as an aspiring Industrial designer.

I wish to know what would be the difference in job avenues that I would receive, if I choose to go to a school like Art Center and ASU/UIUC. Art the top ranking design Design schools worth all the extra money? Hence I humbly request everyone to give me any feedback about these schools or that they think would help me in formulating my decision. Also in case if anyone knows about any private scholarships that would be very helpful as well.

Pardon me for writing this very long and repetitive post but it would be highly beneficial for me to know everything I can before I take this big step in my life. (My views about the schools are solely based on the info I could find on my own. In case they are incorrect please do tell me! No intention of hurting any school’s reputation)
Many Thanks!!

  1. University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign: PROs: Reputed University, good resources, 100% scholarship and a TA. CONs: mixed reviews about faculties and again a 3 year program instead of 2.

I graduated from UIUC’s undergrad a few years ago, so I can’t speak too much to their grad program, but I can address some of those pros and cons regarding their ID program in general.

When I was there (about four years ago), it seemed like the whole program was in a period of transition. What exactly it was in the process of transitioning to I can’t quite say for sure, but it was definitely in the midst of change. My impression was that some of the people in charge wanted the program to shift away from the sort of “hard science” of ID (manufacturing knowledge, model making etc.) and more towards the “soft science” (design research, human factors etc.), if that makes any sense. It seemed that the attitude was that skills like CAD, manufacturing, prototyping and shop skills were things you could teach yourself, and that the purpose of the program was to expand your thinking about design. For a grad student, this might be perfect, but for myself as a confused young design undergrad, it was quite frustrating.

When I started, they had just eliminated the manufacturing class, and I was in the last model-making class before they eliminated that as well. There was one Solidworks class, but it wasn’t required, and the teacher in charge of it taught in a manner that made it seem like they had drawn the short straw to get stuck with it. The only materials class they offered was an elective put on by the science college. On the other hand, they were offering more and more classes that had to do with things like human factors, disability research and the like. Being a grad student, you probably don’t need the basic skill courses, and a focus on the more “theoretical” aspects of design might be just what your looking for. It’s worth keeping in mind.

As far as the faculty is concerned, that also seemed to be in a period of flux. My graduating year in particular, the teaching staff seemed to be in a bit of a chaotic position. They were all brilliant in their respective disciplines, but seemed like their minds were elsewhere. Some of them had health problems that were keeping them from fully engaging in their work as professors, some had some pretty serious family problems that were (understandably) distracting them. Some were clearly planning on retiring soon and seemed a bit listless in class, and some were clearly being pressured towards retirement despite wanting more influence over the direction of the program. This left a lot of the work to the TAs, who handled the responsibility with mixed results. Some were clearly talented designers who tried to help as much as they could, but others clearly felt that they had been burdened with more than they had signed up for. One TA in particular had no previous background in design and was self described as “not-a-people-person”. Both of the professors in charge of our senior class during our thesis were often absent due to said aforementioned health problems, so she was often left entirely in charge of running our studios and critiques. It often didn’t go well.

As I was graduating, they were starting to hire on some new faculty who seemed more energetic than when I was there. Perhaps I had just attended during an “off” year or two, and the years before and after were more organized and lived up the reputation that UIUC seems to have. I kept in close contact with some of the younger students for a year or two after graduating, and it seemed like some of the things I mentioned were improving. The ID studios were moved from the main art building to a smaller building across the street. Some saw this as a step down and a sign that the university’s priorities were shifting away from ID, others saw it as an improvement and a recognition of ID as a separate discipline from things like painting and sculpture that really needed its own space. I didn’t experience life after the move, so I can’t speak to that specifically, but I figured it was worth mentioning.

Those are the problems I had with the program, but it had huge up sides as well.

UIUC is a big university, so it has a lot of resources you can draw on. Their library system is the third largest in the country (after Harvard and Yale). Their engineering school is also one of the biggest and most well appointed in the country, so if you make some friends in the engineering school, you can sneak access to some pretty high tech 3D printing technology. UIUC also gets involved in some pretty cool projects like the Solar House project, which is an awesome opportunity.

While the program at UIUC seemed kind of disorganized at the time, my fellow students were not. UIUC clearly attracted a lot of talent, and some of my fellow students were (and still are) some of the better designers I’ve ever met. I learned a lot about self motivation by working next to them. I think that is certainly worth something.

Urbana-Champaign is also a great town. I’m not sure where you’re from originally, but if you’re going to live in central Illinois, you could do a lot worse than CU. It’s a relatively small town (compared to some of the other places you’re considering moving to), but it certainly isn’t the boring midwestern town you would expect based on its location. Its restaurant and bar scene is way more hopping than a town that size deserves. Urbana is still one of the prettiest American towns I’ve ever lived in, and I miss hanging out in downtown Champaign to this day. I know one shouldn’t pick a grad school based on the night life, but I think quality of life outside of class is worth quite a bit, and the CU is a lot nicer than people from outside the Midwest ever seem to assume.

The key with a school like UIUC is self motivation. If you want something done, you really have to do it yourself. That was a lesson I learned too late. You can’t depend on the professors to give you interesting projects, you shouldn’t take all their feedback as gospel, and you shouldn’t wait for the system to tell you what it is you’re supposed to be doing. You’ll need to come up with your own ideas and take them as far as you can on your own.

Those are my many thoughts. Hopefully I’ve been helpful.

Thanks a lot ACM for your in-depth and highly informative feedback… this really gives me a better idea what to expect if I choose to go to UIUC.
When you were there… did you get a chance to interact with any grad students? Did they have a similar feelings about the program? What were the job prospects when you graduated? what kind of jobs you and your fellow mates are doing currently? Did you get a good exposure of the industry while you were part of the school?

Also after reading your other post… I found out that you are opting for masters as well… what programs are you considering?

Once again I highly appreciate your valuable insights… very well put!

Thanks a lot ACM for your in-depth and highly informative feedback… this really gives me a better idea what to expect if I choose to go to UIUC.
When you were there… did you get a chance to interact with any grad students? Did they have a similar feelings about the program? What were the job prospects when you graduated? what kind of jobs you and your fellow mates are doing currently? Did you get a good exposure of the industry while you were part of the school?

Also after reading your other post… I found out that you are opting for masters as well… what programs are you considering?

Once again I highly appreciate your valuable insights… very well put!

Thanks, I was afraid I’d rambled a bit.

When I was there, the undergrads interacted with the grad students quite a bit. Many of them worked as TAs for our studios so we ended up getting to know each other quite well. The vast majority of the time the grad students developed pretty close ties with the undergrads. Sometimes they would even make cameo appearances on our bar crawls.

I never got into too deep of discussions with them about their opinions on the program at large, so I can’t speak to that, but no one seemed vocally unhappy.

As far as job prospects go, that varied. Among my peers, it depended on the student. A couple got the dream jobs they wanted to and launched careers in their desired industries, many got starter jobs at various consultancies in and around Chicago, a couple people went straight to grad school, and a couple people got jobs in some sort of corporate environment. A sizable contingent just took their degrees and moved away from design altogether. I know at least two of the grad student that were there during my time founded a startup, though I don’t know how well it did (I haven’t seen them in at least a year).

The university has some pretty longstanding connections with the ID industry in Chicago and around the Midwest in general. The more involved in the university’s ISDA chapter you were, the more of these connections you had the opportunity to take advantage of. The university tended to let the students run the IDSA events themselves for the most part, which had its pros and cons. They put on a job fair every year that was almost entirely run by one student elected by the IDSA, so its quality depended largely on how organized and responsible that student was. The girl who put it together my senior year did a great job, and when I returned as a professional two years later to sit on the other side of the table, the girl who had put it on that year did a spectacular job as well, so the students seem to know what’s up when picking who they want to run it.

The students who fared the best when looking for the jobs were the ones most willing to work a lot independently. The students who worked “to the grade” so to speak (just tried to meet the requirements set forth by the professor to get a high grade) fell short in the eyes of employers. It was the students who took their projects and really ran with them that did well. They attended guest lectures by designers and went out of their way to meet them. They put serious work into prepping their portfolios for the job fair. They entered competitions they had found on their own. If the project only required a simple foam model, they made a professional quality prototype. If they didn’t know how, they figured out how. They didn’t wait for anyone to tell them what to do to succeed, they just did it on their own. Those students did very well after graduation.

As far as my own MFA is concerned, I’m looking most closely at UIC and SCAD. I’m leaning pretty heavily towards SCAD, in no small part because they offered me a full scholarship. Though, I just visited UIC over the weekend actually and I really liked it. I will be visiting SCAD the first week in May, so we will see if my opinion stays the same. SCAD has the advantage of being near beaches and having no winter, which seems great on a day like today, where it is snowing. Again.

My biggest advice would be to just take a day or two and visit UIUC. Do a little research about which professors are currently working there, and do your best to meet with a couple of them and have a short chat. If you have a background in design and your practical skills are pretty solid, their more “theoretical” approach to design might be right up your alley. If you’re switching into ID from a different profession and are looking to pick up some of the basics, it might be tougher to keep your bearings.

Let me know if you have any other questions.

I graduated from RISD’s undergrad ID program two years ago. Their ID program was also going through some major changes just as I was leaving, so what I say here may not be entirely applicable now. I think RISD always had more of an old school/craft based approach to ID, and in the year after I left they tried to modernize the program a bit, with more studio based classes and slightly less emphasis on craft/shop classes. This may or may not be a good thing depending on what you’re looking for.

In my experience with the undergrad program, and observing and interacting with some of the grad students as well, RISD’s program emphasized the conceptual, problem solving, and thinking side of design. RISD was not a place to learn hard marketable skills like hot design sketching, pristine model making, and photo realistic rendering, but it was a great place to be exposed to different design problems and learn the conceptual frameworks and design process to tackle them. This means that you’ll have to learn those marketable skills on your own, but the way of thinking of design as a process of problem solving will hopefully stick with you and develop further throughout your career.

Another great thing about the ID program at RISD is the emphasis on making. All undergrads and grads took the basic wood and metal shop classes, and could elect to take the more advanced shop classes as well. The shop facilities and shop technicians at RISD were amazing. We had all the basic equipment we needed for cutting and joining wood, machining metal, forming sheet metal, making models in foam/plastic. The shops were always well maintained by the technicians and student shop monitors, and everyone using the shops did their part to keep them safe and clean, giving them a real community feeling. While I didn’t choose to take some of the more craft based ID classes (like designing chairs or furniture), having this basis of skills and the general culture of making and prototyping at RISD really helped me gain an understanding of materials and their behavior, and designing things that were conceivably manufacturable.

The ID professors at RISD were a mixed bag. Some seemed like they were very experienced, but kind of past relevance, and some professors I didn’t see how they had ever actually worked in the industry at all. One professor I had was clearly just hanging around until retirement hit. I had professors that were good in the context of the class they taught, but I don’t feel like I ever had any that inspired me and influenced my entire educational experience. What I found more valuable was the ID student community at RISD. The RISD ID program is based in an old factory building all to itself, with the shops in the basement and ground floors and studios on top. When I was there, every student had their own desk in the studio spaces. Having facilities like that bringing all these different students together working on all sorts of different design projects was an amazing resource for inspiration and cross pollination of ideas. You could just walk around the building talking to people, and everyone had big ideas, everyone was making something unique and interesting. The people I met at RISD are some of the most creative I’ve encountered, and many of them remain dear friends that challenge and inspire me in ways that no professor ever did. The space and the community of the ID building was something that really made the program worth it for me. And this extends to the whole school as well. With friends in other majors and each major basically having its own facility, you could find yourself interacting and being inspired by all kinds of creative people.

The down side of the RISD ID program for me, was a seeming lack of structure. There is no fixed ID skillset that you will graduate with from the undergrad program, you pretty much pick what you want to learn. As a grad student this may not be a problem for you if you already know your interests. At various points I felt pretty lost, and couldn’t really see the relationship between all the disparate classes I was taking. RISD’s undergrad ID program was very flexible, and you could basically do whatever you wanted, whenever you wanted. For some people, this means they ended up with a mishmash of projects and skillsets and an unfocused portfolio. If you don’t have a clear idea of what you want to do, you need to be consciously trying to find your direction or you could end up floating around aimlessly from class to class. I myself tried a lot of different things at RISD, but found that designing products (as opposed to design research, design thinking, systems design, UI design etc. etc.) was really what I wanted to do, and towards the end of my time at RISD I pushed myself and my portfolio in that direction and am working in my desired field now. Most people seem to figure it out by the time they graduate, and my graduating class had people go into all different facets of design, whether it was running a clean water initiative in India, or designing for human space flight at NASA. The upside of this kind of program is that RISD has an extremely diverse alumni and active alumni network, so you’ll be able to connect with a variety of professionals and explore future career opportunities. I would say on the whole, RISD alumni are very open to helping each other. I myself have gotten every design job and internship I’ve ever had through some kind of RISD connection.

Hope this helps! Sorry it wasn’t more grad program specific, but I think a lot of these broad points could be informative. Let me know if you have more questions.


Couldn’t have put it better Anson!

Sounds like the department is pretty much the same as when I was there almost 20 years ago!

I really appreciate your insights “acm”, It is good to know that there are good industry tie ups and interaction opportunities through IDSA and I strongly agree with you that one needs to be self motivated no matter what, to achieve the goals they set for themselves.
As you said, visiting the school and interacting with the students n faculty would really give me the understanding of what to expect but unfortunately I am not in States and it wont be possible to travel just to visit the schools. Hence I am trying to find as much information as possible.
One concern I have about UIUC’s Grad program is the number of students in per batch… I recently found out that this year’s batch would have only 5 students and earlier batches had as less as 3 students per year. I strongly believe that your peers are integral source of learning and motivation to excel. Hence I am afraid if having such a small set of classmates would steal that sense of healthy competition. What are your insights? Did you observe this while you were at UIUC?

Once again I can not thank you enough for taking out the time and giving such in-depth valuable feedback. Cheers

Thanks a lot Anson! These are really great insights…in spite of the many mix reviews which I have found online regarding RISD, I have always been intrigued by the school and its collaborative culture. I have observed that the diverse pool of students and Alumni of RISD always have a unique point of view in their work, which is very RISD specific. It might be due to the self learning and development they undergo at RISD. I think a good blend of realist “hands on” problem solving approach and a more “thinking side” of design is what I would love to have as part of my Masters curriculum. I personally enjoy building models and prototypes myself as I think that helps you develop a good 3D form understanding which cant be learnt in classroom. (So that’s another reason to attend RISD)

Its just the harsh realities of life, like exuberant tuition fees which are making me shy away and reconsider the priorities while choosing the program. What I would like to ask you is, if RISD offers any merit based scholarships when you are part of the program? and if yes how common is it for students to receive it? and if you are awarded a TA does that reduce any tuition you need to pay? Also I am guessing that you were an international student, when you graduated from RISD. How difficult was it to land your first job which helped you sponsor your work permit. Any pointers/suggestions you would like to share regarding that phase of your last year at school would really help me plan my education and the road-map followed by it accordingly. (Pardon me if I have guessed wrong)

Hi Yo! and Robbie_roy… sorry to piggyback on your post but I would like to kindly request you to give me your valuable feedback /pointers regarding what kind of things I should keep in mind while choosing the right Grad program. Also as an employer, what qualities do you think makes a fresh post-grad trainee stand out from others. Is there any particular school from the list which you think(or have seen) helps in cultivating those in its students.
Many thanks!

One concern I have about UIUC’s Grad program is the number of students in per batch… I recently found out that this year’s batch would have only 5 students and earlier batches had as less as 3 students per year. I strongly believe that your peers are integral source of learning and motivation to excel. Hence I am afraid if having such a small set of classmates would steal that sense of healthy competition. What are your insights? Did you observe this while you were at UIUC?

I know what you mean. I just visited UIC’s grad program and it’s a small program as well, so I had some similar concerns. It’s a give and take. With smaller class sizes, you have less of a “class” in the traditional sense, so like you said there is less of sense of friendly competition. There are serious advantages to smaller classes though. It will give you more face time with your professors as they won’t be stretching their time thin between a couple dozen students. It also limits “dead weight” students (sorry if that sounded mean) who aren’t actually serious about their work, so your small group of peers will be a more formidable one than a larger class might be.

It will really come down to your personal preference though. When I was at UIUC I never saw more than five or so grad students in the school at any given time. You’ve got to decide if that would be a problem for you. I definitely know where you’re coming from though.

I think it depends on what type of designer you want to be and what type of design work you want to do. Once you know that, you can analyze what skills you have and what skills you need, and then determine what program is going to best help you to obtain those skills.

IE, if you want to go into any kind of consumer goods where lots of sketching and hot renderings are required, you probably want to go to a school that is going to help you there.

I think that RISD does offer merit based scholarships, but I was never the recipient of any so I’m not sure. I’m pretty sure I heard about people who got full scholarships to RISD, so there must be some kind of merit or need based financial aid. There are a lot of paid campus jobs as well. I had jobs as a metal shop monitor, IT lab monitor, rapid prototyping lab monitor, teaching assistant, mail room guy. These all paid to varying degrees, hovering at around $9 an hour while I was there (probably more now).

Luckily I was not an international student, so I didn’t need to deal with the visa situation when I graduated. As I’m sure you’re aware, it is very hard for any recent graduate in any field to land a work visa these days and there are some pretty draconian laws around being unemployed after you graduate. A few of my friends have had to leave the country since graduation because their fields did not provide steady work that would sponsor visas. Fortunately, ID graduates seem to have a bit of a better time because they can target larger corporations that are more willing to sponsor. Many of my friends that are international that have managed to stay in the US have targeted larger companies in order to have a better shot at a visa.

In your final year or semester, I would recommend any student, but especially internationals, to find their focus and begin investigating their ideal first job, and then aggressively developing your portfolio towards being desirable to those employers. Also take advantage of internships while you’re still in school, as these will provide valuable connections that will help you find work, and you won’t have to deal with work permits while you’re a student (I think?). What I’ve learned from my international friends also is that you should have all your paperwork for a work permit ready to go when you interview for jobs, and also make it explicitly clear that you are willing to pay for your application fee if needed (which is allowed), Making it a soft pitch for employers to hire you as a foreigner will ensure that they give you a fair shot.


So I just found out that “Designintelligence” published their latest 2014 Rankings for Industrial design schools!!

Heres the link:

Unfortunately there are some new names up in the Top 5 graduate schools which were not there last year.
May I know what is a general opinion of the ID community about the authenticity of this particular ranking list?

The Top 5 Graduate Industrial Design Programs - 2014


Thank you once again for your invaluable inputs!!