The point of this series of posts will be to log what it’s like to be in the extended Master’s of Industrial Design program at Rhode Island School of Design. My undergrad background was sculpture and my professional ambition is to be an industrial designer (at a rad company of course) and maybe if I’m very lucky, someday teach design at the college level. My dilemma was choosing between a second bachelor’s degree or an extended masters program. It was with great difficulty I chose between UC DAAP starting as a sophomore (so 4 years), and RISD’s MiD program (2.5 years). I hope if you’re in a similar situation you can use my experiences as a case study, and maybe in 3 years we’ll be able to determine if this is a good route.
If you’d like to know specifically why I made this decision, I’d be happy to share my thoughts over email, skype or a beer, but I’ll try to keep this thread strictly to my observations on the program, and it’s influence on me as a designer.
To that end, it may be beneficial if I provide some information about my background, and the skills I had coming into grad school. Many people considering going back to school, and particularly those of us that want to be industrial designers, wonder if a master’s level program will teach you the hard skills necessary for an entry level design job. I don’t know if it’s the right call for you, I can only tell you my situation going in, and 2.5 years from now, I’ll tell you what I came out with. Feel free to skip it if that’s not interesting and look for my next post, all about RISD.
I had some of the early telltale habits of an industrial designer, taking things apart, drawing little inventions, cutting up in class, etc. Unfortunately, ID never came up until I got to college (James Madison University) where I was studying to be a graphic designer. Once I found ID as a viable career path (IDEO shopping cart video of course), I readjusted my academic trajectory, thought a great deal about attempting a transfer to Virginia Tech, but in the end, settled on just switching to sculpture, mainly because I loved the professor, I had the freedom to build whatever I wanted, and the cost in my case, was considerably less than VT. I imagine I would have had an easier, shorter route to ID, had I chosen to transfer. Whether or not this would have been better for me as an individual, who can say.
JMU’s ID efforts have grown by leaps and bounds in the past years, but in those days we only had one ID studio that was repeatable. In that class, there was very little focus on hand rendering and zero education on solidworks or any sort of CAD. We were trained to use the woodshop and make some joinery, furniture if you had previous experience, and works-like models. There was no training on techniques for looks-like product models, mimicking certain materials, no hot wire for shaping foam sketch models. Chiefly we had two types of projects in the class. Some were aesthetically driven, which usually involved taking abstract fields of information to find novel forms; one assignment went something like: “Buy a model airplane kit, draw each component with slight variations, make wooden sketch models of those forms, design and build a chess set based on your favorite models.” Great lessons to learn in there, in that case, the mindset of borrowing form and knowledge from one area and applying it to another: in essence, the principle of creativity. The second type of project was the works-like prototype, figuring out the mechanics, and then attempting to get as close to looks-like as you could. One project was “transport an egg safely down from an overpass, and 50 feet over into a drop zone.” These were fun, but I really craved the user feedback and empathy component of ID, so when I took the class a second time, I proposed to do an alternate project, which was a mechanical mixer for a farm that I volunteered on in Uganda. I had a great deal of emotional investment in the project and I loved making, so I just dove right in. Through some fortunate connections and luck, I found a manufacturer and a shipper, and actually got the product over to Uganda. This whole process was so wonderfully beneficial for me as an early designer. Unfortunately it was much more beneficial for me than it was for the Ugandan recipients, as I had the great experience of seeing what total and utter failure looks like! Hard lessons learned in projecting your own cultural bias when analyzing the needs of someone else. I spent the rest of my time in undergrad trying to learn how to better design things for Uganda; I worked in a Ugandan engineering office for 2 summers and even organized a class project for “Design with the Developing World.” It even worked out that my boss from Uganda could come to JMU to lecture and critique the projects. So I had these awesome experiences when I graduated, but pretty few hard marketable skills for an entry-level designer. I moved around a bit after graduating, taking jobs if they offered cool travel or access to a workshop, but I made very little headway towards a career in design. I found myself ineligible for many internships given that I had already graduated, and due to my lack of skills, was usually beat out by other students or recent grads from full ID programs.
You will hear a lot of folks on core (and in life) say that any program is what you make of it. It is said so often, because it’s great advice to live by, I tried my best to milk that undergrad for all that it was worth. But I can tell you from the other side of that coin, that without some CAD, and the ability down a stream of nice sketch iterations, I had a very hard time getting an ID job for 3 years after graduating. So I made the decision to go back, to pick up the skills I was missing, get better at empathy and research, and have a second chance at educational internships. I felt strongly that UC DAAP would leave me with more and finer skills, and RISD likewise for research and empathy; the short of it was, I felt like I’d have an easier time self-directing skill training than I would research training. [ again, if you’re in the same situation and want to hear more, PM me ] Location had influence too. Given my eclectic background, I was very delighted to have been given admission to ANY of the schools I applied, but particularly surprised to hear affirmations from RISD and UC DAAP. There were a few folks on here that helped with my application portfolio, Yo and Chotto among them, to all of you, many, many thanks! I’d encourage any other prospective students to seek advice from all the experienced minds here on core if you’re wondering about your portfolio.
The next post will be about my introduction into RISD’s program.