My experiences in RISD's 2.5 MID program, in detail.

Hi Core.

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.

Thanks for the post Wiznas, I look forward to reading about your journey at RISD, both as a core77 member and as a RISD alum.

As far as making the most out of a program, it sounds like you really did that at JMU. While it didn’t get you to being a professional designer, you have a tremendous amount of unique experience going into your ID training that others no doubt will not have. My biggest advice will to be to keep your eye on your personal goal. Think of the type of work you want to be doing when you graduate and shape your experience to get what you need. This is your education, control the output. Think of the entire education itself as a design project. No one cares about your future more than you do.

Thanks Yo,
That is wonderfully apt advice; it is my goal to do just that! I find it easy to spend time on projects, but actually quite difficult to channel energy towards a single goal (by diverting it away from other really fun projects). I do worry about leaving with a portfolio of all breadth and no depth. Do you have any thoughts on that? For example, am I watering myself down if I try for: further work in the developing world, as well as softgoods in the outdoor industry, and maybe throw some kid’s medical projects in there too?

RISD’s 2.5 program starts in their 5-week “wintersession.” The first course is “Intro to Grad ID” which is very fundamental, due to all the students coming from non-ID backgrounds. We will be joined by a few other students from ID backgrounds at the start of Fall semester.

My fellow 2.5ers are very diverse. In our class I am one of 8; we span backgrounds of fine arts, physics, engineering, filmmaking, illustration and drama. Everyone has interesting work experiences, a couple from design consultancies, a kid from google x, an astronomer from Iran, and a couple others, some professional misfits like myself. Outside our grad bubble, I’ve encountered a few isolated instances of the snobby-art-kid thing or the “risd-centric syndrome”, but it has been very limited, thank goodness; the vast majority of students that I’ve met (undergraduate as well) have been professional and dedicated. The diversity and pleasant dispositions of my program classmates have made the group projects and studio time very enriching. I should also point out, of the 8, I am one of the few with a strong interest in commercial design. Commercial and Responsible would be my top two, but I love employing experimental and discursive design practices in my process. The majority of my class is not interested in tangible products. This is common for the program, and publicly stated by the professors, so I knew it going in, all prospective students should recognize it; if you are considering RISD grad ID and you want to design products, you will be in the minority. This doesn’t have to be a bad thing, but it’s something to acknowledge. You will also be coerced into alot of weird experimental and discoursive projects, but that is speaking from my school research, I’ll report on it in detail as I am going through it.

There were a few challenges of starting mid academic year. We didn’t get much of a welcome or an orientation. One evening, representatives from around the campus sat down with us and told us what they offered. It was better than nothing, but getting settled requires a lot of self-directed meetings, and tracking people down to find out more information about your loans, registering, or other little logistical things. Also, meeting other students is tough because we’re the only new folks; even our own grad ID space is mostly deserted because the other students are taking non-ID wintersession courses. Small things, but worth noting.

One huge annoyance was the difficulty with shop access. By curriculum design, the 2.5ers can use only handtools, drill presses and bandsaws(which is a bit odd isn’t? plenty to go wrong there). There is no system to test your ability on the tools and receive early access, you need to go through two full courses to get access to the tablesaw, jointer, planer, etc AND those courses can only be taken starting in the fall. However if you have tons of shop experience and go through the back channels, and badger everyone individually, you may be able to work something out. I got full clearance for the wood shops, but will still have to go through hoops if I want to use the mills or metal lathes, despite training in undergrad. Alot of professors recognize this as a problem, but nobody has gone to the trouble to change it yet. Wheels move slowly when safety is a part of the equation.

Wintersession is a good time to take fun and different classes, they will tell you. And they offer tons of really sweet classes, inside and out of the dept. Everyone gets one class, but there is time to take 2; however it’s almost impossible to do so. They schedule more than half of them on overlapping time slots and by the time I was given permission to register for a second, the others were filled and had 20 people on the waitlists. I mean ALL others, I would’ve taken ANYTHING, just to be diving deeper into the academic life. As it turned out, I did luck into an ID drawing class, because I knew someone was dropping after it had started, and I just went to class and traded places with him. Still not sure the paperwork went through (I think it will eventually), but it was a fantastically beneficial class either way.

The coursework for our primary “Intro to ID” class could have been a little more rigorous. The catch is, had it been more intense, I wouldn’t have been able to keep up with the drawing course. But they don’t plan on incoming grads taking a second class, so I don’t think I can give them credit for that as some kind of curriculum foresight. As with anything, if you wanted to get more out of the projects, all you had to do was spend more time on them.

Most projects were fundamental ID:

  • orthographic drawings of a toothbrush, using calipers, at 2:1 scale
  • drawing isometric cubes
  • 2 point perspective cube formations
  • 10 chair iterations 1:4 scale, using flat material
  • (in groups) intro to research: design a social experiment and execute it in an hour.
  • (in groups) make two works-like mechanical instruments (given access to hand tools, band saw and drill press)
  • foam looks-like models
  • isometric wedges and wedge formations
  • final: design and make a refined toothbrush or chair model. (I asked to deviate a little and design a kitchen tool, and the professor was okay with it)

We had professors from the program give guest lectures which was great, both to hear about other perspectives and meet people we’ll be studying with later on. I think if I could’ve changed one thing, it would have been limiting the critique talk times. We had these super long critiques on projects like the orthographic toothbrush drawing. Hours to talk about how we measured and drew a toothbrush. I would have preferred trading that time for demos or more assignments, even if it was just skillbuilding, like practice with 3 point perspectives or making infographics in illustrator or something. Overall though, the projects were fun, and they hit the fundamentals of ID, students who wanted to get more out of the projects just worked on them longer or did more iterations. Some invented design constraints around the chair and toothbrush, to keep things interesting. For example for our musical instrument, my group decided early on to design it to produce different “melodies” unique to the users facial geometry and personality. Another group made instruments users would play accidentally, which was really fun. It was strange and somewhat unsettling to think that the freshman had been forced through a more rigorous course on the same material. But this may be due to one of the big differences between undergrad and grad: undergrad at a good school is intense, for grad school anywhere, intensity is largely dependent on the student. I didn’t see a single grade the entire semester. I STILL don’t have anything to go on save for a few encouraging words from the professors after the final critique.

My second wintersession class, was Storytelling in ID (not specifically part of my program), taught by this really amazing professor Jorge Paricio: kindof a meditative, drawing, samurai, designer monk from Spain. Each class was packed with tons of practical information about being an industrial designer, everything from how you direct a viewer’s attention in your drawing, to how to present, what NOT to say or do, etc. The class time was very organized and thoughtful, starting with a pin-up of the homework, then a new technique demo, then individual work, while he went around and gave individual guidance. It was mostly a hand rendering and communication class, with some really great info on cleaning files up in photoshop and adding backgrounds/color digitally. If you’re interested in that he also has free tutorials on his website: and I think he’s also about to release a book. Which I will buy.

Projects were:

  • Using varying line-weights, draw two handheld objects, without textures only outlines
  • Choose one of your previous drawings, add a background and a color
  • Using no color, apply 2 textures on each object that don’t belong
  • Trade objects in class and do new textures on a new object
  • Draw a larger-than-handheld object
  • Draw large object in context with a user for scale
  • Redesign your handheld object and redraw
  • In class teach a partner about your new product. present to class immediately your partner’s product. (The teaching focus here was of course on presentation skills, not the object, really great learning exercise)
  • Back to your own newly designed object, draw with line-work only, 3-5 frames of how to use
  • Clean and add backgrounds in photoshop
  • Draw orthographic views for a family of vessels, showing liquid lines
  • Bring in an object with at least 1 moving part, draw it either transparent or with a ¼ cutaway
  • Draw an isometric exploded view of object with labeled parts and bill of materials
  • Finally design a totally new product of your choosing,
  • One nice rendering
  • One drawing of how it works.

So that was wintersession. It was very busy for me with the second class, but I was so glad it worked out. Spring semester starts on Thursday and as 2.5ers, this is our only chance to choose from the numerous, awesome undergrad ID studios. The 2 year students don’t get this opportunity. I am enrolled in a collaboration course with MIT. The goal is to go through the entire design process, with a small team of engineers, MBAs and designers, and take a single product from observed need, to looks-like/works-like prototype with business model. Along with that I’m taking courses on Solidworks, The History of Design and Manufacturing Methods. The next log will be around midterm I suppose.

It goes without saying I think, but if there’s anything in particular you’d like to know about the program that I didn’t mention, please ask away. I remember being so anxious to gather every single morsel of information I could about the programs I was looking at. I guess I’m sort of writing to “past-me.” Part of me wonders if RISD would care that I’m doing this… Oh well, only one way to find out!

Hi Wiznas,

Thanks for posting this! I am with Yo in my interest in this thread – I just graduated RISD’s ID department last June and it is always good to see more of a RISD presence here.

You are spot on in the description. I am also someone who is drawn to commercial product design and have had frustrations with RISD, but overall it was a good experience between the other students and professors. I have found that many of my teachers have gone out of their way to supplement the course with their own added knowledge (they can see and appreciate that RISD is not about turning out the same designers, but they also want us to actually have marketable skills and be employable and they try to fill in the gaps).

Glad to hear that you could fit in two Wintersession classes! Wintersession is one of the best times IMO because it gives the chance to focus on 1-2 classes vs trying to spread out the 4-5 per normal semester that you take as an undergrad – I would have rather had one 9-credit badass core ID course with two 3-credits than try to balance five 3-credits, especially those in liberal arts and other majors.

If you wouldn’t mind, please tell Matt (History of ID) that Robbie said hello!

I hope the MIT class is great – some of the 2.5 yr grad students were in my classes when they did the half year studio and they are awesome people. Please keep us updated with your adventures and good luck!

Cheers Robbie, will do. And I’m with you, it’s great to be able to focus in. The masters program is great for that, (probably likewise for most grad programs) only one studio at a time, liberal arts only if you want (usually because it’s relevant to that particular studio), skill-building if you want (in my case, I’m going for as much as humanly possible). Awesome sketches by the way on your coroflot page!

Thanks Wiznas! I kind of got that feeling from grad program after the first semester in the undergrad studio, sounds like a good way to go. The grad lounge/6th floor studios are a very nice setting.

Hey Wiz

Thanks very much for this thread. I’m very curious to see how it goes for you. I was at Brown for undergrad and cross-registered for some courses in RISD’s ID undergrad program while there. Very seriously considering applying this coming January.

I can’t get an answer out of the admissions office on one specific question: if the applications are due Jan 10 and decisions rendered in March, does that mean 2.5’ers wait wait a whole year after being admitted to start the MID 2.5 degree? Or maybe they admitted you before WS started?

I registered here just to send you a message, but looks like I’m not allowed to PM till I’ve posted a couple times. Maybe you can msg me to kick off the convo? — in fact, maybe we’ve already met at open grad studios.

Thanks so much Wiznas for posting this! It is incredibly detailed and helps me a great deal to decide whether the MID in RISD is the right program for me! Really appreciate it!

Hi Wiznas! I have a few questions about the 2 year vs the 2.5 year program.

Can I apply for only one? Is the 2.5 year program recommended since I don’t have a design background (I’m in the fourth and final year of a bachelors in Electrical and Electronics Engineering)?

I’d be glad for any advice