What have been your experiences studying IxD at CMU or SVA?
March 15, 2012 9:12 PM   Subscribe

Tell me about your experience at CMU or SVA's interaction design grad program...

I applied to both CMU and SVA's IxD graduate programs this year. I've (somehow) been accepted to CMU(!) and am still waiting on SVA's decision. While I've done research on and understand the obvious differences between the two programs (faculty make-up, location, university vs. art school, etc.), I am curious to hear about your personal experiences!

What's your take on the people, curriculum, and/or culture of the IxD program at CMU/SVA? Has it helped you get to where you are now (or eventually want to end up)? How did you pay for your education, if you don't mind me asking (this is definitely a significant issue/concern for me)? Any general advice you'd offer me as I make a decision (acknowledging that I very likely may not get accepted to SVA).

CMU is asking for a commitment by the end of the month and I'm unlikely to hear from SVA before April 15th, so my question is driven by a bit of urgency/anxiety. While I plan to visit CMU in the coming weeks, I am trying to get some additional perspectives from others who have "been there/done that."

Thanks so much in advance!
posted by anonymous to Education (8 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
My assessment of the two schools is not from the student's perspective however I can give share with you some thoughts from 'market value'/school philosophy point of view.

CMU's interaction design program is rock solid. I've never heard a word said against it. It draws its roots from CMU's computer science strengths and has always managed to capture a significant percentage of star quality students. This may have changed in the past 5 years but I've heard nothing to the contrary.

On other hand, its in Pittsburgh and local design community interaction is limited as compared to locations such as New York - which is really where SVAs strength comes in - its a newer program if I recall correctly (this isn't NYU's Tisch) but I know a lot of the faculty there and many are active practicing professionals in the field - the locational advantage. Your network will be different, and the opportunities for exposure to events, potential for internships etc will be significantly different.

However CMU does have a certain academic clout due to its heritage as a research institution - what do you want to do afterwards with this degree? Both in the near future as well as further ahead ? i.e. do you want to teach at some point or consider design research?

From the Admissions and timing perspective - I'll say that it wouldn't hurt you to write to the Admissions people at SVA and mention your timing challenge with CMU - that might wake them up and possibly give you an early hint as to your potential admissions standing. And/or help them decide if by chance you were in a gray area. CMUs reputation is equivalent to Yale, Stanford, RISD, RCA et al when it comes graduate design programs. SVA is not quite in that league and naturally more practice oriented than research.

Feel free to memail me
posted by infini at 9:48 PM on March 15, 2012

CMU = Carnegie Mellon, yes?

If so, I strongly urge you to go to the CMU open house and talk frankly a lot with the students about their academic load, quality of life and overall happiness, and then compare that to how you actually want to live your life while you're in school for 2 years. I was accepted at CMU and, frankly, was frightened by what I saw at the open house*. Later in life I ended up working with several CMU grads at a sexy big-name company within the UX department and it seemed like the only unique thing their program had trained them for was to work ridiculous hours. Other IxD programs I considered taught their students the same actual skills that landed them in the same positions as CMU students, without the burden of thinking they had to destroy their lives to do so.

Also, CMU didn't seem to offer me anything in the way of financial aid. I would have had to fund it all via student loans (mostly private), which was definitely not the case elsewhere. I don't know what was up with that.

I suppose all of this is to say that I am not a CMU grad, but I could have been and am glad I ended up not being one. Maybe things have changed, or maybe you'll love what you see there. I don't regret not going there, as I ended up at the same endpoint as many of their grads without all of the private loan burden or weird expectations about my personal life.

*the biggest takeaway I had from the CMU open house is sitting in a design lab with a bunch of current students who were talking about how Totally Awesome it was that they were so busy on their term projects that they couldn't remember the last time they had been to the store to buy toilet paper. They bragged about being so damn busy that they had to steal toilet paper from the department bathrooms. Really.
posted by joan_holloway at 9:48 PM on March 15, 2012

Is there any special reason why this question is anonymous? Would be good to know a little more about you-- your background and specific interests in design and these two programs. Your career goals. Are you straight out of undergrad or are you a more mature student?

I was at CMU for the MDes program a decade ago. I was an older student, with about 8 years of work experience, although the program was a way for me to change careers. At that time, two thirds of the masters students were age 30+. I don't know if that has changed since. (My sense is that the program has gotten "younger" over the years.) The fact that it was a more "mature" program filled with experienced professionals was an attractor for me. You do a lot of your learning from other students, so it's important to know who else is there with you.

Disclaimer: I'm a big fan, and for me the program was life-changing. It was also one of the hardest things I've ever done. I didn't know exactly where I was headed when I started the program, and it opened all kinds of new vistas for me. I have an interesting, fulfilling career that would not have been possible, if not for the learning and experience I gained there.

I think it is one of the most academically solid design programs out there, with a strong emphasis on design theory, as well as practice. Much of the teaching is grounded in the philosophies of John Dewey, Richard McKeon, and Aristotle, as well as thinkers like Herb Simon. There is an intense focus on human-centred practices (for example, research methods are taught in a very serious way) and CMU was one of the pioneers in interaction design education. But there is also a lot of emphasis on making stuff. Graphic and information design suffuses all of the teaching, and the faculty lean toward the Swiss school of typography, so that aesthetic informs a lot of what is taught.

It's also a really tough program. A lot is expected, and if you are not already a disciplined, motivated, and curious person, you will have a tough time. It's two years full time, and there's an expectation that you will do a internship over the intervening summer. In your second year you have to complete a thesis project and paper, in addition to your other coursework. It's not the kind of program where you can work a part time job on the side and if you have a partner, they will become a grad school widow. This is a program that demands complete commitment.

But the rewards are huge. There's an intellectual intensity there that I haven't seen so much at other design schools. The undergrad design program is very focused on *making*, and so that ethos pervades the school. But the grad program really focuses on *thinking*, and in the industry CMU grads are kind of cheekily referred to as the "process people". 

The program has a good reputation and grads generally do well when they leave (my observation is that grads with substantial prior work experience do better than those who came straight out of undergrad or only had a couple years under their belt). It's a much smaller program than the other schools, so I think it gets less diluted. The caliber of students tends to be very high, and the program curriculum is very focused, so it turns out good all-round designers and really focuses on giving you the preparation for being a good design manager. The program will open your eyes to all kinds of design work that you didn't know existed. It has a strong emphasis on design research, which is really important, no matter what design direction you go in.

Another strength is the cross-disciplinary focus of teaching at CMU. There is a very strong professional writing program and a distinguished HCI program that regularly shares students and courses with the design program. There is also crossover with the engineering and business schools. There's lots of opportunities to get involved in cross-disciplinary projects that really put a real-world focus on your design. In short, there's no end of opportunities to have an incredibly rich learning experience, if that's what you seek. (But that's not to say that there aren't a few students who coast through each year doing the bare minimum. You get out of it what you put in.)

However, caveat emptor. There have been some changes at the school since I was there. There's been a couple changes of leadership and I'm not sure how this has affected the core content of the program. But many of my favorite professors are still there. I strongly recommend visiting the school and attending a few classes to investigate this on your own. Don't be afraid to ask serious questions about the very serious investment you would be making in this.

The money: Yes, it is an expensive school and you will rack up some good-sized loans, but living in Pittsburgh is very affordable. I had about $10,000 in savings going in, and earned about $10,000 in my internship, and that pretty much paid all my living expenses for the two years. (I had a roommate, rode my bike everywhere, and ate bag lunches, and mind you, it was a decade ago.) So I only had to borrow for tuition. Like you, I was terrified of the debt. But I ended up paying it off in a little over 5 years, way ahead of schedule, because I ended up with a decent job. I think it was not that easy for all of my classmates, as it was just after the dot com bust, but while a lot of us struggled for a bit, we all ended up on even footing.

Most of my classmates are working in some form of web/interaction/user interface design. They work at companies such as Google, Microsoft, Oracle, Citrix, and lots of smaller high tech and media firms. A couple teach interaction design, several do their own private consulting. I myself consult to businesses who want to build internal design capability and adopt design practices in an organisational setting.

I don't know much about the SVA program, so I can't speak to comparing the two. I do know it's a very new program and so there might be that element of you being part of the experiment. That can be good or bad.

Feel free to memail me if you have more questions.
posted by amusebuche at 10:39 PM on March 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

As you seek advice on the Carnegie Mellon program I'd like to reinforce what amusebuche (hi there!) mentioned about changes in the program. Key elements of the structure changed significantly after 2009, including a revised approach to thesis work. So, the perspective you'll hear from older grads won't be as relevant (and may be actively misleading) if you're trying to understand the current state of the program. Find some 2010 or 2011 grads and hear what they have to say.

I graduated in 2005, so I can't really help you, except to confirm that you should visit the school; it sealed the deal for me. Get a sense for Margaret Morrison hall and the grad studio, because you'll essentially be living there. You should ask the current faculty and students whether they consider SVA to be their competition. That may be the case these days, but if so it reflects a more sweeping change than I realized. Ask to sit in on a class or two, but don't go on Friday because there are fewer (any?) graduate classes available. While you're there, head across campus to view some of the HCI classes at Newell-Simon hall. You'd likely be interacting with students from that program and perhaps taking classes there yourself (though historically the flow has been in the opposite direction).

Pittsburgh is a dying city, but it isn't the smoky, industrial hellscape that most people imagine from the early 20th century. I was pleasantly surprised. Again, a visit is in order if only to experience the character of the neighborhoods where you might live as a grad student. I suggest exploring Squirrel Hill and Shadyside. Both areas are very walkable.
posted by Jeff Howard at 10:57 PM on March 15, 2012

Here's your tl;dr version--

CMU was one of the first institutions to offer a PhD in design.
SVA was founded on, and is really good at producing graphic artists.

That's their DNA. It's really hard to drift away from your DNA. I'm kind of surprised they're both on your list.

If you care about connections to industry, being in NY may get you physically closer, but the alumni network and reputation of CMU will get you much farther in every way that matters. If you care about exposure to non-designers in your education, SVA is not the place for you.

There are reasons why you wouldn't choose CMU, but they don't have anything to do with what happens after graduation.
posted by danny the boy at 3:13 AM on March 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

Hello fellow CMU-ers!

I don't have any input on the actual program, but I went to CMU as an undergrad (albet a bit while ago - but I do visit and stay involved). I highly recommend the school from faculty, facilities, and quality of student perspectives. They really do challenge you, regardless of your major.

As you can see, those of us that attended the school are very passionate about it, which I think is one of the best indications of the quality of the education, as well as the close social fabric of the community there.

As others have said - visit, get a private walk-through, sit in on a class or two.
posted by rich at 5:21 AM on March 16, 2012

CMU was one of the first institutions to offer a PhD in design.

The first PhD in Design was via the Institute of Design of IIT, Chicago

posted by infini at 7:11 AM on March 16, 2012

That's their DNA. It's really hard to drift away from your DNA. I'm kind of surprised they're both on your list.

This a very good point about considering "fit" - fit of the school to your own goals and your fit with the school's philosophy. One is an indication of the quality of your portfolio and potential in the field of design (CMU) the other is a passport to practice. If you are not interested in research or methods or process but instead in 'becoming a designer' (i.e. theory and thinking vs skills enhancement) then SVA is for you and vice versa.

The most difficult challenge is realizing that the school's philosophy and fit do not match your own a semester or two into the program. I've supported too many students in that space of mind to ever encourage such a risk, if there is a way to mitigate it in advance.

Core77 has an article on Why grad school? that may offer some insights on this decision.
posted by infini at 7:22 AM on March 16, 2012

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