FAQs about Cranbrook’s 4D Design MFA

Carla Diana
13 min readJan 18, 2019

Cranbrook’s 4D Design MFA program centers around a communal studio environment where exceptional designers and artists explore the intersection of the physical and the digital to create prototypes, products, and provocations in the form of interactive objects, dynamic displays, and mixed reality environments.

Key areas of exploration include:

Dynamic product behaviors/Software design/Expressive coding/Systems visualization/Embedded electronics and applied robotics/Connected devices and product ecosystems/Augmented, virtual and mixed reality/Voice control and conversational interfaces Artificial intelligence systems/3D printing and material creation/Biometrics, prosthetics, and augmentation/Telepresence and avatars

Here’s a full description of the program: https://cranbrookart.edu/departments/4d-design/

Watch our latest epic video describing the Cranbrook experience.

What is that fourth D?
The fourth D is time. The program is focused on exploring critical questions about the world around us through creative applications of emerging technology. It includes everything from augmented reality to applied robotics and 3D printing, and the essence of it is around products and experiences that are responsive. The common thread is that all of these things will have the ability to change over time through intrinsic behaviors such as light patterns, sound, motion and other dynamic displays

What is new or different about 4D Design?
4D Design offers the opportunity to build a hybrid design practice where the creative and the technical hold equal weight. It encourages a holistic look at dynamic design elements as well as a focus on overall context in terms of place, time and ergonomics. Rather than having designers relegated to thinking only about what’s on a screen, we are finally at a place and time where the value of thinking about how spaces and objects can be imbued with data and interact with people is more clearly recognized.

What types of skills will 4D Design use?
4D Designers will need to be adept at envisioning possible future experiences, so they will learn techniques such as scenario storyboarding, video illustration, and body-storming or play acting to get a sense of how elements unfold over time. The will need to know how to look at today’s academic research and extrapolate how it might be incorporated into everyday life in the future. In addition they will need to become comfortable with code, and adept at working with electronics prototyping platforms such as Arduino and Raspberry PI. Above all, they will need to be nimble in leveraging resources such as open source software and collaborative learning tools so that they can work with the constantly moving target of technology.

What are classes like?
The curriculum in structured in such a way that there are no traditional classes, but rather a curation of pedagogical experiences and an intense focus on individual studio project development and critiques. Students will work directly with the program head to customize their own experiential learning by setting milestones, establishing project deliverables and identifying resources that serve their unique goals and interests. A communal studio environment fosters knowledge sharing and a culture of evolving critical discourse. Additionally, internationally-renowned visiting artists, designers, and theoreticians contribute to the pedagogy through inspirational lectures, small group critiques, intensive charrette challenges, and hands-on workshops. Key skills in technology use and storytelling techniques will be addressed through boot camps and strategic design prompts. 4D Design students will become well versed in open source, community supported tools, adopting methods and techniques on an as-needed basis to pursue creations that build upon our key areas of exploration.

This essay for the Interaction Design IxDA2019 Education Summit entitled, “4D Design at Cranbrook: Projections for a new model of interaction design education” describes the experience.

What type of work might 4D Design students produce?
Projects will include both the exploratory and the speculative. Students will explore concepts through physically prototyped experiences that are hand crafted by an individual or team of students. One example might be a robotic garden that tends itself and perhaps adjusts its yield to match dietary needs over time. Other student work may be driven by questions that require envisioning possible futures in a more speculative way, such as a thought-provoking video of a robot designed to serve the emotional needs of people in hospitals. The 4D Design mantra is, “Ask questions, poke holes, and try the future on for size”.

What are career paths for 4D designers?
There are four main paths projected:

1. Interaction design: Working as a practicing designer for clients or within a company. Graduates will use the methods that are commonly employed by interaction designers at consulting firms such as frog Design, Smart Design, and Argo Design or at large companies such as Microsoft, Apple, Samsung or HP. Their work may also be applied to experimental advertising design. Our program will have a particular focus on interaction in the physical world so our graduates will be suited to jobs that are emerging in the area of physical interaction design.

2. Entrepreneurship: Building an independent practice based on freelance work or student-initiated ideas. As our area of exploration will yield many new ideas employing creative uses of technology, there will be demand for 4D designers on a per-project basis, and some project concepts may lend themselves to the creation of new products and services. Graduates may seek to join incubators to gather support for transforming their ideas into new businesses.

3. Art practice. While our program is based on design practice, some graduates will choose a fine art application of 4D design, pursuing opportunities to show work in galleries.

4. Academia. As an MFA is the terminal degree for design, many graduates will choose to teach, either in a full time position or as a part time role to supplement work as an independent designer or artist. A quick look at art and design school in North America(and many throughout the world) reveals that a large percentage of Cranbrook alumni are selected as leaders in academia, teaching courses, conducting high level art and design research, and running highly respected departments at top institutions. We expect 4D Design graduates to follow in this trend, expanding our leadership into the areas of new media arts, interaction design, and design technology.

The above are four examples of post-graduate paths that we envision 4D Design students following, however as the nature of work itself is evolving we will see an increasing number of people creating career paths that had not previously been imagined. We expect 4D design students to be particularly innovative in inventing new avenues for combining creative work and technology.

Why should I choose Cranbrook?
There are many reasons to choose Cranbrook’s 4D Design MFA program over other similar programs in areas such as Interaction Design, Design and Technology, Digital Media Design.

  • Focus on the physical-digital. The 4D Design program has a unique focus on interactivity in the physical world. Students will be challenged to consider how our objects and surroundings are transformed by the data running through them. With its deep history in crafts-based disciplines such as metalsmithing, ceramics and fiber, 4D Design students will be encouraged to pursue the craft of code and electronics while respecting the importance of details throughout any project.
  • Studio and critique-based learning. Our non-traditional course structure (we have no set classes) allows the program to be nimble in responding to today’s shifting technological landscape. We can stay on the cutting edge because we are not beholden to established courses that may quickly become out of date.
  • Breathtaking surroundings. Cranbrook’s amazing 300 acre National Historic Landmark campus is an exhilarating place to learn, grow, explore contemplate and, ultimately, develop a unique voice.
  • Critical Studies. All departments at Cranbrook benefit from the Critical Studies program, the central piece of the academic program. Each semester, a visiting Critical Studies Fellow will present perspectives on contemporary theory and culture studies through public lectures, student discussion groups, and studio critiques and reviews.
  • Two museums. The larger Cranbrook educational community encompasses the Cranbrook Art Museum and the Cranbrook Institute of Science, both which offer 4D Design students opportunities to showcase work and collaborate with world class researchers in art, design and science.
  • Being part of a rich history. Studying at Cranbrook offers the chance to be part of the Academy’s outstanding, decades-long reputation for excellence in art, architecture and design throughout the world. Our rich history links us to a global network of artists, designers, entrepreneurs, educators who are leaders building culture throughout the world today. Cranbrook Academy of Art continues to have a significant impact on the world of art, architecture, and design completely disproportionate to its size.
  • Interdisciplinary dialog. As a community, Cranbrook encourages students to challenge the notion of traditional disciplines and encourages all students to explore combining media as a means to discover new modes of expression. Students may opt to take electives in a department outside their major, giving them the opportunity to delve deeply into another discipline.
  • Conceptual making. The foundation of the Cranbrook experience is experimentation and exploration, paving the way for 4D Design students to be true pioneers in pushing the boundaries of art and design.
  • Exceptionally small size. Cranbrook is committed to excellent, individually tailored education and maintains a small size in order to do so. In 4D each student is part of a cohort of 7–10, with no more than 20 in the entire department. Most MFA programs have cohorts of twice that size, if not more.
  • Studio space dedicated to each student. Our small size, ample facilities and studio-based pedagogy combine to create an opportunity for each student to have space that’s dedicated to their project work.
  • Graduate-only education. Cranbrook is graduate-level only, so students do not have to compete with undergraduates for facility use or faculty attention.

How do I know if Cranbrook is the right fit for me?
Cranbrook is best for students who are interested in developing a unique voice as a designer or artist. As a making-based studio culture, it’s ideal for someone who seeks to challenge themselves through self-directed project work. It is not the right fit for someone looking for a highly structured curriculum of traditional-style instruction. Students must be independent, highly motivated and ready to embark on a journey of personal transformation.

What are the two years like?
When students arrive they will set up a studio space that’s all their own, in a larger space that’s shared by the entire department. Weekly critiques will take place to offer an in-depth discussion and guidance for individual students.

To expose students to skills and develop a shared language of making, boot camps in coding, image manipulation, electronics and physical prototyping will be offered in the first year. In addition, our 4D Design Catalysts will work with students to inspire creativity and pose design challenges. In some cases the Catalysts will visit campus and offer a lecture and workshop. In other cases we may arrange a class visit to a studio that is of particular interest.

Each year in Fall, then again in Spring, one week is set aside for a schedule of particularly rigorous critiques called Reviews. Unlike the weekly departmental critique process, during Reviews each student meets with Artists-in-Residence from across the Academy, and thus from across multiple disciplines, to discuss his or her work. In the Fall semester, all second-year students prepare a body of work for review, followed in the Spring semester by the first-year students. There are many goals in this process, but chief among them is for students to gain critical feedback on their specific developmental trajectory from a variety of disciplinary and critical viewpoints at a very high level. This process is a significant component of the Academy’s structure, one that encourages a rich trans-disciplinary conversation.

The two years culminate in a Master’s Statement and a Degree Exhibition that is attended by the entire Cranbrook community, its benefactors, visiting critics, journalists, and collectors. Because the degree show is open to the public, it requires students to exhibit work under professional and public standards.

Isn’t it a risk to be part of a program that has never existed before?
The first cohort of 4D Design will indeed be a group of pioneers. They will benefit from the opportunity to make design history, serving as the foundation for the Academy’s first new department in 47 years.

While it’s always a risk to be part of a program without an established a track record, 4D Design students will be joining an educational community that is deeply entrenched in design history with a long standing reputation for excellence. While new, the 4D Design program will draw on existing pedagogy and benefit from established departmental structures such as weekly critiques, deeply involved visiting artists, annual reviews and communal studio routines such as shared meals. 4D Design students, along with students from other programs, will also participate in the Critical Studies program which includes public lectures, student discussion groups, and critical writing challenges.

What are the facilities like?

4D Design is housed in a state-of-the-art facility that was custom designed for the new program. Each student is given studio space dedicated to their focused work and ongoing projects.

Equipment includes soldering and electronics assembly work stations and digital fabrication equipment:

  • Tormach 1100M Four Axis CNC Milling Machine
  • Makerbot Replicator Z18 Large Build Volume FDM Printer
  • Form Labs Form 3 UV SLA Printer
  • Tronrud Engineering TC-2 Digital Jaquard Loom
  • Bantam Tools Desktop PCB Milling Machine
  • Mayku vacuum former
  • Shaper Origin Handheld CNC Router
  • Roland 24 Vinyl Cutter
  • Several sewing machines for wearable electronics and soft goods prototyping

We also have a space dedicated to virtual, augmented and mixed reality that includes VR headsets and a ceiling-mounted grid for hanging projectors and RGBd cameras.

4D Design students will also have access to Cranbrook’s excellent central facilities for fabrication in metals, wood, ceramics, fiber and other materials as well as the Academy’s Central Media Lab which houses large format printers, computer stations, a theater and photography studio.

Why should 4D be a separate department if Cranbrook students are already working in an interdisciplinary way?
While it’s true that students in all departments in the Academy produce work that blurs the lines between disciplines, 4D is necessary to fully encompass the school’s needs. Current students often add a technology component to their projects but many desire a deeper dive into the tools and methods they are using. As an institution with a deep history of excellence in crafts, it makes sense that the craft of using code, electronics and embedded computing would be treated as a craft all its own, with specific tools and methods that require honing and practice. Additionally, the Academy needs an Artist in Residence dedicated to this area to be able to “talk shop” in 4D and maintain professional connections with industry and cultural institutions.

Who is Carla?
Carla Diana is a designer, author, and educator who explores the impact of future technologies through hands-on experiments in product design and tangible interaction. She has designed a range of products from robots to connected home appliances and has taught and lectured at prestigious universities throughout the world on the topic of designing smart objects. She has written original courses and planned curriculum on the subject of design and technology at Parsons, Georgia Tech, SVA and SCAD. Carla is an ongoing collaborator with the University of Texas Socially Intelligent Machines Lab and a Fellow at the innovation firm Smart Design where she founded the Smart Interaction Lab. She writes and lectures frequently on the impact of technology on society and her seminal article “Talking, Walking Objects” appeared on the cover of The New York Times Sunday Review and is a good representation of her view of our robotic future. She is the cohost of the Robopsych Podcast.


Instagram @carladiana

Twitter as @carladiana_

What are you looking for in candidates?
We are looking for both artist/designers and engineer/technologists. The program welcomes applicants with a foundation in engineering and/or computer science knowledge who want to be immersed in a rigorous culture of creative practice and critical thinking, as well as those with significant design, art, or architecture experience who wish to focus their work on technological implications to pursue a higher level of discourse. Each cohort will be comprised of a carefully curated mix of individuals whose viewpoints and skill sets complement one another.

Do I need to know computer programming?
Like all Cranbrook students, those joining 4D Design will need to be mature, self-directed, and have a voice and a vision. You should demonstrate technical aptitude, but are not necessarily expected to have technical proficiency as this is something you can hone during your time here. We will have boot camps to introduce some specific skills in coding and electronics prototyping. In 4D Design there are many tools you may use and directions in which you can go. The program does not look for one particular language as a prerequisite, however showcasing aptitude will be a benefit to your candidacy for admission. Showcasing the ability to strategically use of resources such as open source tools and online learning is a plus.

Do I need to be a designer?
The studio will be made up of a mix of people with creative backgrounds and those with technical backgrounds. While it is not expected that everyone have experience in art and design, applicants are expected to showcase aesthetic sensibility, and demonstrate the ability to visually tell stories. A well designed portfolio will be a plus.

Won’t I be isolated at a place like Cranbrook?
Cranbrook’s sprawling campus offers a unique environment in which to reflect and conduct focused studio work, however it’s far from isolated. Each department is small but is part of the larger Academy community where all departments share many aspects of the experience from meals to informal and formal critiques. Studio facilities are set up to encourage a culture of continuous dialog and knowledge sharing, with access to a shared kitchen and dining room. Cranbrook has a tight knit culture of alumni who keep in touch with one another and are open to exchanging ideas with new students. The non-traditional class structure means that our campus is home to a steady stream of visiting lecturers who offer inspiration, visit studio spaces, provide fresh ideas, encourage dialog, and participate in critiques.

In addition, Cranbrook is located within 30 minutes of downtown Detroit’s vibrant and burgeoning culture which includes a rapidly growing art scene, a host of inventive restaurants and a collection of new businesses that continue to emerge on a regular basis.

How would you describe a typical 4D Design student?
There’s this notion of the technologist as a nerd who can’t communicate well or socialize, and I’m excited to show the world how one dimensional that idea is because 4D Designers will enjoy geeking out and “talking shop” but will also maintain an awareness of how technology is changing society and affecting how we interact with one another. Then there is this other stereotype about the designer or artist who is purely interested in the surface, thinking about materials or colors as if they are the shell around a black box, and 4D Designers will demonstrate that a holistic point of view means understanding an object or space from both inside and out, considering not only the hardware that makes and experience possible but the nature of the data that will flow through an object or environment to affect how it behaves.

How can I learn more?
“Seeing Through the Lens of 4D Design” Fall 2019 talk at Cooper Union:

PRINT Magazine, “Carla Diana launches 4D Design at Cranbrook”:

There are many lovely videos of the campus online. Here are a few of our favorites:

How do I apply?



Carla Diana

STUDIO CARLA DIANA. Physical/digital design. Making, tinkering & creative technology. #IoT #3Dprinting Founder- http://t.co/Ia2KtoqKSL @smartdesign