Design School: Worth the Cost?

Is a formal design education worth it? I’d like to share how my experience in getting a master’s in design helped me become a better designer today.

Dan Shilov
Feb 14, 2018 · 12 min read
Grad school in a nutshell — post-its, DO NOT TOUCH, a sleeping student

3 Design Roles in First 8 Months

It’s been over a year since I graduated from Carnegie Mellon’s Master of Human Computer Interaction (CMU MHCI) program. Right after graduation I moved to San Francisco in August 2016. Within the first 8 months I had 3 jobs,

1. Apprentice at a design agency

2. Product designer at an e-commerce consumer startup

3. Senior interaction designer at a health startup

Wait a second, 3 jobs in 8 months? Can this guy even keep a job? Well as it so happens prior to grad school I worked for a large health insurance company for nearly 6 years but always wanted to make the leap to the startup world.

Unfortunately startups come and go and the first two companies I worked for went through some rough patches. The design agency shuttered its doors and the e-commerce startup went through a series of layoffs before getting acquired. Despite the changes in jobs and teams, I was able to navigate the new work well relying heavily on the concepts learned in design school.


Value of a Design Education

So what do you learn in design school? A good program teaches you not just skills but concepts, giving you frameworks to stand on the shoulders of giants. While by no means will a degree an expert designer make — it will provide a strong foundation for accelerated skill development.

For me, this meant peeling back the layers of new problems down to their core — thinking about objectives of the user and how they can achieve them regardless of the product, platform or service. Designing in tech these days goes beyond web and mobile. AI, AR, VR, VUI… are no longer buzz words, they’re already here and we as designers have the power to shape their direction.

A strong design education will teach you more than just how to produce (though delivering high quality work is still key). It will also teach you how to think, how to invent new methods and ask thought provoking questions when grappling with new, messy problems.

Why MHCI?

I looked at 30 programs in US that were related to UX and Product Design. Weighing the pros and cons carefully in a spreadsheet I applied to 7 of them. I then visited most of them in person and agonized about my decision.

These days there are many options available today to learn design. You can take classes, do online courses, join bootcamps, or pursue a rigorous formal education. There is no “perfect” school—in the end, it’s up to you, the designer, to design your design education.

I picked the CMU MHCI for the following reasons,

  • Age — The program is one of the oldest, well-known and respected in the field. It’s been iterated on and has improved over the years.
  • Capstone — few schools (if any) have an extensive 6-month client project where the design team consults with a well-known org. The Capstone is an excellent opportunity to stress test design methods in a real-world setting.
  • People — from professors, to students, to alums, the program attracts the best and the brightest. A strong, diverse cohort makes for better learning because you spend a significant amount of time on team projects.
  • Time — the program is only one year (12 months, 3 semesters back to back). Although short, I saw this as an advantage. I already worked in design so not having a summer internship did not feel like a deal breaker.
  • Electives — MHCI slants heavy towards research but there is room for 5 electives. Since I felt weak in design I focused on that area taking courses such as Document Design, Service Design, and Sketching among the required Interaction Design Foundations and Interaction Design Studio courses.
Also Batman fought Bane at CMU, isn’t that reason enough?

Overall MHCI proved an invaluable complement to my existing skills learned through work and side projects. Coming from a very narrow interaction design and research background, the program helped me broaden my skills into other areas of design.

1. Apprentice at a Design Agency

My first gig right out of MHCI was a short-term contract with a young design agency called Junior which specialized in product design. Junior was exactly the place that I was looking for — a fast-paced environment with an opportunity to learn from other senior designers and creative developers, to dive into multiple projects an explore platforms like mobile, web, and VR.

Fundamentals That Transfer

One class that helped me on the job, was surprisingly Document Design. It proved useful regardless of the medium I was working on. As the name suggests, the platform that we got to experiment with in that class was print. The work ranged from 1-page resumes on a standard 8.5 by 11, to books (where we got to lay out Anna Karenina in its full glory), to large posters (our final project).

At its core, the class taught by Karen Berntsen, stressed communication through type. Despite paper being a static medium — principles of interaction design, such as progressive disclosure still apply. As an example, for one assignment we critiqued posters and their ability to engage the viewer from far away to up close and personal.

During my time at Junior, this meant being judicious with how type is used in mobile sites and apps. I further refined my understanding of type and grid layout by building reusable presentation decks that would accommodate different types of content. For Junior’s site redesign and client site work I pushed typography exploring how to bend and break the rules meaningfully.

Of course, taking one course in typography didn’t make me a type expert. The biggest value that I gained was in training my eye to see and feel type. The time we spent in the studio environment — critiquing and observing was invaluable because you learn so much through other students and their work.

Designing for Play

An interesting assignment that I got to work on for Junior was to create a VR food game. One of my solutions to this problem was to create a small workshop on game design to capture stakeholder ideas in a systematic framework.

Prototyping games in Interaction Design Studio

The idea came from my Interaction Design Studio course. Taught by Jessica Hammer, one of the assignments required creating a fun game out of physical materials. Having physical components proved useful for fast iteration and discovery of fun gaming mechanics. In many ways this was not unlike paper prototyping, evaluating many rough ideas before settling on a few to refine later. So don’t discount those assignments in grad school that might not seem like they don’t translate directly into a digital project.

To New Horizons

I loved my experience working at Junior, it helped me get exposure to different industries and learn from the best. Unfortunately, Junior shuttered its doors in January. By that time my contract was already over and I joined an e-commerce car sales startup called Carlypso.

2. Product Designer at a Consumer Startup

My work for Carlypso began before I got the job. As part of the interview process I was tasked with a design exercise which required a UI deliverable illustrating a potential solution. I loved the consumer e-commerce space but I knew little to nothing about cars aside from the fact that my old Toyota Camry was rusting away on the east coast.

Just Enough Research

That Thanksgiving I took a few days off so I could focus on the exercise. I interviewed 6 people over the phone, 1 in-person and 2 more over chat. I talked with a Carlypso sales person pretending to be a customer interested in buying a car to understand the experience from the outside in.

I came in the following week to present. In addition to synthesizing research and findings I offered multiple solutions ranging from conceptual to pixel perfect UIs illustrating potential directions for Carlypso as well as questioning underlying assumptions. The design exercise alone was enough to turn the team’s attitude towards me from lukewarm to receptive. Instead of questioning me and my background, the team started asking themselves on how they could execute on the vision.

For our 6-month Capstone class with Bank of America we conducted guerilla research by interviewing people on the street. And not just any people. Our target was a mass affluent demographic. The team coordinated time and place, and I personally interviewed multiple folks on the street while my classmate pretended to be an AI for our conversational banking app.

With limited budget, we explored options from interviewing friends of friends to posting ads on Craigslist. We had to find a way to show quick wins and generate insight for more funding. In the end, we moved the needle moving from guerilla research to formal 2-day usability studies.

Analogous Domains

Aside from primary research — a majority of my learning came from looking outside the car industry where the bar was set low. This was critical because in many ways, a visually appealing design translated to trust which translated to sales. Trust is paramount in e-commerce. This was even more important for Carlypso since its business model required customers to buy cars sight unseen.

Although I wasn’t a stranger to looking for outside industries for inspiration — at CMU, we learned how to look at analogs broadly. These methods were introduced in the User Centered Research and Engineering course and reinforced throughout. As an example, for NASA, since it’s a little challenging to go to Mars these days, the team looked to studying geologists as a simulation of a mission. Other teams looked at studying scientists in a lab as an analog for working on the International Space Station.

For Carlypso this meant looking at analogs like Airbnb. Superficially, one can just copy the design and call it a day. But an analogous review goes deeper than that. As an example for Airbnb an analogous analysis entails examining how the site facilities trust among strangers.

Too Scrappy?

Unfortunately, all good things come to an end. In a short period of time, the company has gone through layoffs and the team dwindled to just a few core members. I buried myself in work at the time — creating mockups, building prototypes, and countless decks to help position the company in a good light for a potential acquisition. It was a scary and an exciting time.

Fears of making rent and paying off school debt loomed large. At that time I reached out to one of the designers I met earlier in the year through a health design event. Health and wellness always fascinated me ever since I started quantifying my runs via the Nike Speedband many years ago. After reaching out I went through a few rounds of interviews and ended up at my last role as an interaction designer for Augmedix.

3. Interaction Designer in Health Startup

When I first saw my boss, Alex, present at a health design event I knew I had to learn more. Working with emerging tech and solving a wicked problem? Sign me up!

Designing for Services

No doubt, Glass was one of the reasons that attracted me to Augmedix. It was an opportunity to design and shape an emerging technology and the overall service of the company. Wait Google Glass? That’s right — Glass is alive and well having shifted its focus from consumer to enterprise.

At CMU, I was lucky to take Service Design with Jodi Forlizzi, a well-known professor in the field. The reading assignments helped us learn a new language of how to talk about services (service unbundling anyone?) and how to look for innovative patterns. Various guest speakers lecturers gave us a sense of how service design is practiced in-house at large companies and in smaller agencies. Lastly, the assignments were invaluable in creating and testing out services. Thinking about the service challenged us to think about the broader interaction of the customer with the company.

Brainstorming implications of food in Service Design at CMU

At Augmedix, Glass acts as a conduit, a technology that connects a doctor to a remote assistant. This assistant, or a scribe as they’re called, helps the doctor document the patient visit and surface relevant info at the right time. Between the doctor and the scribe are various applications that make this relationship possible. Ultimately the final customer can be considered the patient themselves — although they have no interaction with Glass at all. The patient benefits because the doctor is paying attention to them as opposed to splitting time between the patient and the computer.

In my work, I used many of the service design tools to model and present the data. From sketching on paper, to whiteboards, to using service blueprints to communicate complex flows — all of these tools helped me to consider the broader experience. Aside from the day-to-day work, one area where my skills were stretched was in creating compelling future vision projects.

Designing the Future

Design school teaches you how to generate ideas. Crazy, wild, out of this world ideas that are still grounded in research. It also encourages you to create and tell stories that are human-first with tech being subservient to human needs. These types of lessons were reinforced throughout,

  • In User Centered Research and Engineering course we learned how to translate findings into future visions.
  • In Interaction Design Fundamentals we acted out a story as our final presentation for a car parking app.
  • For Interaction Design Studio we created a video demonstrating the potential of a smart sign prototype for a city.

For Augmedix, I got to utilize these skills in creating future-leaning, conceptual work on two major initiatives visualizing a patient’s experience. Ideation frameworks and scenario writing helped me generate many ideas rapidly and provide a few options to further collaborate with domain experts at Augmedix.

The skills I learned in the Methodologies of Visualization (also known as Sketching) course helped me translate the abstract concepts in Service Design into relatable storyboards illustrating a patient’s experience.

Healthcare is complex and so is the technology behind it. Design puts the focus back on the patient helping reframe problems and letting the humanity of the patient experience shine through amidst the shiny tech options at our disposal.


Would I do it again?

If I got a chance to do things over, would I still go to CMU and pursue a master’s degree in Human Computer Interaction?

The answer is a resounding yes!

I will admit — it wasn’t easy. I had my doubts and regrets. I never felt overworked in my entire life, putting in 70 hours on average per week (classes and homework). Towards the end I felt like I was starting to lose my mind and I definitely lost 15 lbs. By the time we graduated in August, I was ready for a break. Let this not discourage you though! Despite these challenges, the benefits far outweigh the costs. Aside from the hard skills, the values imparted by CMU — hard work, resourcefulness, and team coordination still remain with me today.

Most importantly I met interesting folks from our class, from CMU and Pittsburgh in general. The students were extremely bright, passionate and committed. It was an intense time and having that kind of social support was key — many of us remain friends and keep in touch. So don’t just think about the skills, think about the people you want to be surrounded with. They are your peers, co-workers, friends, confidantes, design managers, pioneers, leaders, partners. MHCI has a distinguished alumni group.

Take the time to learn from each other and have fun, it’s what you make of it.

MHCI Class of 2016

Time for Critique

In spirit of design, I’d love a critique. Hope you enjoyed this article and I look forward to your questions :-) If you’re in San Francisco area let me know if you want to grab a coffee and chat about design and/or design school. If you do end up going to CMU—congratulations and welcome!


Necessary disclaimer — all writing my own and not representative of the views of my employers.

Dan Shilov

Written by

Passionate about continuous learning and setting designers up for success, designer at Instacart, CMU MHCI grad

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