The first year @CMU

Master of Arts in Design

Graduate Studio (image from internet)

Carnegie Mellon University was my dream school so I accepted the offer without any hesitation. My program was Master of Arts in Design for Interaction, where students all have an interdisciplinary background. Started from August 2016 and graduated in May 2017, I’ve already became an alumna!

In this article, I want to share my experience in MA program. This will be a summary of my past year and I hope this will help those who want to apply or are preparing to apply for an Interaction Design program.

1. Fall Semester

During our orientation, we explored CMU with a scavenger hunt. This game helped us get familiar with people who we will contact frequently and resources we will need in the following year. Anita told us this game was the result of previous students’ orientation redesign!

Scavenger hunt & Graduate Studio

Seminar: Design Thinking Seminar

The modern design industry has a short history, yet develops rapidly. But what’s the fundamental of design? What’s the value of designer? This course wanted to teach students how designers approach the world by answering the question of “What is design?”. In this course, we read a lot of academic papers and books, for example, Design, When Every Body Designs, Understanding Design, The Shape of Things.

The final assignment was to create a small pamphlet/web to illustrate 10 concepts related to design (we have 20+ words in total) for high school students, that is to say, to explain profound theories/concepts with simple language or easy to understand approach. Exercises were also interesting, like profile exercise at the first lesson, then reflect the same exercise at the end of the semester.

For Asian students like me who are more familiar with the duck stuffing education, the interaction mode in seminar could be a challenge. Teacher served as the discussion leader rather than cramming students with information. Students are supposed to prepare for class and raise questions proactively during the class.

PS concepts like “Affordance”“Sketching”“Futuring”“Scripting”“Thinging” etc.

Illustration for the Book Report of Understanding Design

Studio: Visual Communication Fundamentals

For students who are new to systematical design education, the course is perfect chance to learn studio culture. The teacher and TA guided us how to do peer review and critique, help your peers to dig deeper, validate design choices, and how to explore different directions in designing.

We have 4 individual projects for this course:

  • Typographic poster system:Design a set of posters of different sizes, learn Typography.
  • Design for long form content:Learn playing layouts by creating a PDF for the given report using InDesign and translate the design to a web using HTML/CSS.
  • Short Video: Learn how to write script, draw storyboards and make motions by explaining a design principle or method and making a 2–3min video using After Effects. I made an animation for Readability.
  • Visual Communication System: Working in teams of two, we designed a visual communication system for the Allegheny Health Department (ACHD) intended to increase adoption of the HPV vaccination in Allegheny county. Our group designed a social campaign for teenage girls. In this project, we experienced the complete process from research to find design opportunities, to development. We also learn how to communicate with the client.

Lab: Design Software

This course was a supplementary course for studio, where we learned the Adobe Suite and basic coding to support our studio projects. The content was basic, students need to learned advanced skills from other resources.

Design Principles and Practices

The teacher who was in charge of this course is the author of Universal Methods of Design. This course covers multiple aspects of design, like sketching, crafting, critique, writing, collaboration, etc.

Learning about human-centered design thinking: cultural differences, body ratio.

Introduction to Web Design (Elective)

I learned HTML5, CSS3 in this course. It was quite useful and the professor gave us demos step by step. The 4 assignments were:

  1. Redesign a website.
  2. Rebuild the given website with HTML5 and CSS3.
  3. Build a responsive website (individual work).
  4. Build a responsive website (team work).

2.Spring Semester

Seminar: Transition Design Seminar

Transition Design is a quite new and advanced concept. We explored how to design to solve systematic and wicked problems — what tools, theories, approaches we can refer to. First we have to understand what is a wicked problem? Because the complex interdependences, to solve one problem may create another problem. That’s why we call it “wicked”, because it seems impossible to solve, unless we introduce some system-level changes.

This semester the course was nearly student-driven. For each class, we hsd 2–3 students as discussion leaders who were in charge of in-class exercises and on-line discussions. Some exercises were quite creative.

As a designer, where are you located?

Studio: Introduction to Interaction Design

This semester we have 3 projects:

  • Design a control (individual): The objective was to design a small interaction very well by designing the object’s affordances, constraints, mapping, visibility, signifiers, and feedback. My given topic was laundry so I designed a detergent tank that can intelligently decide how much soap is needed and reminds users to refill it periodically. I think the challenge was the to figure out the boundary between design an interaction vs. design a product. HCI program has a similar assignment in their studio II, I think it can be a good reference for future students when doing this project.
  • Design for mobile (team): This was like a UI design project, our client asked us to design the mobile application for tablets from the current desktop version. Although functions and requirements were clear, we still did UX research, Information Architecture before going to wireframes and visual design. We also did iteration based on expert user testing.
  • Design a system (individual/team): We can choose our personally favorite topic to design a solution for it. The final solution should include components beyond screens. The project walked through an end-to-end design process: exploratory research, territory map, persona, scenarios, evaluative research…ideation…prototyping…iterating, iterating, iterating, pitch video, etc. That was a time I wanted to start a side project about fashion with my friend so I just did it. Our final solution was a conversational style assistant called Mia that can help young women pick appropriate outfits to look their best in different occasions! (Will update a link later, we are still wrapping this project now.)
Mia, onboarding pic

Lab: Prototyping for Interaction Design

This semester the lab is independent with studio. Our professor graduated from MIT and has sufficient working experience in the front tier. We were exposed to a lot prototyping tools like Javascript, Processing, Arduino, Unity, LittleBits, IFTTT, Hololens, etc.

Our final project is an interactive typography. I make an installation to trigger a set of animations on different displays using processing and aftereffects. But a little bit pity that I didn’t use unity and hololens = =

Design for Service (Elective)

I think the significance of a service designer is to break down the barriers between departments. When you see a service blueprint, you’ll get a better understanding how touch points, front stage staff, back stage staff, partner service employees work collaboratively to provide a smooth experience for users/customers.

In this course, we designed a project to support transition of children (4–10 years) from parental management to self-management in their asthma care. We faced many challenges like it's hard to make contact with kids in US due to the very strict protection policy.


MA program ends, yet it’s a start of my career. During the one-year study, I not only learned design skills and thinking, but also many soft skills like how to cooperate with people have different cultures and backgrounds. For a designer, writing, communication, empathy, cooperation, the ability to justify and sell one’s idea, are all important skills.

If you have any questions or want to discuss something, please feel free to contact me!

Prototyping for Interaction.
One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.