Why Did You Study an MFA in Interaction Design at SVA?

Tom Harman
7 min readJan 30, 2016

I graduated from SVA IxD in 2013 and now regularly receive emails from potential students asking about my decision to go there. While I’m always happy to talk about the experience, my capacity to respond seems to be shrinking and as many of the same questions keep coming up I decided it time to make those answers public. I’ve copied and pasted questions from emails below, so if you’re remotely curious about what the program is like, read on!

“How did you find the Faculty? It seems like they have found a great roster of practitioners in the field — did you find them insightful and helpful?”

YES. Incredibly so. Many of the teachers are people I now consider my biggest professional influences, and these weren’t necessarily practitioners I had been aware of before joining. Paul Pangaro, Gary Chou, Karen McGrane, Ryan Jacoby and Paul Ford to pluck the first few names that spring to mind.

One caveat is that being a great practitioner doesn’t always translate to being a great educator. So I wouldn’t get too hung up on specific names until you’ve established a stronger sense of their teaching style and how well it suits the way you learn. Regardless of whether they are teaching, many faculty are extremely supportive and are willing to guide and mentor those who seek them out.

“I’m particularly interested in the classes related to code and physical computing — would you have a sense whether it is possible to cater the master’s thesis to be more data-driven (I don’t have a data/information science background but am hoping to incorporate something related to that field into the thesis)”

Wait, let’s take a step back, it’s great that you have an idea of where you want to take a thesis, but I’d encourage you not to think too far ahead on this. As a field, interaction design is moving so quickly that by the time you start your thesis — 18 months or more from now — the landscape of what’s possible or interesting will have changed massively, not to mention the likelihood of the program inspiring new avenues to explore your interests through. That’s not to say you shouldn’t have an idea of what topics excite you, only that giving yourself the luxury of this time to learn and grow is most impactful when you allow it to reveal things about yourself you might not recognize when embedded in your current professional reality.

But back to your question, yes, a data-driven thesis is totally possible. Really, a lot of the thesis process at SVA is about the journey you go through to explore a domain or curiosity, and less about the final artifact you end up making. Of course, this output is important, but it typically comes later in the process, once you’ve had a chance to deeply explore a topic and understand the questions you’re interested in answering or provoking through a piece of design.

Lastly, you didn’t ask this directly, but others have: code literacy. My class included some who had coding experience but many who had only just scratched the surface. While, not essential, I’d say you’ll get a lot more value from the coding and physical computing classes if you know at least the fundamentals before starting. The more you know, the more ambitious your projects will become. So if this is something you’re keen to explore, I’d strongly recommend taking a class or two before starting at SVA.

“Did the program live up to your expectations?”

Yes… and no, in that I didn’t really know what to expect. When I applied I hadn’t considered any other programs and wasn’t specifically looking at grad schools, but the faculty and mission at SVA looked so amazing I had to give it thought. I was at a point in my life where I felt my career starting to plateau and the conversations about new job opportunities weren’t inspiring. And then I met Liz, the chair of the program. I left that conversation feeling so inspired and a gut that was telling me this was the place I had been looking for.

“I’ve been debating whether to go to New York or San Francisco. There is a huge draw for me to be in SF because I’m interested in technology, but perhaps New York is also a hotbed to learn about design and technology? What are your thoughts?”

New York is a million times better! *jk jk* I’ve lived in New York for six years and only ever visited SF; I have a bunch of friends there who seem to like it though. I will say that both places have a ton of exciting things happening in design and tech so I would make your choice based on the environment you want to live in rather than the type of company you want to work for, unless you want to design interactions with hardware, in which case, Silicon Valley will provide more opportunities than New York. SVA IxD has a strong presence on both coasts, so there are plenty of opportunities to speak with SF-based companies while studying in NY, in fact, many alumni are now working San Francisco, so I wouldn’t let that stop you.

“Your profile, together with other alumni’s, show that you had professional work experience before going to SVA. Is it a requirement or a preference?”

Professional experience is strongly encouraged but not 100% necessary. I had worked professionally in UX/UI Design for 6 years and felt like one of the more experienced interaction designers in my class. Other classmates had worked for a year after undergraduate or were very experienced in a related design discipline but were in the throes of transitioning to interaction design.

Another question I often hear is along the lines of “do I have too much professional experience to get value from the program?”. No, you do not. “But I’m 50 and have worked as an interaction designer for 20 years!”. Well to be more specific, I’d say it’s really more about your attitude. If you start on day 1 thinking you know everything, an MFA is not a valuable use of your time. However, if you recognize there are areas you’d like to improve on, there are always opportunities for growth, especially in interaction design because the field is still constantly evolving. As someone with a reasonable amount of professional experience going in I found the most value in the strategy and systems classes which skew more toward philosophy and tactics than pure craft.

“I have been working as a part-time web developer and mobile product designer. Does this qualify as professional experience?”

This would likely be enough to check that box but I’d say the more important point is that you’re able to demonstrate that your curiosity for interaction design extends beyond web development and mobile products. Perhaps you’ve explored how designing systems can be applied to complex social problems? or how broader systems thinking can help inform clearer interfaces? This may sound abstract but try to focus more on where you’d like to grow as a designer and the things you’ve created that show this curiosity manifested. Definitely don’t just show professional experience in your application, unless your career has provided a lot of opportunity to explore your design interests.

“Do you know of CMU HCI program and NYU ITP school? Did you consider those before finalizing on SVA interaction program?”

I was aware of them but didn’t apply to either. They are both great programs, and ITP in particular produces some wonderful work, but its much larger and has a more chaotic feel, at least that’s my interpretation from visiting their shows. Something I’ve heard from professors who are involved with both is that ITP offers more specialization so if have a very clear idea of what you want to explore and want to be surrounded by the best people to make that happen, ITP could be a better choice. But if you’re less certain of what you’re looking for, or want a broader, more practical design education, or simply work better in a more intimate setting, SVA IxD is a great choice.

“I feel your classmates also contribute to a large part of your education — such as Tash and you on Coastermatic — wonderful team effort. What would you say is the average size of your class? About 10/15?”

Why thank you. And yes, you’re learning as much from those around you as you are from those standing at the front of the room. My class was unusually small at 12 students. Each year typically has 15–20. My classmates came from a range of backgrounds including architecture, industrial design, psychology, software development and graphic design. Really any discipline that’s interested in how people use products, services or spaces. Also 9 of the 12 in my class grew up outside of the US, that proportion of international students seems to range between 50–75% in the other years I’ve seen there.

“I’ve seen on the SVA site that there are some tuition fees for studying there… Do you know any further informations if there is a scholarship or help for foreigners or international students?”

Oh yes. Like most grad schools in the US, SVA isn’t cheap. Not only are you choosing to not have a full-time income for 18 months, you’re also paying for the privilege. I am not independently wealthy so this was by far the most terrifying aspect of joining. My rationale was that the demand for interaction design is only increasing so taking this time now will set me on a better path before I have the additional financial responsibilities of a family or whatever may come in the future. Also, I was already in the fortunate position of having enough professional experience to work at a well-paying tech company, so in the worst case scenario, I’ll still be employable once I graduate.

On the topic of financial support, unfortunately, there’s no help specifically for international students. There is also the burden of not being able to take on paid freelance work (for US clients) during semester time. However, you do get a year of “practical training” on your student visa, allowing you to work in the US during the summer and after graduation. While I was at SVA, there were a couple of small scholarships available to top performing students to help offset tuition, but the specifics of what’s available now have likely evolved.

Whew, well done on making it this far! If you have any questions that weren’t covered, feel free to send me a note on twitter. If there’s enough, I’ll put together a follow-up post.

Many thanks to Terrie Chan, Matyas Czel, Jiayang Zhang and Supriya Shah for the questions above.



Tom Harman

Design Manager @BabylonHealth. Previously led consumer-facing Product Design @BuzzFeed.