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Creating a Category for Graduate Design Degrees

Northwestern at the forefront of defining design degree categories

When most people hear the term “MBA,” they don’t have to think twice about what it means. They instantly recognize it as the Master of Business Administration, an internationally distinguished degree for business and management. That name recognition may seem simple, but it carries a lot of weight.

Walter Herbst“Everyone knows what’s in an MBA because there is remarkable consistency,” said Walter Herbst, Charles Deering McCormick Distinguished Clinical Professor at Northwestern Engineering. “If I hire an MBA, I know what I’m going to get.”

But the directors of Northwestern’s graduate design programs have found anything but consistency in the world of design degrees. Seventeen years ago, Herbst founded Northwestern’s Master of Product Design and Development Management program, which was the first of its kind. Now there are 38 similar programs around the world — all with different names and offering different coursework.

“The field is a bit of a mess because it lacks definition and continuity,” he said. “If three people from three different institutions are up for the same design development manager position, how does the employer know if they have the same skills?”

Amy O’Keefe, studio director of Northwestern’s Master of Science in Engineering Design Innovation (EDI) program, experiences the same difficulties. The program unites engineering, technology, and innovation through human-centered design. And while similar program exist throughout the United States, there is no well-defined category. Other schools use titles such as “integrated design and management,” “design impact engineering,” “integrated product design,” and more.

Herbst and O’Keefe have both worked independently to define categories for the two different graduate design programs — and to create a path for programs going forward. Papers representing their work were recently published in the dmi:Journal.

Motivating mantra

For O’Keefe, the goal to “create a category” was born in 2012 during discussions with J. Edward Colgate, the Allen K. Johnnie Cordell Breed Senior Professor of Design and professor of mechanical engineering. The duo shared concerns about their design students, who, after graduating, had difficulties explaining their degrees and career goals.

okeefe-amy-profile.jpg“Students could put words to what they learned, but there wasn’t a reciprocal language for hiring,” O’Keefe said. “They might look for jobs in ‘design engineering,’ ‘product management,’ or ‘human-centered product development.’ There were so many different names for jobs that make use of the human-centered design process. ‘Creating a category’ became our mantra.”

O’Keefe met with program directors and thought leaders at the University of Pennsylvania and Massachusetts Institute of Technology to explore the differences and similarities of their respective design programs. Eventually, Carnegie Mellon University and Stanford University joined this conversation, and, after multiple meetings and co-hosted design challenges for their students, the five programs confirmed that they shared similar philosophies and student outcomes.

The schools united to create the Integrated Design Innovation Consortium, which aims to create a community for students, faculty, alumni, and industry that goes beyond each individual school.

The consortium recently suggested a unified category name: Integrated Design Innovation. O’Keefe outlined the research and partnerships that led to the formation of the consortium and naming recommendation in the article “Integrated Design Innovation: A Mindset for Designers of Tomorrow” in the dmi:Journal. Sarah Rottenburg, associate director of the Integrated Product Design program at the University of Pennsylvania, coauthored the piece.

Members of the consortium have joined together to elevate the awareness of the integrated design innovation degree and envision that it may one day become as well known as the MBA. Next, consortium members will connect with industry partners to further explore establishing the shared category.

Finding alignment

To sort out the discrepancies among design subjects coupled with managerial subjects, Herbst embarked on his own extensive study, which became his PhD work. His first goal was to identify programs similar to Northwestern’s Master of Product Design and Development Management program.

After sorting through programs that combined design, development, and management, he pinpointed 58 discrete subjected that were offered by more than one institution and were part of the curriculum of 38 institutions. Additionally, these design management programs had 24 differently named degrees.

Next, Herbst surveyed alumni, academics involved in these programs, and industry leaders from design-centric organizations to learn which core competencies should be included in a product design and development management degree. Eight courses shared the highest value among the three groups: Introduction and Overview of Product Design and Development, Innovation, Decision-making, Leadership, Capstone, Decision Strategy, Ethics, and Research Methods.

The information uncovered in Herbst’s survey highlighted an interesting problem. Although many programs similar to Northwestern’s scored those eight course offerings highly, few actually offered them.

“So, they had the opinion of what should be done, but they weren’t actually doing it,” Herbst said. “My drive going forward is to try to establish some alignment.”

Herbst’s paper is titled, “Master’s Degree in Design Management: What’s in a Name?” Deana McDonagh, professor of industrial design at the University of Illinois and Herbst’s doctoral thesis supervisor at Coventry University in England, coauthored the paper. The pair next plans to meet with other institutions to discuss standardizing coursework and determine unified branding.

“Other institutions seem really open to conversation,” Herbst said. “We need to align ourselves and reach an agreement, as industry leadership recognizes their common needs regarding what makes a qualified manager of product design and development. Unfortunately, there is no common offering at this point in time.”