Master of Design Studies, 30 Years Later

The year 1984 was an important one for the world of design. Apple launched its first Macintosh personal computer, Sony introduced the first commercial CD player, TED held its first global conference, and Los Angeles hosted the 1984 Summer Olympics that were hailed as a success of design thinking. That same year, the Harvard Graduate School of Design introduced the Master of Design Studies (MDes) program that will celebrate its 30th anniversary this fall.

Launched under the leadership of former Professor Dana Tomlin (MLA ’75), the Master of Design Studies program accepted its first class of students in the fall of 1986. Created as a component of the Advanced Studies track at the GSD, MDes was designed to offer established professionals the opportunity to return to campus for intensive study. Over the course of its history, the program has benefitted from the vision and thoughtful leadership of its nine directors (or co-directors): Tomlin, Carl Steinitz (AM ’81), William Mitchell (AM ’86), Tony Gomez-Ibanez (AB ’70, MPP ’72, PhD ’75), Spiro Pollalis (AM ’94), Hashim Sarkis (MArch ’89), Daniel Schodek (AM ’81), and Martin Bechthold (DDes ’01) and Sanford Kwinter.

Currently thriving under the leadership of Pierre Bélanger (MLA ’00), associate professor of landscape architecture, and Kiel Moe (MDesS ’03), assistant professor of architectural technology, MDes co-directors since 2013, the program is committed to advancing contemporary methods and media in design research, attracting students who are interested in pushing the limits of practice, innovating through research, and addressing the profound changes to design imposed by our transforming world.

According to Dean Mohsen Mostafavi, “The MDes program is an essential and unique component of our overall research agenda. The program, along with the DDes and PhD programs, enhances transdisciplinary scholarship and complements the Design Labs’ (D-Labs) function by providing a cohort of talented young professionals who propel research projects forward. Our students are collaborating across schools and working on some of the most critical issues facing the built environment.”

An Evolving Program
Initially conceived as a single year, post-professional master’s program offering a narrow concentration in an area of special interest or a broad investigation into a topical theme, the program has evolved, adapting to the cultural and political landscape in which it lives. Tomlin credits former Dean Gerald McCue (AM ’76) with the vision for the program’s influence, “Looking back at the success of the MDes program, I can’t help but feel that its creation was an exercise in alchemy—a transformation in place that would ultimately yield significant benefits without incurring significant additional costs. Gerry McCue’s design has indeed proven to be more successful than I think any of us ever anticipated.”

In 2005, the late Professor Emeritus Daniel Schodek transformed the program by instituting a one and half year residency requirement, allowing students an additional semester on campus to prepare a thesis or scholarly paper, thus ratcheting-up its research component. Today, the majority of MDes students are on campus for four full semesters, splitting their second year course work over two semesters to allow more time on campus for their final research project.

Co-directors Bélanger and Moe are interested in promoting MDes as a design research program that challenges the limits of individual disciplines, fills the void between practice and academia, and addresses design questions not possible in traditional studios. Since 2013, Bélanger and Moe have furthered Schodek’s efforts to enhance the research focus by introducing a research methods class in the second semester of study, and by reconceiving the thesis as the final research project.

According to Bélanger, this is the first step for a larger agenda. “Independent thesis work has evolved. Today, we need teams—fabricating, mapping, analyzing—to research complex problems. Our advanced students research in areas where there may be no existing expertise. They are often in uncharted territories.”

In-Depth Exploration
MDes students raise pressing questions about our shared future: How can environments, cities and buildings be built without infrastructure? How can water and geography redraw the contours of power, risk and politics? How is media reshaping history, and how is history transforming technology? While students may not solve these riddles during the course of their individual studies, the institution and the program remain committed to their pursuit.

Enrolled in one of eight areas of study that reflect the socio-cultural and geo-political concerns of the times—Risk and Resilience; Art, Design and the Public Domain; Critical Conservation; History and Philosophy of Design; Real Estate and the Built Environment; Energy and Environments; Technology; and Urbanism, Landscape and Ecology—students undertake a core set of courses including a discursive pro-seminar in the first semester, followed by research methods and related courses in the second semester. The final semester (or semesters) is spent developing the final research project, an in-depth exploration of new approaches and innovative collaboration around a series of pressing, spatial significance.

Many of these areas of study are directly linked, through their leadership and research topics, to the GSD Design Labs (D-Labs). While informal at present, this link is critical to the growing depth of both the School’s research agenda and the MDes experience, providing students the opportunity to work directly with senior research faculty in the context of the D-Labs, the fabrication labs, and as faculty assistants. “Our students are everywhere,” according to Moe. “MDes students get the maximal exposure to the GSD.”

Bélanger reflects on the design research process, “Designers need to talk about what we do as research—representation is a form of research. Studio is a method, a collaborative process, not a place. Studio is our working methodology.” According to Moe, “Our media—representation, mapping and drawing—are fundamental to our methodology. Communicating intentions outside our professions can transform the impact of the work. As designers, we need to expand our audience.”

Growing Influence
Enrollment has grown consistently over the course of the past three decades—there were 28 students in 1994, 57 in 2004, and 139 students this academic year. The growth of the program reflects the GSD’s strategic expansion over the past decade, explicitly fostering and supporting the School’s ambitious research agenda. MDes students are typically young professionals from around the globe that come to the GSD to bolster their credentials and pursue advanced degrees in an area of expertise, to re-focus their professional practice or pursue a career in academia.

MDes alumni represent a wide cross-section of design experts, working in a variety of capacities to improve our urban experience through design—some teach, some make, some develop, and some design, but all innovate. Innovation through research is at the heart of the MDes program.

Innovation through their research methodology is at the heart of the program today—this year, MDes students will be making videos for their final research projects. As Bélanger puts it, “If media is the message, then video is the new paper.” When the inaugural Master of Design Studies Thesis Colloquium is presented on May 14, to promote and highlight the School’s cutting-edge, postgraduate research, students will premiere their final research projects in video format.

Bélanger explains, “We have 30 years of mind blowing research, but we need to get the work out there. Our goal is to have MDes students make 75 instantly sharable, research videos each year.”

Keep an eye out for a series of celebratory events being planned during the 2014-15 academic year.

The urban ocean: Harvard teams probe how seas are mined for energy, food, advantage
Harvard Gazette, April 21, 2014