Design Impact Program: A Retrospective
I graduated from the MS Design Impact program at Stanford University in 2019 and started teaching/researching/consulting in Thailand (I wrote about some my experiences here). Since then, the world has changed dramatically — we had a pandemic, quiet quitting, global boiling, and other positives too — and so has the program, by the looks of the website. I’ve kept in touch with my Loftee classmates and visited this Hogwarts of grad schools once or twice.
I never really did have a chance or the space to look back on my time there until potential candidates reach out to me with questions, that is. There’s been a couple over the years and I’ve always propagandized for the program that became a turning point in my life. At the risk of indulging myself in nostalgia, I was inspired by a recent applicant to share my thoughts with her and collect these for a reflection that you are reading here. For simplicity, this will be a Q&A format where I supply some flourishes in my honest hindsight of the program with the added benefits of life and work experience in-between.
What was your overall experience of the Master’s in Design program?
As an only child, I’ve basically found my second family in the Program. We see each other all the time at the Loft, our dedicated workspace on campus, and there were only 13 of us in my first year. We consulted with each other on classes and assignments, brainstormed and complaint in equal measure, socialized sufficiently, and surprisingly didn’t fight much.
I learnt how to be a good communicator and sharp curator of design aesthetics (visually and beyond), and thanks to all the project experiences, I become more confident in my skills to collaborate as a human-centred designer. The program is a really unique opportunity to explore your interests in a safe and communal space. I always enjoyed questioning ideas and taking them to their logical conclusion: what would [insert wild idea here] look like if it’s put out into the world?
What were the most valuable courses, aspects, and mindsets of the program for you?
A key mindset shift for me is around thinking of other people always as collaborators, whether they are are your teammates, users or stakeholders. To succeed on any project, the outcome is no longer dependent just on me and my efforts but on those surrounding the project. And a key part to this is to listen well.
I enjoyed that we were always supported through mentorship, if and when we need it, while being challenged to just do stuff and reflect with the professors afterwards. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so supported by the most epic people. Skills-wise, I now appreciate my own comfort with uncertainties and always finding my way out of challenges by asking good question and paying attention to my own process of designing.
How’s the balance of classes that focus on physical vs. digital products?
The program at the time was very foundational, in that courses such as human values and research methods are applicable to both (and other) domains of design. As for electives, I think there is a good amount of choices for each — though not all are offered every quarter so you might have to plan a bit ahead. It will mostly be up to you to select our electives. After graduation, I ended up working mostly now in education, service, and experience design and still finds the foundational courses tremendously useful.
What are your favorite / recommended classes, at the d.school or school-wide?
One of the things you must quickly learn at Stanford University is that you cannot — and should not — try to do it all. This includes all the cool and niche and specific classes that you won’t be able to find anywhere. What I would recommend you to do is to go talk to Professors at their seminars, public events, and even class pitches at the d.school to learn more. You can even find classes outside the engineering school and d.school to take as we take cross-disciplinary learning very seriously! I’ve taken courses at the business school, in public policy, finance (and failed miserably there), engineering, design — there is virtually no limit as long as you have a theme to what you would like to explore.
I really enjoyed our mentors’ classes — David Kelley, Bill Burnett — and other veteran design professors like Barry Katz, Bernie Roth, Michael Barry, Leticia Cavargnaro. Outside the design specialty, I thoroughly enjoyed (though have not always excelled in, lol) my classes with Gil Masters , Banny Banerjee, Baba Shiv & Anja Sventinoj, Jennifer Aaker & Naomi Bagdonas, Jeffrey Schox, Cynthia Benjamin & Paul Saffo, Barbara Karanian.
How would you describe the culture of the design department? Was it collaborative, competitive, or a mix of both?
The graduate design program lives somewhat separately from the design department so I’m not sure if I can speak to both. What I can say is that, within this program, we are rather collaborative; we openly give each other feedback and advice on projects. We even help each other out when one has more expertise in certain areas like physical or digital prototyping, coding, or research. I haven’t quite found this level of camaraderie and good will in a workplace since.
How was the work-life balance during the program?
Non-existent. Just kidding. I think you put as much as you are willing to into the program. Besides project deadlines, the rest of your time is for you to manage — so the classes you take and activities you get involved in will determine this balance. Also, if you take Designing Your Life, it might help you reframe this idea of balance in a productive way.
I understand from the FAQ that most core classes are project-based and students work in teams. However, they also say that some coursework is independent. What are these classes?
I presume that independent coursework could mean one of two things: independent study with a professor or thesis project. The thesis project is something we worked on in our second year of the program, to study and attempt the last-mile of taking a human-centred solution to implementation. It’s less academic than a typical thesis project, and it’s mostly up to you where you want to start and end. With both of these, you will be mentored by faculty as well as receiving feedback from your peers.
Is there any support available if I want to do a summer internship?
One thing to note is the legality of working as an international student. When I was there, I did internships through the CPT and OPT programs — so I was able to do both in-school and summer work internships. Now, as for the support, my class had Victor Saad from the Experience Institute to help us figure out what we’d like to explore and connect us to specific projects and roles during the summer. The professors in our classes always brought in practitioners from established design studios both independent and within companies to share their stories and channels for getting involved. I think if you have the initiative to ask for help — not surprisingly, the people they chose are quite independent! — I think there are quite a handful of opportunities for you to pursue a good summer opportunity.
Did you have opportunities to participate in out-of-school activities eg. hackathon, competition, design expo, etc.?
Yes, definitely. While the classes and the program themselves don’t explicitly link or encourage you to participate in competitions or hackathons (the ones I took at least), there are quite a few events for all sorts of interest groups for you to explore on campus and in the Bay Area. Personally, I’ve gone to sustainability related hackathons and events in the area, even hosted some through the Stanford Energy Club — never really winning anything but learning a lot about how to communicate, work in teams, and exploring new ideas.
I did have a table at one conference in the Bay Area and got feedback on a user research project as part of an independent study. If you’re looking for more results- or publicly-oriented activites, there are also many options for classes that is designed for you to experience a startup process that could take you to outside activities as you suggested. Some of my peers even applied to incubator programs like Y-combinator based on their thesis work.
What kind of roles or positions do alumni typically land in after the program?
I should say that there really isn’t a typical role that the alums (that I know of at least) find themselves in. We have graduates working as user research, in management and design consulting, within in-house innovation teams, in product and UX design, as well as starting their own startup companies. One thing we all share, in my opinion, is a language of human-centred design and our priority in making the best user experience wherever we end up. So the roles that people tend to end up working in are the ones that value people experience in their products and services, regardless of industry.
Thanks for reading and hope this is useful to those of you who are applying to the MS Design program at Stanford University! There’s so many people that I want to include in these photos but I have yet to obtain permission to share — you know who you are :)