CMU way of thinking

So what is this “CMU way of thinking” really about? Here is my unabashedly biased perspective on the matter ;-)

CMU, or Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, is globally recognized as a leader in design education, from establishing the world’s first degree program in industrial design in 1934 to recently expanding their graduate design offerings, and developing joint programs with the schools of business and computer science.

But hold on, what is meant by design at CMU?

There is the semi-autonomous School of Design housed within the College of Fine Arts, but it has its own head, faculty, and curriculum, directed towards various types of design education: communication design, industrial design, interaction design, and new product development (joint program with business and engineering), as well as a pivotal program with the rhetoric department. Students subsequently receive a degree in design. They get hired as designers. Period.

However, what confuses many folks (at least other CMU alumni I meet in the Bay Area) is that there is the HCII (Human-Computer Interaction Institute) within the School of Computer Science, which offers a 1 yr master’s degree in HCI. When I tell folks I studied Interaction Design at CMU, immediately people assume it’s from the HCI program. Not quite!

I know I’ll get in trouble for saying this but I’ll just say it. The HCI degree is NOT a design degree. It’s a hybrid degree blending social science, cognitive psychology, and computer science. The HCI degree is a necessary and valuable education focused on computational perspectives, specific methods of user-centered design (UCD) process, including (but not limited to) usability evaluation and user-oriented problem discovery, with heavy emphasis on cognitive psychology and computer science with statistical and usability techniques, plus capturing data (user feedback) towards making design recommendations. This is all extremely useful complementary information and approaches that support designers. I’m all for it! Graduates often go on to become user researchers, usability engineers, and yes even designers too :-)

SO what then is the difference? It’s a bit subtle and loaded with some intellectual speak, but essentially the CMU School of Design mode of thought and practice is centered on design as a “humanistic, liberal art of technological culture” focused on the “conception, planning, and shaping of the artificial” directed towards “individual and collective purposes”. Whoa! Let’s unpack all that…

  1. Humanistic: It may seem like splitting hairs to some folks but this term considers the totality of being human, not just objectified “users” to be statistically analyzed to the nth degree. This includes the emotional, aesthetic, and expressive qualities of people and humanizing technology to support that full range of dimensionality. Beauty, trust, freedom, emotion, and control are all human values that take center stage when designing new products and services.
  2. Liberal Art: Just like in a typical college education, referring to a liberal arts degree that is well-rounded, thus provides a total perspective on human issues and problem-solving. It is expansive, exploring new territories of thought and meaning, and inventive possibilities drawing from various disciplines. Plus it is an “art” (as opposed to method-driven); per Dick Buchanan, an art is a long-term, strategically oriented set of concepts, connected in some systematic, disciplined manner with a holistic, total view in mind of a situation or problem. A method is tactical and diverse in nature (there are hundreds of methods to choose from, but only a select few arts that guide one’s thinking) targeting immediate issues in a tightly constrained manner. I agree it’s a subtle distinction, but worth pondering the slight but powerful differences…
  3. Conception, planning, and creation: Sounds like core phases of the design process! This refers to the human-driven ability to conceive, plan, and create something that solves human problems and improves conditions.
  4. Individual and collective purposes: Refers to creating solutions that solve problems for single person’s goals OR for groups, teams, organizations, even entire societies, to help them achieve their cumulative goals and fulfill their purposes (think of goal-directed design).

And technological culture…This refers to the modern day of course, but this label can be applied to any time period or culture/society/community where technologies (whether mechanical or digital or beyond) influence and shape people’s behaviors and attitudes about living, working, playing, etc. Designers equipped with this humanistic perspective can help invent valuable solutions where the technologies better fit human needs and concerns.

So there you have it, a quick sketch of the main ideas that define the distinctly CMU approach to design. Much of this comes from Buchanan’s work on the “rhetorical dimensions of design”, which I will evolve further in later postings.

For now, these posts should help shape a better understanding of what all that entails:

Core ideas of design

Core design abilities

Purposes of design

One Reply to “CMU way of thinking”

  1. What is the difference between CMU’s Interaction Design and HCI Master’s degrees?…

    I’ve written an extensive post on the differences per my insights of the programs from 2001, which I realize have evolved considerably in positive ways, but still worth reading up: In sum, the CMU HCI program is he…

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