An MFA Degree For Designers Who Want To Change The World

So you want to change the world? Cynics may send you off to Wall Street or a white-shoe law firm. Those with gumption will look for another way. The new Master's of Fine Arts in Design for Social Innovation has opened its doors just for them.

"We're adamant this not be a program where people sit in a classroom and talk about how great it's going to be when they go out and change the world," says program chair Cheryl Heller at the School of Visual Arts (SVA) in New York, and a board member of PopTech. "It is helping designers go beyond self-expression, which is how most designers are taught, and how to put [design] into practice to create a change."

Programs such as Stanford's and Carnegie Mellon's School of Architecture teach sustainable design principles across a range of disciplines, but SVA's program also explicitly tries to create leaders out of designers able to work everywhere from multinational retailers to non-profits in Africa, and apply design thinking as a driver for social change. "Design has the potential to have lasting revolutionary change in the way we think about systems...and the way we understand how to improve the world," says Heller.

Students accepted into the Fall 2012 class will start designing during their first year at SVA. Courses will be taught by a faculty of CEOs, PhDs, and other professionals from communications agencies (Purpose), product design (Method Products), or game design firms (Gaming for Change).

SVA is not entirely alone in thinking design is good for business. The University of Michigan offers an MFA/MBA program, while Stanford's has taken a similar approach to technology, business, and human values, placing design innovation at the center of that Venn digram.

Maybe Daniel Pink's (somewhat hyperbolic) statement in 2008 that the MFA is the new MBA still isn't true for most of corporate America, but skills to design lasting change will take you anywhere.  

[Image: SVA]

Reach Michael J. Coren via Twitter or email.

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  • eastump

    Great article, but not a new concept for a lot of schools. My program's a few years old already:

    I'm not just saying this to support my program - there are a lot of other school than the ones mentioned here who already have MFA programs like or extremely similar to this one. And I wish the future 2012 SVA fall class the best of luck!


    i think this is definitely the direction that design should be heading because sustainability is the future. design shouldn't just be about creating cool things but doing so in an ethical and sustainable way. most people think of sustainability only in terms of materials or recycling but it goes beyond those applications, it has to do with whole systems and behaviors. there is a lot to be done and learn if we want our plane to survive. by the way, scad also has a great sustainability program.

  • Matt Owens

    There is a great deal of exciting progress in adapting design education to address systems and enact positive social change. One additional emerging program of note is the University of Pennsylvania's IPD (Integrated Product Design Program) which is a cross-school program drawing from classes in the School of Engineering, Design, and Wharton.  ---

  • Lee-Sean Huang

    Thanks for the article Michael.  

    I'm the guy in the photo along with my colleague Alessandra Orofino from Purpose.  The setting of the photo shows some of our work for Meu Rio, which just launched this week.  Meu Rio is a popular movement based in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, that is connecting citizens with each other and amplifying their voices in the political and civic life of the city.  I look forward to working with the entering class in Fall 2012.  LS