MFA Design for Social Innovation at School of Visual Arts

What can other educators and institutions learn from the successes and failures of your experience-oriented academic program?: 

Several aspects of our program are unique and have provided important lessons for us. First, we take students from extremely diverse backgrounds and though we use design methodologies as a core to the curriculum, we open the program to people who are not designers. This has been challenging for the first semester since skills vary so widely, but has been one of the biggest and best experiments. The fact that interests and skills are so varied has made for more balanced and cohesive teams. It has also meant that the experiences that each student has to share and build on while here is richer and a more representative microcosm of the world at large. Along with that, we have learned an important lesson in that experience-based programs cannot tolerate the same divergence in immaturity. Students who are looking for a single way to do things, or a single answer about what is the right way do not succeed here. Students who are mature (at whatever age) and self motivated excel.

What is the structure and content of your program?: 

In the first year, students receive a deep review of social innovation in all its forms, and including the disciplines involved, from mobile and digital technology to science, conservation, ethics and human sciences. Skills such as communication design, mapping, visualization and community design are interspersed with lectures and hands-on assignments for real client organizations. Throughout the two-year program, the Guest Lecture Series is curated to inspire new thinking and dialogue about the nature of human societies. Speakers include business leaders, environmentalists, indigenous people, field workers, researchers, academics, poets, artists, musicians, policymakers, physicians, astronomers, physicists, human rights activists and innovators in social issues. The second year's goal is the creation of a thesis, for which, with the help of a team of mentors and advisors, students will identify and research an issue of their choosing, then develop a thorough understanding of the context and challenges. They write a proposal that captures their recommended solution, then design it fully in a form ready to be implemented. Each thesis must be reviewed and approved by the thesis committee and the department co-chairs in order for the student to be eligible for degree conferral. Degree candidates must successfully complete 60 credits, including all required courses, with a cumulative grade point average of 3.0. A residency of two academic years is required. 

When students complete your program, what credentials, experience, and portfolio materials have they accumulated, and how do they support their career success?: 

Students leave with experience working with clients to solve real problems, the ability to facilitate conversations and innovation, to write and present their ideas cogently. In their portfolio are completed case studies for the projects they have done, games they have designed, products and services they designed. They leave with a network of people who work in foundations, corporations and at other mission-based enterprises. And most important, they have evidence, through their course work and thesis, of the ability to solve systemic problems, to innovate and to work across silos.

Who are your program’s key instructors and what qualifications and experience do they bring?: 

DSI students and faculty have skills in design and ethnographic research, multimedia and visual design, data mapping and visualization, filmmaking, game design, communication design, product and industrial design, and facilitation. They have experience in international and community development, CSR, business, entrepreneurship, sustainability, transmedia activism. 

How do you ensure your program’s content is and remains in synch with modern practices and the needs of employers?: 

DSI students are not required to complete an internship to graduate from the program; however, internships or part-time work during the school year or summer is highly encouraged. DSI both facilitates connections to these opportunities and encourages students to pursue them on their own. Internships and part-time work are vital to studying design for social innovation, as students should apply what they are learning and be part of progress outside the classroom walls. DSI has relationships with companies such as PepsiCo, IBM, SYPartners, and Reboot, among others, for career opportunities. In addition, throughout the program students work with client partners to gain firsthand exposure to real life opportunities and challenges in business, government and communities. Client partners have included Synergos, Ecovative, Runa, Plum Organics, L’Oreal, Local Orbit, dMASS, mFarm, DataKind, Banorte, Ford Foundation, and the city of Buffalo.

Please share any objective and anecdotal evidence that demonstrates the your program’s ability to equip students for “real-world” value and successfulness.: 

As MFA Design for Social Innovation started in September 2012 as a two-year program, we have not yet graduated a first class of students into full-time employment. Graduates are prepared to work in business, government, creative services, philanthropy, non-profits, multi-national institutions, and as entrepreneurs. Many students have already found internships and part-time opportunities while completing their MFA at large foundations, global companies and in the social sector, including the UN, Rockefeller Foundation, Hyatt Hotels, Agora Partnerships, MRY, and Arup. Though we have yet to graduate our first class, students are working at Rockefeller Foundation, UN Global Pulse, SUNY, Arup and Games for Change.

First-year Student Haya from Saudi Arabia: "At the career salon yesterday when Catherine Sun spoke about the diversity of her roles; design and systems thinking, strategy, communication, workshop facilitation - I felt like she was describing our courses at DSI! It's such an incredibly curated program, and it's only the first semester. These are my Aha moments where I'm so thankful and excited to be part of this inspiring community."

DSI Client: "I just wanted to take a quick moment to tell you how much I am enjoying your students. They are an impressive, enthusiastic and creative ball of energy. It is so refreshing to meet such curious and thoughtful people in this age group. I think that's a testament to your selection process and vision for your program. I am very excited about the work they are doing. They have really grasped what I am going for and seemed to have taken it to heart. I couldn't be happier with the opportunity that you have afforded me. Thank you."