Design Education

Over the last 8 years I have seen a slew of questions on the IxDA site and LinkedIn about information regarding schools for interaction design and how do I choose a school and what not. After close to a decade, I don’t expect the questions to end, as people will always think that their take on the question is special or more relevant. So this is not an attempt to end the questions, but hopefully an attempt to aid people to think better about why they are asking and to be more specific about what they are asking for.

This post will be mostly about grad schools as almost everyone in my network asking is really thinking about grad school, so I’ll continue with that assumption.

Why do I need a degree at all?

Well this really depends. There are tons of high-ranking designers out there in the world who barely passed their BA let alone did any grad school whatsoever. But exceptions as they may be, most likely they climbed the glass escalator at a time when these degrees didn’t exist, or hell, they are just awesome. While I love the advice “Be Awesome!” I do think it doesn’t scale very well and some of us need a leg up from time to time to fill in the gaps and create new networks and design additions to our portfolio.

The best reason to go to grad school is not to break the glass ceiling (though it is a good reason depending on your area of interest). It is because you are hungry. You have a topic that you want to figure out to create a thesis out of, or you are hungry for more knowledge or skills (hopefully both).

While I understand that there is a strong voice out there advocating for non-institutional education, I don’t believe that everything is learnable in as timely a manner in a self-directed way, nor does everyone learn best without direction. And unfortunately my experience is that few senior designers out there have time/energy to dive deeply with apprentices in this day and age. Few organizations and work models today allow for it.

When you pay an institution for your education you are getting a few things put in place for you:

  • Resources: tools, connections, curriculum
  • Accreditation: As much as we argue about this, the truth is that parts of this system do indeed work and throwing out the baby with the bathwater makes no sense. Accreditation forces institutions to formalize and structure curriculum to map against agreed upon thresholds for assessment and outcomes. You can always surpass them, but you can’t go below them, too easily.
  • A coalesced and packaged network of peers, alumni and faculty.
  • A pig skin (piece of paper, possibly). While arguably important, for many types of organizations that masters degree is used as a gatekeeper to certain positions.

A very important & often glossed over reason for institutional education is the exchange between industry and education. You send us students, we create a space where we can more easily and arguably more cheaply create new knowledge. So many of today’s greatest companies came from the “incubator” of education, and many more ideas that are used by industry today as well.

Finally, many people go to get a formal graduate education because they are interested in a career in academia at least part-time. Looking at the previous issue where academia and industry are in dialog, we must assume that for this dialog to take place there can not only be students in the system but also masters and doctors (teachers & researchers).

Online vs. In person

The reality is that some people will not be able to travel to find the right program or their station in life (spouse & kids) don’t afford them the possibility of relocation and their current city doesn’t have a program that fits. So there are tons of reasons why an online program might suit you better than an in person education.

I would also say that an online education may be appropriate or not depending on the topic of study. Skills-based design programs that are trying to teach you tools, methods, and processes might work in this environment. Knowledge-based theory & research programs have even a greater chance to work in this environment. However, programs that are about teaching thinking, apprenticing applied knowledge within a studio environment have the least chance of success further if your chosen profession moves beyond digital it becomes even that much harder to emulate the studio–e.g. industrial design or even physical computing prototyping.

But let’s say all being equal. You want an HCI degree that is taught close by but also online. Would the education be better offline or online? I have the inclination to think that the portfolio of the student working offline who has access to a real professor face to face, who can work with her peers doing group projects together or otherwise gain shared knowledge and experience will be better. I say this cautiously as my own institution has some reputable (as in award winning) online programs some of which with studio work.

I personally think that in many cases a hybrid approach of both remote and in person education is probably best, though this model is difficult to fit within many institutions’ structural models and may not overcome all the obstacles that students face.

Questions to ask

While no one can tell you what program to go to, they can tell you what questions to ask the programs you are interested in and what questions you need to ask yourself.

Questions for you

  • Why do I want to study?
    This question more than any other needs to be clear to you. The most popular reason is that I need a degree because hiring managers are asking for it. Ok, I can buy that, but graduate education is hard. It is a lot of work, a lot of time commitment and usually some sacrifice of financial resources, often considerable. That being said you better look a little deeper inside of yourself and find something else to inspire, engage, and energize yourself for the next 12-24 (sometimes up to 36) months of hard labor. Some better answers could be:

    • I am excited about a topic that if only I had the dedicated time I could really have fun diving down into.
    • I have come far in my career, but I am missing core skills that I could get from a graduate education. Those skills that I need are. The programs that are best at teaching me those skills are.
  • What are the limitations I have in terms of resources and logistics?
    This question is pretty easy to answer, but articulating it out loud is still important. This is your technological constraints that are basically without drastic forces cannot be changed. These include:
  • Money: do I have it in the bank? Can I take on loans? Do I have any white knights? Will my job help support this? Can I afford not to work?
  • Location: Am I tied down to THIS spot? Can I go international (this may impact money)? Does my spouse have geographic constraints (how mobile or geo-versatile is their career)?
  • Family life: married? children? older?
  • When I’m done with my studies what do I want to be doing?
    Too many people go into a graduate degree not thinking about where they want to land when they are done. It’s OK that the plan you have changes during the experience, but it is really important that you go in with a plan. At minimum though you should be honest with yourself that the degree you are looking for is about you “finding yourself”.
    Something that many people don’t consider and I have hoped more would consider this is that not all masters degrees are equal. When it comes to the academic world there is something called a “terminal degree”. This is the degree in your profession that is considered the minimum for teaching within an academic institution (without justification by an accrediting body). If there is any bone in your body that is hungry to teach at an academic level please be sure you go with the right degree. In the United States this means getting an Masters of Fine Arts or Masters of Design in Interaction Design or a PhD in many of the HCI or Library Sciences.
    The other answer this question will bring up is what type of position are you looking to work in. Is it a design studio position or a research & engineering position? Answering this question will take you one way or another and there are few programs that handle both these paths equally well. I can’t think of either.
  • Can I devote myself to a full-time course, or do I need to reserve much of my time for other endeavors?
    Not everyone can quit their job and study full-time (which is much more than 40-hours per week). And some programs to afford people the possibility of doing part-time studies both in person and online. I will say that online programs are much easier to do while working, and hybrid programs that require in-person class time, while offering mostly online remote learning are often the perfect balance for working students. These seem to be rare in the design community though.

Do your homework

Going to graduate school is not like going to undergraduate. Learn about the programs individually as in many cases there are issues that can directly impact your learning.

  • Learn about the faculty
    What I mean by this is that your success in graduate school is tied to how well you fit with both the other students and more importantly the faculty you are studying with. In some programs you are not just studying with faculty but you are working directly for them doing their work. I realize that many think of education in our line of work as merely vocational, but even so, the topics that interest your faculty will take your work in specific directions that you may or may not want to go in.
  • Learn about the industry relationships the program has.
    This will effect the types of project work you get to work on and what types of employment opportunities you might expect after finishing or even as internships in between.
  • Learn about the alumni.
    Where did alumni end up after they graduated? This will most likely be the greatest networking opportunity and thus job placement resource you’ll have. Find out where alumni are ending up. You’ll most likely end up there or at least near by.

Do not look at HCI and Interaction Design and Information Architecture as comparable?

Many times I see online the question about what school should I go to to learn User Esperience and I want to cringe. I want to cringe because they’ll list such disparate programs in terms of focus of study. I know we all want to think that user experience is the same all over and that specifying anything under this umbrella is not helpful. However, this is not true at the graduate level of education. Generalization doesn’t do very well at this level of work. The purpose of graduate education is to dive deeper into a topic. The purpose of doing this is not necessarily because you will be diving in deeper in the roles of your career, but rather with depth comes breadth. This notion of depth leading to breadth is not well understood, but any good graduate program will require that someone diving deep will gain contextual knowledge of the breadth surrounding what it is they are working on. Further with depth comes wisdom and wisdom is something that can be applied broadly. Arguably wisdom is not reachable without depth.

If you do not know the difference between an HCI, Interaction Design and Information Architecture program, you might need to do some preliminary work first. Take the Cooper Practicum, go to a few conferences: CHI, IA Summit and IxDA Interaction to name a few that would help you out. It would also be pretty easy (and cheaper) to just join the different communities and see how they differentiate themselves and their practice disciplines. But in the end talking to people in person is key.


Having a list of programs is always a good start and there are many places to get a list of programs out on the Internet. What you can’t get (and if anyone tries to tell you otherwise they are lying) is an answer of what school to go to. This I’m afraid can only come from you. So as much as I’d love for everyone to come to my program, I would be remiss to give such advice without a thorough conversation that would include many of the questions that are above and an even deeper conversation.


Image CC-SA2 by San Jose Library

David Malouf

Professor of Interaction Design at the Savannah College of Art and Design

2 comments on this article

  1. James on

    Ok, at the risk of making you cringe too terribly hard what is it about saying one wants to learn User Experience that comes off as naive? You see many positions out there in the real world for ux designers. So I am not understanding why that is a negative in your mind.

    Also, how do you see the difference in User Experience, HCI, Interaction Design, and Information Architecture being explained? I see/read many things that use these roles interchangeably within the industry that it can be difficult to really have a clear picture of the difference. It is much more clear cut to say you are a .net developer or a DBA.

    I am not asking to challenge you, just that I see some of my own misconceptions in your article and would love to get a clearer picture.

  2. Pingback: Quora