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Design (Cluster)

The Design Cluster brings together a dynamic group of faculty and graduate students from a variety of disciplinary perspectives – including but not limited to engineering, communication studies, arts, architecture, psychology, journalism, business and management, and music. The main objectives of the cluster are to:

  • Discover, develop, teach, and practice the common principles and techniques underlying Design and idea creation.
  • Engage faculty in collaborative, interdisciplinary research to pursue new funding opportunities in Design.
  • Provide an alternative intellectual community for Design faculty and doctoral students at Northwestern with “dual citizenship.”

Today’s problems are not defined solely by technical concerns. They involve humans, groups, organizations, and societies, and they impact law, business, journalism and medicine, raising new issues related to ethical and environmental concerns that call for trans-disciplinary collaborations. Design research and education provides the intellectual underpinning and offers knowledge and experience to serve as a foundation for this endeavor.

In many fields, research is currently being done to determine the best methods for the creation of a designed experience, whether that experience arises from an interaction, a process, a product, a service, a therapy, or simply an artistic experience. However, the methods vary widely across domains and disciplines. For example prototyping in the robotics field is vastly different from prototyping in the journalism field. The wide variety of tasks and insight needed for design in a particular domain often requires experts from other disciplines to adequately undertake the design project.

Programs and events

The cluster program organizes social events, seminar series, and an annual research symposium that invites Northwestern faculty and students as well as researchers from other institutions and industry who share common interests. The goal is to provide an alternative intellectual community for students from multiple departments and schools to gain “dual citizenship” in both a department and the cluster.

The graduate students will also serve as coaches to interdisciplinary undergraduate project teams and perhaps teaching assistants in design courses of the Segal Design Institute, further broadening their interdisciplinary experience. Furthermore, it is our intent that this effort will directly aid students in becoming successful applicants for faculty, government, and industrial positions, and thereby become tomorrow’s leaders in the expanding and increasingly diverse Design community.

How to apply

This cluster program attracts gifted doctoral students who are eager to work on cutting edge Design research across the boundaries of multiple disciplines from multiple schools. Fellowships will be awarded on a competitive basis to second-year doctoral students based on the on-going active research collaborations among participating faculty members.

Cluster fellows will need to work on their doctoral research with faculty advisors from at least two different schools. The applications are accepted in Spring Quarter before the coming academic year.

Who to contact

Please contact the program directors, listed below, with questions about this program. Or, explore the Segal Design Institute website for more information.

The following requirements are in addition to, or further elaborate upon, those requirements outlined in The Graduate School Policy Guide.

Graduate level courses are offered in the following three core areas that aim to provide significant training in formal, methodological and design approaches.

Core Area 1: Human Centered Design

The goal of this core area is for students to obtain training in the many stages of the design process with an emphasis on better understanding users, tasks and goals. The courses use design process as a systematic way for making decisions about the design, development and deployment of new artifacts or systems.
Example courses include:

  • DSGN 401-1: Human Centered Design Studio, Product Design
  • COMP_SCI 314: Technology and Human Interaction
  • LS 425: Introduction to Design for Learning Environments
  • LS 429: Design of Learning Environments
  • PSY 495: Design of Visual Information Displays
  • PSY 495: Insight, Problem Solving and Creativity
  • MTS 495: Designing Gesture-Based Interaction
  • MTS 525: Social Interactions Online
  • COMM ST 525: Theories and Practice of Computer Mediated Communication
  • MTS 512: Technology and Organizing
  • DSGN 492: Designing and Leveraging Organizational Networks

Core Area 2: Computational Thinking and Computational Design

The goal of this core area is for students to obtain training in the many ways of applying and using computation to support design research. This involves algorithmic thinking, computational simulation and modeling, and state-of-the-art statistical and computational methods for design. A number of these approaches derive from thinking computationally, by which we mean both the use of computation as a vocabulary for understanding design phenomena—what is often referred to as “computational thinking” —but also the use of computation as a tool for thinking, analyzing, and decision making.

Example courses include:

  • MECH ENG 341: Computational Methods for Engineering Design
  • MECH ENG 441: Engineering Optimization for Product Design and Manufacturing
  • SESP 495: Digital Design for Social Change
  • COMM ST 525 / IEMS 441 / MTS 525: Social Network Theories and Methods
  • BMD ENG 495: Computational Neuromechanics and Neuroethology

Core Area 3: Design Skills and Methods

The goal of this core area is for students to obtain the practical skills that are needed for design-based research. The courses in this core area aim to provide the fellows with skills and techniques for performing user-based empirical evaluations (both qualitative and quantitative) of their designs as well as practical skills in areas such as prototyping, scenario design, etc.

Example courses include:

  • MTS 590: Communication Design
  • COMM ST 495: Applied Research Methods for Technology and Social Behavior
  • LRN_SCI 413/COMP_SCI 413: Tangible Interaction Design
  • Theatre 442: Studies in Theatre Practice: Research for Designers
  • JOUR 490: Collaborative Innovation in Media and Technology

Design research

The Design Cluster program will be supported by a research agenda that studies pertinent research questions and develops the knowledge and methods to address them. Rather than conceiving of Design research as an interdisciplinary area, it is more advantageous to view Design as a discipline in itself that can combine knowledge from other disciplines, akin to the concept of medicine as a discipline. A design research agenda can then be perceived as an interdisciplinary activity, not a summation of disciplinary challenges.  The design research agenda will help to nurture and sustain the culture of innovation and fuel our educational mission with new methodologies and ways of thinking. 

Examples of design research topics include:

  • Exploration of the intersection and interaction of people, products, and systems;
  • Reconciliation of the creative, holistic thinking of the arts with the analytical, decomposed thinking of the sciences;
  • Methods to enhance interdisciplinary communication and collaboration, knowledge capture, and reuse across disciplines;
  • Design innovation of complex engineered systems;
  • Identification of the characteristics of innovative teams;
  • Exploration of human behavior with, through, and in response to new technologies, and the design of new technologies shaped by this understanding.
  • Methodologies for the design of emerging systems, such as medical and health care systems, energy related products and services, and multi-scale devices and systems;
  • Design of completely new products, services, and systems yet to be conceived; and
  • Interdisciplinary design education including innovation, creativity, teamwork, leadership, entrepreneurship through curricular and extracurricular learning.

In a real sense, design research places design and innovation in a scientific framework. The Design Cluster program will delineate and develop an emerging interdisciplinary field in which students will gain an understanding of the complex relationships between people, products and systems.