SMU disrupts design with new Master’s in art and design innovation

By Sue Han


Senior mechanical engineering major Ana Rios was not originally planning on completing a Master’s in art and design innovation (MADI) when she first came to SMU.

The program didn’t exist until fall of her senior year. She was planning on getting her 4 + 1 in mechanical engineering until she took Kate Canales’ class “Building Creative Confidence,” which teaches students to get past the fear that blocks creativity through personal projects and assignments.

For her final project in the class, Rios decided to do something that was personal and outside her comfort zone.

“I felt a sense of respect from everyone and a sense of accomplishment for actually throwing my idea out there,” Rios said. “It was really rewarding to get that confidence in your creativity, and that was when I was like, I’m doing MADI because it pushes my limits.”

Now Rios is getting a dual degree in both mechanical engineering and MADI. She said MADI pairs well with her mechanical engineering degree, as she wanted to do something more hands-on and less technical. Rios said she hopes to work with Disney Imagineering in the future to create different experiences in the theme parks.

The mission of MADI is to prepare students to tackle problems using the human-centered design approach which creates with the end user in mind. Human-centered design is a creative approach to problem-solving; it starts with the people you’re designing for and ends with solutions tailored to suit their needs. The program was launched in fall 2015 by Kate Canales after two years of planning.

Canales, the director of Design and Innovation Program at the Lyle School of Engineering, is trained as a traditional product designer. She got her start in human-centered design at IDEO, a design and innovation consulting firm in Palo Alto.

After being at IDEO, she learned how human-centered design could inform design decisions and lead to innovation.

After giving a TEDxSMU talk in 2011 on “Disruption by Design,” the dean of the Lyle School told her they were looking for ways to teach engineers how to rethink, and asked if she would come work with them. She first tinkered with offering undergraduate classes such as “Building Creative Confidence,” and then started building a master’s program.

Fourteen students are enrolled in the program. Some have just graduated and others have come back to school after working.

The backgrounds of the students are diverse: six students have engineering backgrounds, and others are poets, theatre stage managers, teachers, neuroscientists and traditional designers.

“All of them are going to use this degree really differently. We hoped that would happen,” Canales said. “It is adding a skillset that allows them to tackle things that are more strategic. Some of them are planning to become entrepreneurs and want to learn how to think flexibly. Several have seen it as an alternative to an MBA that gives you a certain skill set for those who didn’t want a traditional MBA.”

Thom Browne also started the MADI program in January. After three years of teaching English in Dallas ISD, he wanted to step away from teaching.

“I didn’t want your typical master’s degree. I personally believe creativity is key to fixing all these issues in the world. The worlds biggest problems aren’t going to be solved by something someone has thought about before,” Browne said. “We have to be creative. One of the most important things for me is creativity. I believe in it. Most people say that they do. I feel like it is really embodied in this program.”

One of the mandatory classes places students in studio classes where they are given a client and a prompt to solve an open-ended problem using human-centered design.

The current client is Café Momentum, a nonprofit restaurant that trains and hires juvenile offenders. The problem students have to solve is that many of the young men who work at Café Momentum are unable to get a lease or live in unaffordable housing because of their age.

Canales admits that she has no idea how to solve the problem. “It’s one of those studio prompts that the instructor has no idea how to solve,” Canales said. However, she said, “students are wanting to build confidence around a skillset that helps them tackle problems that are bigger and fuzzier than design is typically tackled.”

Canales mentions the benefit of MADI being at SMU.

“It’s a huge advantage being in an environment at SMU where an amazing anthropology school, business school and engineering school are within proximity from each other, and students can get access to all those things,” she said.

Students can take two elective courses in almost any subject as long as they can justify why they are taking the classes. She also emphasized that MADI is for anyone.

“What I see in common in students who are thriving is comfort with ambiguity. A little comfort with vulnerability,” Canales said. “I think it’s also appealing to students who are willing to go on a journey without knowing where the journey is ending.”

Canales hopes SMU’s program will become one of the best in the country.

“I have huge dreams. I feel like SMU has given me the permission to do something unconventional, and potentially very exciting and disruptive,” she said.

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