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A Day in The Life of The New Design Student

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Molly Needelman (l.) and Angel Batalla at MICA
Molly Needelman (l.) and Angel Batalla at MICA

Molly Needelman is contemplating shutting down the U.S. Postal Service.

Just for a class assignment, of course.

Over five weeks, a course at the Maryland Institute College of Art asks students to figure out ways to improve business and user experiences at two storied institutions: the post office and the gas station.

It's an unusual mandate, but these are unusual students, part of a 14-strong cohort of the inaugural class in a new program offered by MICA and the Carey School of Business at Johns Hopkins University: the Design Leadership MBA.

As a June article in The Wall Street Journal noted, schools are increasingly combining design thinking (which focuses on user experience through anthropological research) with more traditional business programs. While other schools, such as the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Business and the Stanford University D-School, have been adding more design-related courses to their programs, the Carey/MICA program is one of the few that offers a full degree. Two, in fact, since students receive both an MBA and a master of arts at the end.

The 14 students met on a Tuesday morning in a cramped, windowless room on the MICA campus in Baltimore's Bolton Hill neighborhood. Laurie Churchman, founder of industrial-design company DesignLore, teaches the course with the tongue-tying titled Collaboration, Interdisciplinarity and Multidisciplinarity, which instructs students to approach design problems through teamwork. That morning, they began by introducing their "personas," fictional characters used by designers to represent different demographics that are created by consulting ethnographic research and people watching.

The students' personas ran the gamut and include a degree-holding limo driver to a mother of three and a residential contractor stopping in for coffee and a breakfast sandwich. How the personas were presented was a focus of the first hour of the class. A few students used a fictional Facebook profile, but others had more creative ideas, such as using the contents of a woman's handbag to describe its owner.

Students reimagine the post office
Students reimagine the post office

For the next three hours, students demonstrated the various problems their personas had in dealing with the gas station and the post office. Each persona's problem was heavily influenced by the personality, just like in real life. They discussed physical issues -- the layouts of most gas stations and post offices are user-unfriendly at best, downright hostile at worst. There was also serious thought put to questions like: "Should these businesses exist at all?" "Why shouldn't the post-office functions be downsized into other places?" and "Why can't we just place satellite gas pumps near shopping malls and parking spaces?"

Those are everyday design questions, but these aren't everyday design students. Innovation can't be the only factor considered because, as many of the students recognized, if this were a real business problem, and the USPS were a client, they couldn't just argue for "shutting it down," Ms. Needelman noted.

Ms. Needelman, 27, majored in visual communication from Washington University in St. Louis. After graduation, she spent time at Xplane, a B-to-B visual-communication company, and at Kendeo, an employee-development company where she worked on adding a design element to employee-training programs. "One of the things I realized was that designers at both companies spoke more like MBA's than graphic designers," she said. "I realized I didn't know how to do that, so I needed to get better at bringing design into the business process as early on as possible."

Another student, Kyle Peppers, had similar motivations for enrolling in the unique program. An anthropology graduate, Mr. Peppers, 37, said he "fell in love with applying design thinking to business problems" and has expressed interest in working at a place like marketing consultancy Play, which was acquired by Prophet in early 2009.

A few years ago, MICA and Carey faculty came to the same conclusion: Design thinking is integral to solving business problems. According to Carey's interim dean, Phillip Phan, professors were finding that many of its graduates were ending up in management positions, and were going on to obtain business degrees later in life. "We decided that to make our students competitive in the marketplace, they would have to be able to do both," said Mr. Phan.

Alisa Wolfson, senior VP-group design director at Leo Burnett, Chicago, loves the idea of combining business school with design school. Having a designer on any project is a benefit, she said, regardless of what kind of designer they are. "Many business problems can do with a dose of design thinking," she said. "Not having to learn that on the job would be amazing."

Deans from both MICA and Carey decided that the most logical -- and well-rounded -- format would offer a dual degree, not a joint degree. "That means that rather than combining courses from both schools, the students work in separate worlds that link together periodically through their curriculum," said David Gracyalny, a dean at MICA.

The curriculum was built from the ground up, with faculty that could see "both sides" of the picture. On the design side, students take classes such as the aforementioned Collaboration, as well as courses on sustainability, forecasting, creativity and innovation, and prototyping. The Collaboration class ended with an assignment: preparing a presentation for a set of problems, describing how they would solve them, and trying to use sustainable principles, combined with some mention of return on investment for the business.

But stark differences remain between what transpires inside the marble of MICA and the glass-and-steel of the Legg-Mason Building overlooking the Inner Harbor, where business classes at Carey happen.

The gateway student housing building at MICA
The gateway student housing building at MICA

At their Carey classes, the design students (as everyone calls them) take seminars on accounting, customer-focused marketing, leadership, ethics and business law. In Business Communication, the topic one evening was crisis communications. The instructor, Louise Schiavone, spent some time talking about the Apple-Samsung patent battle, and then led the class in a short discussion of how the case is as much a design crisis as a business crisis, with an emphasis on the design students in attendance that evening.

For Ms. Needelman and Mr. Peppers, this seemingly seamless blend of design with old-school business principles is successful in part because of Carey's focus on "business designed with humanity." [Carey professors] "know that it's not just about designing for a demographic or statistic or census," said Ms. Needelman. "It's about people."

And it makes good sense. "If you're satisfying the needs of the user, you will satisfy the needs of the business," said Mr. Peppers. "I know the business needs to make money, and I need to learn the language, understand the deliverables," he said.

What is especially beneficial, said the students, is that while at MICA they go through classes as a group; at Carey, they are spread out, creating some positive friction between the designers and the MBA-only students. "We're doing a good job of proving that "yes, we're the design folks,'" said Mr. Peppers. "But that doesn't mean we can't throw down over some stats."

All photos by Susana Raab.

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