Getting Accepted: How to Impress in Your Application to Cranbrook's Exciting New 4D Design MFA Program

This post is part of our new “Getting Accepted” series, a guide to prepping portfolios and getting into the best design programs across the United States. For our next feature, we’re focusing in on Cranbrook’s 4D graduate program, which has an upcoming application Priority deadline for their 2021 program on January 15, 2021.

If you take a look at Cranbrook’s 4D Program offering on their site, Designer-in-Residence and program head Carla Diana knows what you may be thinking—what is the fourth dimension? “The fourth dimension is time,” Diana says. “What we are looking at [in our program] is all the ways that the physical world around us can become dynamic, or change over time.” Launched at Cranbrook only in 2019, this program is already looking far beyond what many graduate design programs are honed in on today. “I think in a lot of other interaction programs they are focused on software and apps because that’s where today’s jobs are, but we are looking towards tomorrow’s jobs,” Diana says. “I’m already starting to see glimpses of it if I look at what’s bubbling up from Apple, HP, Samsung; they are looking for designers who can manage tangible interaction, designers who can think creatively around the physical interaction of an object or space.” For leaders in the 4D program, what that means is not just focusing on interaction in the forms of screens and apps, but a very particular “tangible interaction design,” as Diana describes it. The 4D program believes this physical component is a key to unlocking what interaction in the future really looks like.

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As Carla Diana puts it, while the two years in this program will equip you to hop into the workforce with plenty of skills and confidence, the ultimate goal goes beyond even that. “I think that the value to learning, the value to society, the value to challenging the status quo is much more important during this two years than chasing business opportunities,” Diana says, “which is certainly not to say that our graduates don’t come out with the ability to work in a lot of different businesses and business oriented organizations.”

So who is this program for? “What would make a great 4D grad student is someone who is more focused on pushing ideas forward than they are focused on tools and techniques. Because the passion around the idea will drive you to learn the tools and techniques that you need to express a given idea,” says Diana. If you’re a mid-career, highly independent thinker who enjoys asking the big questions and preparing for the jobs of tomorrow (or in turn, being a part of shaping what tomorrow looks like), this studio-focused approach will likely be a match for you.

Cranbrook resident Jerry Li’s “Emotional Hat” prototype, 2020

We recently chatted with Diana to hear more about what it takes to get into Cranbrook’s exciting new 4D program and what students can expect to get out of their two years there.

Core77: I’m curious to hear what kind of industries your students often go into after graduating from the program.

Diana: This is a tricky question because we started the program just last year! Our first class will graduate in May 2021. So we haven’t had graduates actually out there in the world, but we have had several graduates who came out of other programs [with somewhat similar trajectories].

There’s one fellow, Joshua Walton, who was part of the core team at Microsoft HoloLens helping to develop the next generation of augmented and mixed reality. There are a bunch of people in the mixed reality space. Actually, the Vice President of Design for Magic Leap, which is another mixed reality headset, is also an alum from the 3D department. But we typically have a few paths and I do see 4D Design students following one of those paths. A pretty straightforward path would be joining a consultancy, something like a frog design, IDEO, smart design, and another path would be joining a big company like an HP or Microsoft or Google or Apple where we can have alums. We also tend to breed fiercely independent creative professionals who want to blaze their own path, so we do have a large number of alumni who start their own studio practices and tend to have what I might call boutique studio practices where they have a very unique vision of offering. A final path is academia—we also have an unusual number of people who are teaching in universities throughout the world.

What are the typical backgrounds of your students, and what are they interested in?

Cranbrook design programs veer closer to the art world than other design programs. That’s another path I didn’t mention is the professional artists and gallery artists, that would certainly be a path. So we really have quite a few students where that path is appealing. I mean, So what I’m building in the 4D program is a cohort that brings a mix of complementary sets of skills, points of view, and ways of working. What makes us unique, and even unique within the larger Cranbrook network, is that our studio combines folks who have backgrounds in art and design with people who have backgrounds in technology and engineering. And you know, they each come to the table and help each other. Peer learning is a big part of the pedagogy here is—seeing projects, seeing what other folks are doing, and then asking questions about that. We have a lot of tinkerers. Even the folks who are on the art side of things tend to be tinkerers, but we we do attract engineers who know that they want more creative energy in that work.

One the thing people might be surprised to hear about Cranbrook is that there aren’t any classes—can you expand a bit on how that works?

So we have no traditional classes. The way that I like to describe it is it’s more like one long course that is carefully curated. And what’s really beautiful about that, particularly in 4d, is that we can respond to the world and to the changes in the pulse of what’s happening in design, technology and society. So we have our workshops, which are sort of mini courses. We have one that we’re doing with Rob Walker, who is a journalist and writes for design publications, he used to do the Consumed column for The New York Times, and he is doing a workshop with us around developing your point of view. We say the content of the work is as important as the methodology around the work throughout our workshops. We also have a fellow named Timi Oyedeji coming out of some R&D labs at IKEA and Google who’s doing a workshop around gesture and machine learning. And then I have a fellow, Matt Jones, who is at Google and he’s going to be doing a workshop with us around AI.

Cranbrook 4D invites artists as designers known as “catalysts” to lead workshops at the program such as Amos Timi Oyedeji, pictured here.

What I’ve done is established a number of relationships with designers and artists around the world. I call them “catalysts” as opposed to visiting artists because I feel like a visiting artist comes and does a talk, or workshop and then leaves whereas what I’m trying to do is build more multi-year relationships, where folks would be coming back year after year. There’s another group that’s coming in, they’re called Tomorrow Lab, they’re a design engineering studio based in New York.

Like I said, we can really tailor the program to respond to what’s happening in the moment, so the Tomorrow Lab guys are actually going to challenge us to respond to the drawbacks and limitations of online collaboration. What are objects or things that we can explore that help us with human connection that often falls short through video chat?

Writer and “catalyst” Rob Walker leads a virtual session with Cranbrook 4d graduate students.

And then there’s Tony Woodfield, who used to be a professor at Parsons at one point, he was Dean of Social Justice, and he’s relocated to Detroit. And so he’s putting together a workshop for us around actually connecting with your local community, and for us looking specifically at Detroit and how you connect your passions with what’s happening in your local community.

What types of skills should accepted students expect to come in with in order to excel? What are they going to learn that they might not know already?

The students should have an ability to communicate visually. They should be comfortable expressing ideas through sketching, they should have some sense of modeling, both in the virtual and physical space. And they should demonstrate an aptitude with technology. With that said, the question I always get is, do you need to know Arduino, Raspberry Pi? And the answer is no, that is something that you can build and develop here, but you must show that you are comfortable. Demonstrate if there’s any kind of coding that you’ve done before, and that you understand what’s involved in coding, that you understand the online resources that exist.

I listen for confidence around technology, even if the skills aren’t there. So if someone comes into an interview and they say, “Oh, I just hate using software, it’s so confusing to me,” which believe it or not I’ve had people say, that is something that then tells me this person is not a fit for this program. But if someone comes in and they say, “Hey, I’ve never used Arduino before, but I know what it is I understand the principles and I’m really great at DIY,” then that’s actually a perfect fit.

How would you define what makes for a successful 4D grad student and what do students who get in need to do in order to excel within the program?

What would make a great 4D grad student is someone who is more focused on pushing ideas forward than they are focused on tools and techniques. Because the passion around the idea will drive you to learn the tools and techniques that you need to express a given idea. So, above everything else we’re looking for a passion around some aspects of life— it may be around gender and sexuality, it could be someone who’s really interested in thinking about the ways that women are underrepresented in public speaking, let’s say, and wanting to dig deep deeply into a subject matter that is an area of passion. I had somebody apply who said, “I’m really interested in this idea of building a community that exists on an island in the middle of the ocean and can be totally self-sustaining.” That’s a perfect 4D student. And then all the ideas flow from there—okay, what does it take to live in the middle of the ocean? How do you combine solar power with all of the things that you need, how do you have somebody live a sustainable life, that gives them everything that they need, how do you build tools that allow people to continue building more tools for themselves? I think there are 1000 questions in that scenario, and it comes from a drive around a really unique idea of resilience and independence and irreverence.

An example of current Cranbrook 4D student Michael Candy’s past work: The Synthetic Pollenizer, a robotic flower that offers a manufactured nectar supplement while attaching locally harvested pollen to bees. (image via Dezeen)

Let’s say I am a prospective student and I’m looking to apply next year—what are the kinds of projects that you want to see from an applicant that are really going to blow you away?

First of all, I will typically look for an eye for aesthetics. Everything that’s in your application should communicate that you’re a visual person, that you care about visual Communication and form. So, paying attention to the formal details for sure. The things that would really shine would then be a combination of that aesthetic sensibility with rigorous experimentation. While you don’t have to know Arduino to come in, it will really improve your chances if you have experimented with electronics and you show those experiments. Those can both exist in the application at the same time to showcase different parts of a process, right? Because there’s a lot involved in electronics, like we don’t necessarily need to see a fully polished prototype of the next generation of Smart Object. But what I’m looking for is experiments, somebody who’s taken electronics and said, “I wonder if I can create this kind of experience with a motor, with lights, or with sound” and shows that in the portfolio. Shows a video of somebody interacting with something—certainly interaction is at the core, so a love of interaction has to shine through.

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What does it take to get in and are there any examples of applicants who came close but maybe missed the cut and if so, what were the deciding factors?

I think that the bottom line comes down to maturity and independent thinking. When I have an applicant who seems to have a lot of skills, but in their statement or interview when I ask them what they’re interested in exploring, they’ve missed the mark if they are not able to take it to a level of critical inquiry.

For example, let’s say they’ve designed an interactive water bottle that they’ve included in their application. It’s a beautiful rendering, and they did an Arduino prototype. But when they talk about the project, if the focus of their ideas cannot go beyond today’s idea of a water bottle and embrace a conversation around [questions like], what does it mean to drink water? What are the implications for sustainability? What does water mean? If they’re not able to go to an emotional place when talking about their work, then they will miss the mark.

When I was reading about the program another aspect that stood out to me was this focus on storytelling and I think that fits in well with the idea of putting your application together. I was wondering if you had any advice around using storytelling within your application?

You know what’s really funny is, I had a friend who texted me last night and said, “I was just watching your talk about storytelling, and then I went and looked and I said, “I did that talk for the very first Core77 Conference!” That was all around storytelling and meaning through storytelling.

And the way I phrase it in those talks is I say that stories, at least, the stories that we tell as designers are reality plus emotion. I was talking largely about my kids book that had just come out at that time called “Leo the Maker Prince: Journeys in 3D Printing”. You can tell a story about desktop 3d printing by describing the object and talking about the technology, but when it really becomes a compelling story is when you get people to understand that object, but you combine that with emotion. So, 3D printing is exciting because I can imagine a little girl who can download and print her toys on a rainy day, and create something new to play with her friends. I’m excited about 3D printing when it’s an object that allows an independent designer who typically had to rely on factories, and now can custom-make jewelry for her customers and connect with them on a one-to-one level.

So think about what’s new about the technology. The technology by itself is just a circuit a bunch of plastic and circuitry, right? What really makes it into a story and what somebody who’s applying and describing their projects, the story comes from thinking about the thing of the project, and then explaining why that thing brings value emotionally.

For anyone who’s seriously considering the 4D program, can you explain what type of questions those considering applying should be thinking about when researching the program to make sure it’s the right fit?

I think they need to ask what the day-to-day is like. Our unique structure of not having traditional course titles and classes is a really big part of the experience here, so I would expect applicants to ask a lot of questions about what that experience is like. And I think certainly with any program, asking about studio spaces, asking about tools and resources that we have for making [is important]. And asking what are the major milestones in the academic school year.

In terms of fit, a lot of people apply to graduate school right out of undergrad and that is not the perfect fit [for our program]. The perfect fit is someone who has a background in art design or engineering, who graduated, let’s say, three to five years ago, has experienced what the job world is like, has experienced what different paths are for designers, and will come to the program with that knowledge and perspective and maturity. They’ll have a sense of dissatisfaction with what I might call the formula of life—go to college, graduate, get a job, buy your house, whatever. Someone who says there must be more.

Cranbrook’s 4D Graduate Program is now accepting applications for 2021, with an application Priority deadline of January 15, 2021. Take what you’ve learned here to finish your application! Apply now here.

Read our other stories in the “Getting Accepted” series:

Tips for Acing Your Application to UPenn’s Integrated Product Design Program

How to Be a Standout Applicant to SVA’s Products of Design MFA Program

Source: core77

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