Getting Accepted: What ArtCenter is Looking for in Their GradID Industrial Design Masters Applicants 

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. In this edition, we’re focusing in on ArtCenter’s GradID graduate program in Pasadena, California. Their next upcoming application deadline for 2021 applicants falls on February 15, 2021.

When it comes to education, ArtCenter is one of the trusted veterans of the industrial design arena. Their longstanding reputation is improved on each year as their programming responds to the evolving professional demands of the design industry today. ArtCenter’s Grad ID Master of Science program is a competitive one to enter with only 12-15 spots, but offers an experience that will prepare any student to step into their professional career post-graduation with an unfaltering confidence.

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Department Chair Andy Ogden, a former VP of Design for Walt Disney Imagineering R&D, explains “we’re trying to simulate in the experiences we have in the program the kinds of challenges people are going to have when they get out into their professional careers. And I think that that continues to distinguish our program.” In a time where job stability is uncertain and applicant competitiveness is rising, this approach feels like a much-needed one in design education. “If we do our job well,” Ogden says, “we’re training people to go into a very new world where they’re going to face problems I never did as a young designer…[Design problems] now are these complex and unstructured problems, so it requires a different toolkit. Our hope is that we’ve given people the toolkit, and they’ve practiced it enough that they have the kind of confidence to be fearless in facing problems that they haven’t run into before.”

So who is this program for? GradID is a great choice for students who want to be both a seamless and necessary fit for companies working to solve design problems in the here and now. Their six semester course plan with an extensive 21 credit semester means your time spent in the program will be jam-packed with courses focusing on industry-relevant information. One factor important to note is GradID’s six-semester course. Ogden tells us, “we make it possible for somebody to do those six semesters still in a two year period. But there’s no break in between in the summers. Most of our students will choose to take a little bit longer, because they’re going on internships, or they’re taking semesters off. We also have a partner dual degree program with the Drucker School of Management at Claremont Graduate University, and some of our students choose that track, which also might extend their period of study a little bit.”

We recently chatted with Ogden to hear more about what it takes to get into ArtCenter’s GradID program and what students can expect to get out of their time there.

Aarish Netarwala designed “GRIT,” a resistance training shoe, within the Advanced Product Design course led by Kevin Beard

Core77: What are the typical backgrounds of your students?

Andy Ogden: It varies greatly. I remember when my son was trying to get into a school for kindergarten, and there were about 450 applicants trying to get 12 spots at this school that was very desirable to get into. We didn’t get in, but I had a chance to talk with the dean and I asked, “How do you decide?” And the dean said, “Look, we’re not trying to find a profile of one person that repeats, we’re building an orchestra.”

The program is really built on the premise that the future of innovation is with cross disciplinary teams, each made up of representatives with depth in a certain area, but need to have breadth across that and perform at a high level. To get the breadth that we need, we look for that from associates to our program, but also in the makeup and the background of the students who are coming in.

In terms of the backgrounds of our students, it’s not infrequent that they will come from an engineering background. We’ve had people who studied art history, English; it’s extremely varied. And of course, then we have people who are transitioning from an adjacent design field, people who studied environmental design or architecture.

One of the patterns that repeats out is [applications from] engineers. Industrial design is still a very esoteric field that’s misunderstood, so it’s not unusual that a high school counselor talking to a student who says, “I’m interested in how to make Products,” might tell them to investigate engineering because they really don’t know about industrial design. That, combined with instances where some parents tell their kids design is not a reputable profession on their list, can be a factor. So they will go through the engineering degree, they still want to be a designer, and they’ll seek that out in their graduate education.

So we try to say that we’re looking for people who show us evidence that they are a designer in their soul, that they have those attributes. But they may have had a different formal educational path in their undergraduate.

Subinay Malhotra Chibi designed an augmented reality game promoting active play within GradID’s Thesis Studio (led by Andy Ogden, Byron Wilson, Susan Marki, and Lan Yu)

I’m curious if you have an idea of what kind of industries a lot of your students will often go into.

About 10 years ago, one of the things that started to happen was a phenomenon we kind of predicted when we were designing our new curriculum around 2005. Our prediction of what was going to happen is that businesses were consistently going to have a new set of problems effectively, and there was going to be an increased need for this complex, unstructured problem solver. So we teach students under that philosophy and we have graduates at a very wide range of companies who have goals in developing new value and innovating new products, in some capacity.

But they work at the largest medical companies, they work at Facebook, they work at Google, Amazon, you know, all of those big players. We also have people throughout the automotive industry; we’ve got people working on some of the most advanced interface design work that’s happening in the automotive industry right now. There are people at big companies like GE, IBM—it’s all over the place.[ArtCenter graduates are also great fits at] companies who do consulting business, go in and work with their clients, and they’re coming out of that with the need to create new products and services that will meet whatever the consultation kind of came up with.

GradID student Xuan Yu’s project GUI, a new burial and memorial experience, designed for their Thesis Studio

How would you define what makes for a successful grad student at ArtCenter? And what do students who get in need to do in order to excel in the program?

I think somebody who will excel as [after graduation] has built familiarity with the methodology we practice in our program, practiced it successfully, and produced demonstrable results in their grad show and portfolios. And I think we’re very effective at ArtCenter in supporting the students on graduation with the recruiting event—we refer to it as our grad show. That very often is the connection point they use to get into their employment immediately after graduating. But it’s not unusual that our students will pursue an internship even earlier in their career before they graduate, which will lead to the connections that they have for their next step. And we do a fair amount of mentoring and planning. In the curriculum itself, we have workshops focused on each student being thoughtful about what they’re going to do next.

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In terms of people just entering the program, in short, we look for signs of curiosity. I think design can be empathetic to solving problems for other people, and we look for that too. As opposed to somebody where everything in their portfolio suggests that it’s only about their brand and making things, I think our program suits someone who is interested in taking on complex problems, and coming up with solutions that help other people. So they’ve got evidence of empathy, evidence of the ability to think in terms of systems. We like to see that people are looking at the bigger picture of what they’re working on, as well as the details of it. We see that evidence of systems thinking as potential that we can help them grow in the program.

But we’re also looking for people who make attractive, delightful stuff, we want to see that. I think that’s kind of taboo to talk about in academic institutions, but you know, we pay attention to taste and that has a bearing on whether or not somebody is going to be successful. There are certain things you can grow that are kind of nascent, and certain things don’t grow that much. So we look for the people we think we can affect. And we kind of broadly ask the question, if we were to add what we know we can do to what this person is showing us, does that look like the outcome is going to turn out to be successful for everybody?

So to a prospective student who’s looking to apply next year, what should they be doing right now to prepare their applications and their portfolios? And what are the types of projects you’d like to see from an applicant?

As you may know, this idea of making a portfolio is never done. So the advice I would give somebody who’s applying is kind of the same advice I give to our students who are graduating: portfolios demonstrate the ability to consistently make smart decisions. And I think that’s what you’re really being assessed on. So it’s down to every aspect that you can think about how you display your ability to make smart decisions.

My general advice is, if you demonstrate that you have the ability to take on three different problem spaces and produce solutions that are valuable and respond to the demands of whatever that situation was, if you show that you can do that three times, then that’s probably enough to build confidence that you have the ability to do that repeatedly. But beyond that, you know, sometimes people will throw in a whole bunch of extra things that don’t really make any additional value. And that simply is not a smart decision.

Designers Wayne Wang, Cherry Ian Nei Ng Zodiac Safran’s designed this optimal business class experience within Graduate ID Studio, led by Andy Ogden, and Rob Hennigar

A demonstration of the cabin’s sleeping capabilities

In addition to that, we have a particular essay we ask for that’s a bit atypical, and there’s no right answer to it. The essay question is, “if we gave you two years of time that was undisturbed, and you had $10 million, what would you go do with it?”

And we are looking at that open-ended question to show us people who are driven to do something. Because increasingly, I find this is one of the most absent things in the generations of people we’re getting to come into the school, and it makes all the difference in the world. There are a bunch of people who are out there playing the game, and they’re gathering certificates, but you know, whether one is going to be successful as a creative requires that they have an internal drive system to want to do something. And I think there’s also [in that essay] an expression of values by the choice they make of what they would spend their time on, and we’re looking for that too. So we wouldn’t filter anybody out because they did something that wasn’t trying to make the world a greater place in a bigger picture, but we appreciate it when people want to take on problems we know are longstanding systemic issues that need attention.

You were speaking to the idea that a lack of editing could be a problem when it comes to sending in an application but I’m wondering, are there examples of applicants who came close but missed the cut? What are those deciding factors for you in that instance?

We’ve had the good fortune of having a pretty large pool [of applicants], and we have a very small class. So the discerning factor oftentimes will be the expressed level of maturity. After we get to a sort of final cohort selection, that’s a little bit bigger than what we’re going to end up with. So you know, it might be in the 20s, or 30s, instead of the final number of 12 to 15 we’re going to take in for our class, and we arrange for a Zoom call or a phone call with every one of them. We talk to everybody for a bit, and in those conversations, there are some specific questions that we’re interested in. But the fundamental thing we’re looking for is to understand whether people are able to communicate at a sufficient level and whether they’re articulate, because that makes a lot of difference. We’re also looking for understanding of their life experience, because that makes a big difference on how much we can do for them as well.

So we get lots of applicants these days, there are many people who are already applying for their master’s degree and they haven’t finished their undergraduate degree. And somebody who’s had a little bit of work experience out there is going to probably end up higher on our list, because we know that that’s going to be a factor. And then when we have people who are coming from non-design backgrounds, there’s a healthy amount of concern and evidence that they will need to build some aesthetic design skills. And if that becomes a barrier, that could be a problem. So we place our bets on the people we think we can elevate to a level of competency in those areas, based on what we’ve got as evidence. For example, if you can’t draw at all, that’s going to be a steep hill to climb.

What differentiates an application that is satisfactory from one that’s exceptional?

Oh, well, I guess it runs the gamut. But I haven’t seen too many exceptional ones, to be honest with you. ‘Exceptional’ would be that they’re already showing they can apply a methodology and they’re using a methodology that includes some of the things that we do in our program. And that’s just extremely unusual to find, because frankly, anybody who’s gotten that far along is probably in incredibly high demand, and the idea of going back to graduate school is not going to be that likely.

So I would say that, ironically, people who are exceptional graduates in undergrad don’t grow that much historically when they come in. And it’s not that I won’t invest in somebody with that background again, but when and if they get here, they’ve kind of hit their peak. And the fact that they focused so much on the artifact development in the aesthetics is sometimes a barrier to getting into asking the questions that we want to get to, which is less about, how do you make a better solution? And it’s more about, are we working on the right thing in the first place?

Interesting. I suppose that takes away the pressure that if you don’t have this perfect design background that you can’t go to graduate school for design.

We often talk about design with a little D, which is, what’s the size of the radius on the corner of that thing? Are the proportions nice, and what’s the color of it? And then we talk about design with a big D, which is really the integration of the business issues with the technical capabilities with the the needs of people. That [capital D design] is where growth and an opportunity for designers is going.

For someone who’s going to invest the time and the amount of money that we asked them to, we think [the program] needs to pay out, to lead to the kinds of jobs and career paths that have a growth potential for a long term. And that’s the job that’s dealing with those capital D issues. And increasingly, the small d issues have a large population of people [who will solve those issues], and it’s going to wherever it can be done at the lowest price.

For someone who’s seriously considering your program, are there any kind of questions they should be asking or things that they should be considering when they think about when applying for and researching the program?

Yeah, I think I think all of our lives are filled with one repeating question chanting inside our heads right now because of the pandemic. And the question is, what happens next? I think I would ask that.

If I were a student applying to any graduate program, if I go through [the program] and successfully complete the academic requirements, I do a good job with all of those things, the question is, what am I able to do? What are the doors that are going to be open to me when I get out of here? And then what they need to do for that to be effective is to then also ask themselves the question ahead of time, what do you want to be doing?

A lot of our young people who come through the program, a lot of people in general, don’t ask that question enough times in their life. And it’s a hard one to answer. But I think it’s the kind of thing you need to ask. Then you need to ask it again in about five years, then again in another five years, and keep a check on that. But I think those are the two you should ask yourself: what it is that you want to do? And then ask—ask or look for evidence of what people do when they get out of that program. What are the doors that are open to them?

The deadline for ArtCenter’s GradID Fall 2021 is February 15, 2021. Take what you’ve learned here to finish your application! Apply now at

Source: core77

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