This post is part of our “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 the MITidm (idm stands for “Integrated Design & Management”). Their Masters of Science program focuses on the seamless integration of design, business, and engineering curriculum.
What makes a great leader? For MITidm, that means leading with a sense of integrity built off the foundations of Human Centered Design. “It can be difficult sometimes to be that leader who is a visionary, has integrity, can be compassionate, while making tough decisions; all of those things can kind of be in tension with each other. So we use Human Centered Design to build out those qualities and people…HCD is this framework that is low-hanging fruit for all of us in leadership positions,” notes MITidm Founding Director Matthew Kressy.
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And that type of person is precisely who the MITidm program hopes to shape and inspire. The goal is not just to motivate graduates to be a designer in the room with executives making big decisions, but to be included as one of those leaders who can speak the languages of designers, engineers, and entrepreneurs simultaneously. MIT is already known worldwide as an institution driven by innovation, but MITidm offers graduates an opportunity to look at the field of innovation through a hyper human-focused lens while also gaining the know-how to get a project off the ground successfully.
So who is this program for? For creative, entrepreneurial people with multi hyphenate tendencies who are ready to get to work on a mission, MITidm is a great fit. Kressy also notes that an important element of students is also what he likes to call the ‘love metric’, meaning a desire to help people using their gifts. “We really look for people who are predisposed to do good in the world,” Kressys says, “who see beauty in many things and see beauty in other people.”
We recently spoke with Matthew Kressy to hear more about what it takes to get into the MITidm graduate program and what students can expect to get out of their time there.
Core77: What kind of industries do your students often go into?
Kressy: They go into all kinds of industries. First of all, 40% of our students are entrepreneurial, and they leave and start companies. But that’s also someone you want working for your company, so the other 60% go and work for an existing company. And those companies range from all the ones you can imagine— Tesla, Apple, Schlumberger, Sony, but also startups and all kinds of small companies. We have some students who go to consulting firms like Accenture or Altitude or Continuum. Some of our students go out and do social ventures. We even have students who are applying all of their skills to policy design and politics, which is really where I hope many more of our students go, to become leaders of society with a design background. So I mean, they run the gamut.
No matter the company, they’re generally in an innovation space. So if they go into a company that maybe has more of a product that’s a commodity, they’ll be on the innovation team.
Are internships part of the IDM program and if so, you know, what are companies that you have connections with in those cases?
Almost all our students do an internship between their first and second year of the two year program. And we have a fabulous career development person, Amanda Peters, who works closely with all our students and all these companies that find our program fascinating. She works hard to find nice fits for those students in those companies.
I was curious if you could expand on what the typical backgrounds of your students are? You’ve already spoken to IDM’s kind of “one-third” philosophy, but it would be interesting if you could expand on that.
Sure, I’ll start with the design bucket. The backgrounds that fall into that bucket would be UI/UX design, obviously industrial design, graphic design. We have our people with architecture backgrounds. Some are people who went to art school, it could be a ceramic artist or a photographer who fit in that design bucket.
In the engineering bucket, we have people with backgrounds in mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, biology, chemistry, material science. There are manufacturing engineers. You name it!
And then for that business bucket, just imagine all the various business disciplines. So you could have studied climate finance, you could have been an entrepreneur and started your own company. We love that actually, if you’ve created a company. Let’s say you’re a designer that created a company—well, you could go into either bucket. But for business applicants, their background could be in finance, economics, supply chain management, you could even have studied leadership.
What are some skills that accepted students should expect to come in with in order to excel? What are the things that they’re going to learn once they get into the program that they might not know already?
We only expect that you’re competent in the skillset you claim to be competent in. We then teach the other two buckets. So if you’re an engineer coming in, part of what we do in the IDM core curriculum is teach that engineer business and design skills. And it’s not to make them a designer, or an entrepreneur or business person. It’s to give them appreciation for those other disciplines, so that they know how to better create teams and organizations and run those teams and organizations to create wonderful results.
An analogy I like to use is that all our students are coming in as virtuosos on instruments. We have violinists, we have cellists, we have saxophonists, we have timpanists, violas, we have oboe players. We have all these instrumentalists, and they have just been going deep on their instrument their entire life. But now they want to be a conductor or a composer, and they want to create a symphony, a piece that will be played by a symphony, and that piece will be enjoyed by people. How do you do that if you don’t understand the violin, you don’t understand how other instruments are used or how much sound they can make? So we want everybody to sample each instrument so they become better composers and conductors. We just expect them to be deep on their instrument, and then we’ll focus on the synthesis of all of the instruments and the process to create a beautiful composition or piece.
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How would you define what makes for a successful grad student in the IDM program and what do students who get in need to do within the school to excel in the program?
Well, they definitely have to have a growth mindset, and should be an optimist. They should have a can-do attitude. I think we really appreciate an entrepreneurial spirit, the idea that you may not have an answer, you may not even know what the question is, but you have the ability to create the question, and find the answer.
And like I mentioned earlier, this idea of the glass-half-full optimist, can-do thing is really about seeing good, seeing an opportunity. How can you be successful if you don’t see opportunity?
I think the other thing that’s really helpful is if they are independent thinkers. You know, IDM is very different. And our students as a result end up being different, when they graduate they’re a new ‘product’, per se. The world needs them, everywhere we look. Businesses are synthesizing design methods into their operations and everything they do because they can’t be competitive anymore if they don’t. And there’s a huge need for people who can help with that synthesis—those are our students. And if they think independently, they’ll be able to represent themselves well, if they can sort of say, “you know what, I’m different.” Independent thinking also feeds integrity, right? the ability to kind of come into a situation and say, “this needs Human Centered Design.” And in that process we need to really connect deeply with our stakeholders. We need to fall in love with them, and then go and design the solution.
It’s true, I think companies need people within provoking them to change and to be better, so it’s nice to have a program that might encourage people to embrace that in themselves.
And then the other thing is discipline, but not in the way you’re thinking. At MIT, opportunity is like drinking out of a firehose. There’s so much opportunity. Everybody is coming to these students with, “will you be on my team, will you help me with my startup?” They get overwhelmed with opportunities, and it just takes discipline to say no. To say, “I’m going to focus on my project and core, and maybe I’ll do one extra curricular project.” In their second year, they won’t have the core [curriculum], so they have more bandwidth to drink from that MIT fire hose. But discipline’s important to protect themselves because they can get overwhelmed.
To any prospective student who’s looking to apply next year, what should they be doing right now to prepare their applications and portfolios? What are the types of projects that you want to see from applicants?
The three big touch points in our process are the vision statement, the portfolio, and the interview. So in the vision statement, the prompt is pretty clear. It’s something like, tell us about your hopes and dreams and how IDM will help you achieve them. You’d be surprised how many people choose to, instead, give us a narrative of their resume in their vision statement. So, it would be great to see those applicants who really focus on a beautiful vision for their future, and who connect that to elements of IDM that will enable them to achieve it.
Authenticity is crucial in all of this, I think we have a very sensitive nose for inauthenticity. We’re really sensitive to people just sort of “talking the talk”. We’re looking for people who have walked the walk, which gets me on to our second point—we don’t take people right out of undergraduate. We have a minimum three year period where you’ve got to have some work experience. That’s where you learn how difficult it is to get great ideas to fruition. That’s where you learn that you don’t speak anybody else’s language. That’s where you learn no matter how great your idea is, if you can’t be persuasive and inspire other people to take action on that idea, it’ll never go anywhere.
That all generates a thirst for what we happen to serve at IDM, and the curriculum at IDM quenches that thirst. We’re not very prescriptive. You know, we do teach methods for success, but but we look for life experience. And the more intense the better—for example, three years working in a super epic experience where they came close to death, so to speak, that’s great. If you look great, but we don’t think you’ve developed that thirst, then we’ll probably have you work another year or two. And we will give what we call an “encouraging rejection”. In that case, we’ll say, we think you’re wonderful, but we want you to get some more experience.
The other thing I just want to say to all our applicants in our info sessions is that, as a person who’s mostly been rejected for 99% of everything I’ve ever tried to apply for in my life, I know how hard rejection is. And I also know now I’m on the other side, where I’m doing the rejecting, and how ridiculous it all is. A rejection from us is not in any way a prediction of whether we think they’re valuable, or an indication of whether or not they’re going to be successful or anything like that. I think all these people who apply are amazing, beautiful, wonderful people. And I think they’ll all be successful if they don’t give up.
But a rejection can sometimes cause people to give up so I want to prevent that, I want them to keep going. I’ll support them some other way if I have to, but I just can’t take the whole world in. The IDM only has spots for 33 people.
What differentiates an application for you that is satisfactory from one that’s exceptional?
Heart, is the first thing that comes to mind. Just people where you can just sense their passion and commitment. They have a desire to improve the world, and that design is a necessary part of that improvement.
Finding a grad school is similar to the process of finding a new job in that, like when you go into an interview, it should be as much about you interviewing them to see if it’s the right fit for you as much as it is you being the right fit for them. So, for anyone who’s seriously considering your program, what are the kinds of questions they should be asking themselves when researching the program to see if it’s a right fit for them?
I would just want them to feel so inspired and excited about IDM. I want them to love IDM. Because we are going to love them back, and if it’s not reciprocal, it hurts.
We have people express that to us, and it’s very meaningful. Generally speaking, I think people shouldn’t do anything in life unless they are absolutely thrilled to be doing it. You have to love what you’re doing. That’s why we talk about love all the time at IDM, and we apply it in all these different ways. Love other people, love the earth, love that doorknob! Why should you love the doorknob? Because in that design is something fabulous. And you collect it and you create a library of beautiful things in your mind, things you love, and as a designer that’s an invaluable library to draw upon when you’re solving whatever problem you come across. You love that user interface, for example; you’ll remember it because you love it. If you don’t love things, you won’t remember them, you won’t create that library, you can’t make connections that have benefits and value to other people. Or if you do, you’re drawing on a mundane archaic complicated, awful library, and now you’re designing stuff that’s uninspired and causing complexity. So yeah, they’ve gotta love what they’re doing.
I think they need to also be willing to embrace ambiguity, emotion and the processes, the intuitive processes that you need to explore those things. So I think of a painter. You know, my father was an artist and spent his life taking the emotions he was feeling and communicating them in a way through his medium so other people could somehow relate and derive value from that. And how did he do that? Did he apply some formula he learned in mechanical engineering, or use some sort of chemical molecule to do it? No. You can’t calculate your way out of an emotional problem. You have to iterate. And so I hope people who apply to our program understand that that’s a valid process of problem solving. Hopefully that will resonate with who applies.
And don’t get me wrong, IDM is a place where we teach very analytical things—I mean, we’re at MIT. But IDM is going to give you those intuitive methods to explore emotional value, and to derive value from it. And some people don’t understand that. To be honest, they get into IDM and they think it’s all gonna be formulaic or, you know, recipes for success. That’s not how solving complex problems works. So we hope potential applicants are thinking about that.
I can imagine there are some types of applications amongst the amazing ones that are a bit uninspired, and show very evidently that someone is just trying to follow the rules—
That’s a good one. Don’t follow the rules! Just tell us who you are. As soon as we sense you’re telling us what we want to hear, we’re lost. As a matter of fact, when we do the interviews that’s the first advice I give everyone.
MITidm will be accepting Fall 2022 applicants starting this summer. Take what you’ve learned here to get ready to apply this summer! Learn more about the program here.
Read our other stories in the “Getting Accepted” series: