Program Framework

The School of Design’s new framework unifies programs and curricula and facilitates a greater level of exchange between students and faculty at the undergraduate and graduate levels. It also provides a way to introduce new knowledge and skill sets that respond to recent changes in the field of design, across all levels in the program.

Undergraduate Framework

Design for Interactions is the over-arching theme for all programs and curricula at the School of Design. It refers to the focus on the quality of interactions between people, the built (designed) world and the environment (natural world). It can involve design for product semantics, brand experiences, multi-modal media, smart devices, urban wayfinding, large information systems, and more. Designers can work in the fields of healthcare, retail, telecommunications, transportation systems, food systems, and environmental monitoring, to name a few.

Design Tracks refer to a student’s area of specialty within the broad discipline of design. Students in our undergraduate program can choose to study Product (Industrial) Design, Communication (Graphic) Design and an exciting new area, Environments (this includes design for physical and digital environments).

Three Areas of Design Focus students learn to design within three broad, externally-focused areas:  1. Design for Service 2. Design for Social Innovation and 3. Transition Design. These areas of focus represent ways of framing and solving problems that can lead to moderate (service), significant (social) or radical (transition) change.

Undergraduate Areas of Focus

Students at the undergraduate and graduate levels work on projects situated within the areas, each of which has a particular set of knowledge, skills and methodologies. These new areas have emerged within the last decade and have provided designers with a multitude of new opportunities in the marketplace. Projects and courses situated within these areas are often conducted with both corporate and community/non-profit clients.

1. Design for Service shifts the focus from the design of discrete and separate artifacts and interactions to the creation and delivery of services within complex systems or ‘service ecologies’. A service design solution reaches users through many ‘touch points’ over time and involves the design of experiences.

Service design solutions are based upon the observation and interpretation of users’ behavior and needs within particular contexts. This type of observation and analysis is conducted through design research and proposed solutions (service propositions) are visualized as service blueprints, models, maps and scenarios. Service design solutions aim to provide profit and benefits for the service provider and useful and desirable services for the user (consumer).

A well known example of a service solution is Interface Carpet who shifted their business model from the design and manufacture of carpets to the service of providing floor coverings. By encouraging people to use services, rather than own products, service design solutions promote sustainability and lead to new, alternative and often more equitable business models.

Design for service represents design within existing paradigms and systems in which moderate positive change can be achieved.

Several graduate thesis projects in the area of design for service are featured in the Carnegie Mellon Research Showcase:

Self service health care systems to empower women

Photography-based activity design for mothers in addiction recovery

A multi-touch tabletop surface display for collaborative service design

Service systems and new technologies for patients with chronic illnesses

Designing for learning in everyday contexts

2. Design for Social Innovation refers to the design of new products, services, processes and policies that meet a social need more effectively than existing solutions. Social innovation solutions often leverage or ‘amplify’ existing, under-utilized resources. An example might be the design of a children’s daycare center staffed by retired people who have additional time (an under-utilized resource). Another example is Superior Motors, a community restaurant and farm ecosystem located in Braddock, PA that was funded through the Kickstarter social networking funding platform. It is an alternative, commercial enterprise started by a local Pittsburgh chef/restauranteur whose objective is to open a new restaurant as well as revitalize the city of Braddock.

Social innovation is based upon a ‘co-design’ process in which designers work both as facilitators and members of teams comprised of a variety of disciplinary professionals and multiple stakeholders (the different groups of people involved in delivering and receiving the product or service). 

Design for social innovation is gaining recognition with community leaders and local and regional governments around the world because of its ability to grow and rejuvenate communities. Social innovation solutions benefit stakeholders and empower communities to act in the public, private, commercial and non-profit sectors.

Design for social innovation represents design within and for emerging paradigms and alternative economic models leading to significant positive social change.

Several graduate thesis projects and a faculty research project in the area of design for social innovation are featured in the Carnegie Mellon Research Showcase:

Communication roadmaps for environmental behavior change

Augmenting grocery store services for building healthy living communities

Smart home technologies for helping the elderly live independently at home

Design tools to help physicians start conversations with families about obesity

Encouraging behavioral and social change by designing information that facilitates learning

3. Transition Design is an emerging area of design practice, research and study aimed at re-conceiving entire lifestyles to be more sustainable. It is based upon the belief that the transition to a sustainable society is one of the biggest design challenges of the 21st century. Complex problems such as pollution, poverty, loss of biodiversity, the economic crises and privacy issues to name a few, are interconnected and interdependent ‘systems problems’, that exist at multiple levels of scale within the social and environmental spheres.  Students of transition design study the dynamics of complex systems and apply the tools and processes of design to ‘leverage’ these dynamics in their solution.

Transition design focuses on the need for ‘cosmopolitan localism’, a place-based lifestyle in which solutions to global problems are designed to be appropriate for local social and environmental conditions. Its objective is to foster a global network of mutually supportive communities that share and exchange knowledge, ideas, skills, technology, culture and resources.

Transition designers combine the tools and processes of design with a new understanding of living systems, global connectivity and community organizing.

Transition Design represents the design of and within new paradigms that will lead to radical positive social and environmental change.

More information about Transition Design can be found at

Design Studies:  is a unique part of our program and provides continuity between our undergraduate and graduate curricula. Design studies is an academic discipline that addresses the ubiquitous nature of design and the complex activity of designing. Courses in design studies address the different ways in which design has been characterized and practiced, the contexts and systems in which designs operates, and the responsibilities (ethics) that come with the power of designing. Design studies introduces students to issues related to society and the environment.