About our Research

The School of Design is located within one of the world’s premier research universities. Students and faculty alike undertake collaborative research in other on-campus schools and colleges, and often partner with neighboring institutions such as the University of Pittsburgh, whose campus adjoins our own. Our faculty also participate in research projects with colleagues from other institutions around the world, and the School of Design is a member of Design for Social Innovation and Sustainability (DESIS), an international network of design schools working in the area of social innovation research.

Because we offer joint master’s degrees with the CMU schools of Mechanical Engineering and the Tepper School of Business, and have faculty with appointments in a number of other departments, there’s a decided transdisciplinary quality to our research.

Research within the school seeks to understand design for interactions as an agent of change, and explores the ways in which people conceive, plan, and script behaviors. We were one of the first programs in North America to establish practice-based design research. Our research investigates the ways in which new technologies restructure our everyday practices and conceives of ways in which society can live and work sustainably and equitably.

Research at the School of Design is situated in three broad areas of designing for interactions: Design for Services, Design for Social Innovation, and Transition Design. Research projects are both practice-based, critically reflecting on and through the process of designing, and historical and theoretical, articulating principles and methods in the field of Design Studies.

Design for Service

Design for Service is a relatively new, multidisciplinary approach that focuses on the design of interactions between customers/users (service recipients) and service providers (companies, organizations). Designing for service focuses on an entire system of ‘touchpoints’ that usually exist with complex physical and digital environments. Service system solutions are conceived to be profitable for the provider, useful and desirable for the consumer, and efficient and effective for both.

The move from designing individual artifacts to service systems represents a fundamental shift in both business models and the economy. Platforms for service interactions are evolving rapidly to satisfy increasing numbers of needs.

The School of Design at Carnegie Mellon was one of the first programs to focus on service design, and continues to be on the forefront of this research.

Examples of Projects with a Service Focus:

  • Self service health care systems to empower women
  • Photography-based activity design for mothers in addiction recovery
  • Multi-touch tabletop surface display for collaborative service design
  • Service systems and new technologies for patients with chronic illnesses

Design for Social Innovation

Design for Social Innovation refers to the development of new processes, products, services, and policies that meet social needs more effectively than existing market or government solutions. By making use of the productive benefits of community relationships and local under-utilized assets, designers address quality of life issues.

Design has always addressed these issues, but in recent years designers have become more proactive in engaging with communities of all kinds who do not have access to design expertise. Designers work with stakeholders through participatory means to facilitate or catalyze the process of innovation. The result is new or improved capabilities and relationships can lead to the better use of assets and resources.

This type of design-enabled social innovation seeks to create systems-based solutions that enable communities to support themselves in an ongoing way; social innovations are good for society and empower the capacity of a community to act.

Social innovation can take place in the public, private, commercial, and non-profit sectors as an alternative to capitalism. The School of Design is a leader in the field of Design for Social Innovation research, is a partner with the Heinz School at Carnegie Mellon, is a regular contributor to the Winterhouse Symposium, and is a member of the DESIS Network.

Examples of Projects with a Social Innovation Focus:

  • 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

Transition Design

Transition design is a term the School of Design is introducing to describe design-led, systems-level societal change toward a more sustainable future. Transition designers will use the tools and processes of design to re-conceive whole lifestyles and develop the infrastructures, policies, systems (food, healthcare, education,) and energy resources to support a more sustainable society.

Radical change at every level of our society is needed to address the issues of climate change, loss of biodiversity and depletion of peak resources. Transition design research focuses on the need for “cosmopolitan localism," a lifestyle that is place-based/regional yet global in its awareness and exchange of information and technology.

Transition designers deploy a deep understanding of the interconnectedness of social and natural systems and conceive solutions that leverage the power of interdependency and symbiosis. We explore the role of design in negotiating between the transition our society is undergoing and the transition that it needs to make.

Examples of Projects with a Transition Focus:

  • Designing barter systems that enable peer-to-peer service provision (Sharing Economies)
  • Creating platforms for localized social networking free of corporate data capture (Transition Towns)
  • Facilitating small group experiments with low-energy lifestyle experiments (LivingLabs)
  • Brokering between community-led innovations and anachronistic government policy (DESIS)
  • Entrepreneurial systems for large-scale retrofit of climate change effected cities (Urmadic University)
  • Job-sharing systems to enable time for local food production

More information and discussion about Transition Design >>

Design Studies

Design Studies refers to the study of designs, designers, and designing, including design education, and the allied fields in other disciplines that designers need to learn about to be more effective when negotiating complex problems. Research in the field of Design Studies examines the nature of the design process, and critically evaluates how designs impact our societies’ futures. Design Studies has been a primarily theoretical domain, but is increasingly overlapping with design practice through the creation of thought-provoking ‘Critical Designs’ and ‘Design Fictions.’

The School of Design’s PhD Program has been a leader in humanities-based ways of theorizing the nature and significance of designing, and the School continues to be a leader in the field of Design Studies. Faculty members are researching design philosophy, the nature of design research, sustainable design, living systems, design learning environments, and studio-based assessment.