Prospective IxD student seeking some portfolio / grad program advice

1 Nov 2008 - 11:21am
7 years ago
8 replies
1956 reads
textual armor


I'm a recent member to this site, and to the IxD world. I've got two
questions at the moment that I'd love some input on.

a) What are my options?
The programs I've come across and am planning to apply to are:
CMU's Masters in Interaction Design and possibly the Comm Planning and
Information Design program as well
IIT in Chicago
School of Visual Arts in New York is starting an Interaction Design program
for the first time in Fall of '09
NYU? There's the "Interactive Telephony Program" which I need to look into
to find out what it's all about.

I know the choices are somewhat limited, so I'm curious if there are schools
that I've missed - I don't have a design background and am not sure how
strong my portfolio will be, so I'd like to apply to a number of schools.

b) I'm not a designer! (yet)
I'm suffering from portfolio phobia. I studied English Lit in college, then
taught Special Education for 5 years and worked as a technical trainer for a
VOIP company for 2. I'm going to try to lean on my experience in the last
job (the most satisfying part of it involved providing user feedback to the
engineering team and helping guide development of their Web Portal and the
menu layout on the phones' displays). My concern, however, is my lack of
tangible products to put into a portfolio.

My next step will be contacting the programs to ask for their advice
(actually headed to an SVA open house in about an hour), but I'm curious if
anyone who's in or went to grad school would be willing to share some of
their portfolio work, or if anyone can point me towards resources that will
help me get some direction in creating dummy design projects I can use as
portfolio pieces.

Thanks so much!



2 Nov 2008 - 3:18pm
Jeff Howard

Hi Aaron,

I can only speak to the CMU interaction design program, but when I
applied six years ago they required a portfolio that consisted of a
sheet of slides documenting previous design work.

Slides are static and don't communicate much more than visual
qualities, so my take is that in the portfolio they're looking for
evidence of basic visual literacy.

I applied to three schools, and tuned the emphasis of my portfolio
for each: a combination of web application design, website design,
information design, page layout, logos, posters, photography and

No wireframes; no design research. Just things that look good on a
35mm slide.

As a counterbalance, your statement of intent will carry quite a bit
of weight; explaining your interests and goals for study in Design.

If I remember correctly only a handful of incoming students at CMU
had a formal background in Design, so you're not alone there. Most
came from other undergraduate programs such as Economics, Art,
Marketing, English, German, Anthropology. I think one student used to
build pipe organs.

That diversity of experience is valuable, but I believe that all had
actually worked as designers or come to Design in one way or another
before applying to the program.

Carnegie Mellon holds a summer session for incoming graduate students
without an undergraduate Design education. It's a series of one-week
immersions into photography, layout, type, form etc, coupled with a
software bootcamp to get up to speed with the Adobe suite of tools.

Check out Dan Saffer's CMU blog.

He documented his entire course of study in the graduate program,
starting with the summer boot camp. It might give you some ideas for
the kind of portfolio pieces to focus on for admission.

Good luck with the search.

// jeff

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2 Nov 2008 - 1:48pm

Hi! I'm new to the field as well, but I'm a Web Designer by trade.
I've found two books by Alan Cooper especially helpful, as he's a
proponent of Interaction Design:

"The Inmates are Running the Asylum" and "About Face I" (there's
three books that I know of in the About Face series).

Go to Alan Cooper's company website, and cruise the
information there. VERY informative from one of the people who
started Interaction Design itself.

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2 Nov 2008 - 7:43pm

I am a graduate of the HCI Design program at Indiana University. A
portfolio is not required for this program.

My background is in Journalism so I had some photography and graphic
design training. I had been doing web design and development before I
started the program. Others in the program had backgrounds in
psychology, criminal justice, computer science and a wide variety of
other majors. The program also had people from all over the world.
Feel free to contact me off list if you want to discuss the program
some more.

Others to look at:

University of Michigan

Georgia Tech

I know Savannah College of Art and design is working on a program.
David Malouf can speak about this program more.

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3 Nov 2008 - 8:03am
Ali Naqvi

Hello Aaron,
is it a criteria to have a portfolio beforehand? I did a BA in
Internationcal Business COmmunication where my major was English and
my minor American Studies. I applied for the Master of Science
programme in User Centered Design in 2006 and recently graduated.
Isnt a motivated letter of application enough? If you need a letter
let me know I will send you mine. (though note that my MSc was done
in Denmark.)

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3 Nov 2008 - 12:42pm

I'm not sure how you feel about going outside of the US, but you
should also definitely check out the graduate programs at Simon
Fraser University's SIAT program (School of Interactive Arts and
Technology), in Vancouver, BC (well, actually Surrey). I received a Interactive Arts, major in Interaction Design there 4 years
ago and had no problems getting right into the field. I also loved
the programs and people there.

I'm not sure about other schools, but here I wouldn't be too
concerned with portfolio pieces... more so a strong letter of intent
and any relevant work experience. The fact that you actually have
relevant work experience is more than a lot of the recent undergrads
students entering these programs, I think, so don't get discouraged!

Good luck.

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3 Nov 2008 - 12:18pm
John Vollmer

Hey Aaron, I just started at the Institute of Design this fall and
I'd be happy to talk with you about my experience in the program so
far as well as the portfolio/application process. Somewhat similar to
CMU's summer session, the Institute of Design has a year long
introductory program for students without design undergrad degrees
who have had some (or even no) design experience before coming. I'm
doing Foundation, and it's been great digging into communication
design, product design, photography and design planning.

Feel free to get in touch.


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3 Nov 2008 - 8:43am
Dan Greenblatt

I graduation from the HCI program at Georgia Tech in 2007 and am
pretty fanatical about the education and opportunities I got while
studying there. I can't recommend it enough (I'd be happy to talk
to you more about it off line).

Similar to some of the other programs commenters on this thread
mentioned, you don't need a portfolio to apply for that program. The
curriculum is set up to accomodate three different general 'tracks'
: computer science, digitial media, and psychology / usability,
depending on what your interests/goals are. The idea is that you have
a focus, but can pick classes from each area to round out your skills.
I went in with a computer science undergrad degree -- and no
portfolio, just a carefully written statement of purpose that related
my past experiences and future goals to why I wanted to be in that
HCI program.

I suppose if you wanted to concentrate on the digital media track,
then a portfolio could be an asset to your application there, but
most likely still not mandatory.

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