An MFA teaching at B School?

Reading Bruce’s blog posting about the Institute of Design today made me think about my creative experiences at the Katz Graduate School of Business, at the University of Pittsburgh. Also since Ian and I have begun a conversation on "Global Design Education" over at CPH127, thinking about how our education shapes us as people and on the concept of lifelong learning, it was natural to post this here.

I realized that I’m in a unique position to articulate my thoughts on adding a design degree to a business degree, and it’s subsequent value in the world today. Straight out of undergrad,in 1989, I was selected by the National Institute of Design, in Ahmedabad to be one of 10 to the Advanced Entry Program in Product Design. At that time, the focus of the program was on form giving, inspired and shaped in their curriculum by the traditional teachings of the Bauhaus. Yes, I can draw a straight line with a pencil across an A3 sheet of paper. Not a very marketable skill, I thought. But I was wrong.

My next foray in graduate education was in the year 2000, when I joined, by much fiscal bribery on their part, shameless hustlers that they were, the 11 month accelerated MBA at the Katz Graduate School of Business, University of Pittsburgh.  Rabikar Chatterjee taught me  Product Management and Product Development. Conjoint Analysis made the NID designer in me, with all the sensibilities of an aesthetic visual sense, quiver with indignation and righteousness. I would boldly argue with Rabi, in class, about the sheer inadequacies of using statistical analysis of three different designs to choose the best one. Yuck. Every designer knows that it either works, or it doesn’t. As Buckminster Fuller says, quoted by people to me :),

When I am working on a problem I never think about beauty. I only
think about how to solve the problem. But when I have finished, if the
solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong.

However, I just noted that I have used every other framework and method of analysis and synthesis professionally since then, both at the Institute of Design, where I was Director, Graduate Recruiting and a student of Design Planning, and now working on projects with design firms. That fact alone tells me that much of what I have learnt about design, I learnt in business school.

Another teacher of mine always struck me as odd 🙂 the word is not used in a pejorative sense, Professor Richard Franklin, but fact is, you were unusual in Business School. The other faculty had PhD’s from Harvard, Wharton and MIT. Richard has an MFA in Music from Carnegie Mellon and
MS in Information Science, University of Pittsburgh. If that isn’t the left brain/right brain whole brain a la Dan Pink, I don’t what is. I sat through his compulsary
Information Systems, bored out of my skull for the most part, sorry Richard, but you may recall I was one of the few who said I’ve been working on a personal computer since 1983. But I recall meeting a doctor who, after 16 years as an ob/gyn, chucked up his 600,000 dollar a year practice to come to Bschool with me – I CTRL-ALT-DELeted his laptop and he was impressed. Hah, he had a GMAT score of 750 and had forgotten the equation of a straight line because he’d been doing a caesarian just before sitting for the exam. 

Anyway, my point is that  to have a teacher who sells CD’s of his jazz compositions out of his basement teaching us the basics of business information systems was mindblowing to me. That, perhaps, was when I had the first inkling of the way business and design (creatives) could work well together and in innovative ways. It certainly made him an innovative teacher.

It was after graduating from the MBA program that I received a Heinz Foundation Fellowship at the Office of Technology Management at the University of Pittsburgh. There, under the guidance of my mentor, Dr. Christoper Capelli, MD I learnt about the numbers side of business development, how to license technology, what to look for in prior art, how to read a patent and how to evaluate the commercial potential in nascent technology. My nightmare project as an intern was when one morning, Chris briefed me on a invention submission on monoclonal antibodies and wanted a one page recommendation by the end of the day on whether they should spend the money on patenting it or not. i.e. did this early stage product have any viable development path? We issued the patent. But it was here that I realized the value inherent in the design degree that I had abandoned in 1990 and decided to start looking for another design school that could help me finish my degree. After all, Chris wasn’t an MBA, he was an MD, and he was applying business metrics to disease.

That was how I found an interview of Larry Keeley where he talked about the programs at the Institute of Design and what he was teaching there. On a whim, I flew down to Chicago one weekend and met with Patrick Whitney, head of the Design Planning track, as a prospective student. Having been my own end user came in useful when Patrick offered me the position of Director, Graduate Recruiting. In my unique position, I could pick and choose my classes at ID and ended up doing one of those "self created majors" that the Master of Design allows, however with the caveat of having an advisor. My advisor was John Grimes, coordinator of the one year Master of Design Methods degree for professionals in the areas of innovation, marketing, product development etc with or without a design degree.  What sets ID apart is that it brings in just the right amount of B School thinking for the design degree to matter in the boardroom, and if a student were interested in bschool requirements such as accounting or finance, they can go across to the Stuart School of Business at IIT. I can only support what Bruce says about the education at the Institute of Design, IIT Chicago.

I find the audiences very excited. But then they come and say to me,
"Your optimism has brushed off on me. I didn’t know we had an option. I
feel so much better." They say, "Your optimism." And I am not
optimistic or pessimistic. I feel that optimism and pessimism are very
unbalanced. I am a very hard engineer. I am a mechanic. I am a
sailor. I am an air pilot. I don’t tell people I can get you across the
ocean with my ship unless I know what I’m talking about. ~ Buckminster Fuller

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3 Responses to An MFA teaching at B School?

  1. Helpful reflection on your learning journey. Thanks for the posting. And encouraging to me since my path into the business world is less than conventional. Hope you are doing well.

  2. Anirban Mukherjee says:

    Another experience at Katz where the concept of “parsimonious” statistical modeling opened up a whole way of thinking for me. Later on in life, as a part of a huge design group – we “solved” a major problem with the use of a 57 factor regression model, only to find out that a 5 micron shift in two interfaces would result in an electrical system shutdown. At the celebration for this feat, with a few drinks in me, I just shook my head thinking who was the bigger idiot – (a) the guy who believed the 57 factor model, or (b) the guy who didn’t think there was a problem with the design if a 5 micron shift would result in infant mortality. Anyways, there’s a sort of paraphrase from Mark Twain that goes something like – “….there are 3 kinds of lies in this world … lies…. damned lies… and statistics…” I guess in the business environment, we are no better than the five-year-old mentality with which we first stepped outside the confines of our homes. We look for validty in everything we do, lest it is not popular or accepted by our peers, our elders, and most of all, ourselves. It’s only that an R-square value has now replaced a mother’s approving look.
    Design is simple, simple is elegant, and elegant is beautiful.
    Happy belated Diwali, Niti!

  3. Niti Bhan says:

    Diwali Mubarak to you, Anirban. How’s Ford treating you these days? Remember checking PDA features with the conjoint analysis while listening to loud bollywood music? all piyush’s fault 🙂

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