College for Creative Studies’ New MFA Pairs Design with Industry Savvy

College for Creative Studies' MFA in Color and Materials prepares students for the future by emphasizing engagement with industry.

As part of the Color and Materials Design MFA, students conduct intensive research into material and market trends. The studio-based approach prepares designers to be equally fluent in materials science and market driven design strategy.

All photos courtesy of College for Creative Studies.

As diverse as today’s design education programs are, it is far from typical to find studio practice, design thinking, and business strategy taught in tandem. But one master’s degree program at the College for Creative Studies, the MFA in Color and Material Design, is boldly challenging this precedent.

Launched in 2014, the program anticipates a less professionally segmented future and thus aims to produce designers with an understanding of markets and trends who can create exciting and relevant products. Situated in Detroit, the MFA emphasizes engagement with industry; recent graduates have gone on to positions at companies like Ford, Nike, Karma Automotive, and the global design consultancy Teague.

Directed by Sally Erickson Wilson, an experienced designer with a master’s degree in textile design, the program pushes students to consider how a functional knowledge of color and materials research connects to creative studio practice. Moreover, it reveals how practice can (and should) be informed by consumer trends, global markets, and branding—approaches more often associated with degrees in business.

“Our philosophy is that color and materials need to be on trend, right for the consumer, and relevant for the brand” says Kelly Slank, an adjunct professor in the program.

Course offerings and projects illustrate this hybrid pedagogy well. Classes like “Business, Customer and User Research” or “Trend Forecasting and Future Planning” teach methodologies for researching consumer needs and values, manufacturing processes, and developments in technology—as well as how these intersect with the social and cultural conditions of various markets. Collaborations with industry partners, like the recent research project on innovative materials with the global manufacturer Lear, also provide students with real-world experiences.

Janna Urbanski, who was a professional designer prior to entering the program, values how the business courses are taught in conjunction with creative studio practice: “The best kinds of products come from collaboration with different disciplines, whether it be design, marketing, or engineering. Our courses help to foster that spirit of collaboration.”

In addition to business practices, the curriculum features color labs, material labs, and rigorous studio training. Studio topics vary each semester across a broad range of product categories including mobility and consumer electronics as well as interiors and accessory design.

According to Erickson Wilson, the mission of the program is to allow designers to author well-informed, creative points of view for professional practice. Much like Anna Wintour selectively choosing the works of others to build the Vogue brand, Erickson Wilson believes designers must curate and telegraph compelling viewpoints, or else risk losing the narrative. It is, after all, through the appropriate choice of color, materials, patterns, and finishes that, as Erickson Wilson puts it, brands can truly add value to product and “create meaning.”

The Color and Material Design MFA is currently accepting applications for the upcoming academic year. The priority application deadline is February 1st.

Students present intricate color and materials strategies to achieve concrete market goals.

The program’s intensive engagement with material properties trains designers to think creatively and strategically about product development.

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