Design Education

Design School Awards MBA Degrees

An ongoing complaint from both design and business professionals is the “other side’s” tunnel vision approach to addressing market problems. Yet it has become increasingly accepted that all roads to innovation lead through design, and that design strategy factors into every step along the path, from engineering and finance to product placement and the customer experience. Design-centered businesses are no longer an anomaly. It takes design thinking to solve business problems and vice versa – and to do it fast, because competition is no longer regional or national, it’s global.

So, it is reassuring to note that the California College of the Arts in San Francisco is awarding its first MBA in Design Strategy degrees this spring. The full-time, two-year MBA program is the only one of its kind in the United States.

Nathan Shedroff, chair of the MBA program, says that the inaugural Class of 2010 had 25 students, ranging in age from 25-61. About two-thirds of the students come from design backgrounds and are working professionals, with the other third holding degrees in disciplines including engineering, science and financial management. “Even the students who don’t have a design background have an affinity to design,” Shedroff adds.

The program’s flexible structure includes five monthly four-day weekend in-person sessions per semester, with the rest of the course work done online. As a result, many students not only keep their full-time jobs, they “commute” to class from as far away as New York, Washington, D.C., Mexico City and Vancouver, Canada. That’s a big commitment, Shedoff admits, but adds that when students factor in the cost of moving and living in San Francisco for two years, “it’s probably a wash.”

Even the online collaboration between students is part of the learning experience, since so many projects today involve teams working across time zones and vast geographic distances. Course assignments require students “to develop individual and team solutions to a variety of economic and social challenges, using design techniques such as customer-centered research, prototyping, critique and iterations as well as business metrics.”

Shedroff says that most of new graduates found the MBA program a “transformative” experience. “It’s our intention to create business leaders who are design-aware and innovation-prepared, and not only managers who can oversee the marketing, design or product development functions within a company.”

Shedroff adds, “We blend integrative thinking with analytical thinking. That is where the business world says their needs are going. They are looking to be better innovators.”

Converging design and business strategic thinking is striking many as critical to career success, which explains the growing interest in the program. Already more than 60 students have asked to enroll in CCA’s MBA program this fall, and CCA has even added a Leading by Design Fellows Program that is set to begin in May.