The Master of Design program at University of Washington engages with design through 
practice-based creative research.


The Master of Design program at University of Washington is a two year full time program. The first year involves three graduate studios and three graduate seminars, as well as elective courses. The second year is focused on the thesis project, where students work closely with their thesis chair (a member of the design faculty) and committee.

Throughout the course of the program, we follow three core principles:

  1. Making is our main way of thinking. We value critical, practice-based creative research.
  2. Design theory, research, and craft work hand in hand in exploring and pushing the boundaries of design knowledge.
  3. We see design as a tool to respond to the new social, economical, ethical, and environmental realities of the 21st century.

As a result of these three principles, we focus on how design works at the intersection of three main areas of interest: Craft and Making, Theory and Research, and Innovation. Of course, these are starting points for thinking about how design acts in the world, many other themes enrich our curriculum as well.

The MDes courses, thesis projects, and independent studies converge in a space of practice-based creative research. We encourage students to use design as a creative mode for conducting research, innovating, developing new knowledge, and contributing to the field of design. Our faculty group has expertise in professional practice as well as academic research, and everything in between. In all cases, we value making as a way of knowing and of being in the world.

During the thesis project, students are invited to engage in practice-based creative research, and to use a range of research methodologies. Broadly speaking, these methods include quantitative research, qualitative research, and research-through-design. These methods help us gain a deep understanding of the design context and the people we are designing for and with, as well as the impact of our designs. Under these large methodological umbrellas, we use and teach a variety of methods that can help inform, design and test design responses. In particular, we emphasize field deployments, material experiments, participatory design, ethnography, contextual inquiry, participant observation, usability studies and more.  

We value material experimentations of all forms. We play with paper, cardboard and cardstock, we work with wood, metal, ceramics, and plastics, and we experiment with augmented and virtual reality forms and architectures, as well as connected everyday objects.

Information design is an elective class option for MDes students.
Information design is an elective class option for MDes students.

Seminars address critical issues in design through discussion, writing and reading while studios explore ideas through applied design.

Degree Structure

The core curriculum for the graduate program consists of seminars, studios and independent study. In addition, students work closely with faculty to identify other classes (as well as special learning opportunities/projects) that correspond to their interests and objectives for graduate study.

Design Seminars address critical issues in design through research, reading, writing, presentation and discussion. All seminars are cross-disciplinary, with students from Interaction Design, Industrial Design, and Visual Communication Design backgrounds contributing to a lively, collaborative atmosphere. Seminars meet twice a week during the first year of study.

Design Studios provide a means for exploring a wide range of ideas and influences in the context of applied design. Studios meet twice a week during the first year of study. Additional studio requirements can be fulfilled through participation in ID, VCD and IxD undergraduate classes, or through independent study with design faculty.

Throughout the academic year, a number of unique learning opportunities are presented. These special projects may be suitable for an individual or a larger group of students, usually under the direction of design faculty, often with corporate sponsorship. Graduate students are encouraged to pursue these opportunities when in alignment with their personal areas of interest.

Year one is dedicated to seminars, studios, and electives. 

Autumn Quarter: 15–18 Credits

DES 581 (5 cr)
Graduate Seminar in Design: Contemporary Topics in Design

This course covers a range of texts that articulate contemporary discourses in design. First year MDes students reflect and discuss what design and design research are, what they could be, and what they should be. This seminar looks at design not only as a professional practice but as a way of producing new knowledge about how humans engage with the world.

DES 582 (5 cr)
Design Studio: Critical Design Practice

The course explores a broad set of issues in critical design practice and establishes a foundation for further work and individual inquiry at the graduate level. First year MDes students explore the complex and nuanced relationships between practitioners, artifacts, systems, and society through speculative design projects.

Elective (5 cr)

Winter Quarter: 15–18 Credits

DES 581 (5 cr)
Graduate Seminar in Design: Design Strategy

This seminar covers design management and leadership as well as design innovation and strategic thinking. The aim is to leverage foundational and emerging ideas on the topics of design methods as a point of discourse. Readings come from a mix of designers and business managers.

DES 582 (5 cr)
Design Studio: Rotating Topic (Sustainability, Health, Ethics, etc.)

This studio covers rotating topics related to the impact of design including the economy, ethics, environment, climate change, technology, politics, diversity, etc. Topics vary depending on the faculty who teach this studio.

Elective (5 cr)

Spring Quarter: 15 Credits

DES 581 (5 cr)
Graduate Seminar in Design: Applied Research in Design

This seminar is focused on the proposal and execution of a design research project. We ask what is research in design practice? What is the role of the design disciplines in the tradition of research? This course examines the current landscape of design research and invites students to prepare their own research proposal, preparing them for their second year thesis effort.

DES 582 (5 cr)
Design Studio: Design Education

This studio guides students in learning about various pedagogical approaches to teaching design. The goal is to offer a strong theoretical basis for students who want to better understand the traditions of in class critiques and design studios.

Elective (5 cr)

Year two is centered on your thesis project. The thesis is an individual project. For examples of thesis projects and more details on each step, see Thesis →. During the thesis year, students work closely with a thesis chair (a member of the Division of Design faculty), and their thesis committee.


DES 700 (10 cr)
Masters Thesis

Fall quarter is dedicated to defining your thesis topic and completing all the research (secondary and first hand research) necessary to prepare you for the next phase in winter quarter. The quarter concludes with a poster show where you present your findings.

Winter Quarter: 10 Credits

DES 700 (10 cr)
Masters Thesis

Winter quarter is centered on designing, fabricating and testing prototypes, materials and visualizations. This is where you conceptualize and give form to a design response or solution to the design issue you defined in the fall quarter.

Spring Quarter: 10 Credits

DES 700 (10 cr)
Masters Thesis

The focus for spring is on communicating and disseminating the result of your inquiry. This includes producing an installation for the Henry Art Gallery, preparing for your thesis presentation for faculty and guests, and writing your final thesis document.

While most of our students follow the two year structure presented above, for students who don’t have a formal background in design and who want to refine their form giving skills, we offer a three-year program option. In that option, the students must complete a year of preliminary undergraduate studios (and pass a faculty review) before continuing to graduate-level coursework (the same two year curriculum presented above). The undergraduate studios are selected from this list of courses. →

Within the Division of Design, the undergraduate upper division classes offer great opportunities for students to refine their form giving skills and work hands-on on complex design projects. Students can choose courses from this schedule. →

In addition, we encourage students to apply to Directed Research Groups (DRGs) (DES 596). Faculty in the Division of Design run directed research groups, which offer students a wide range of opportunities to do hands-on work, from conceptualizing future scenarios, conducting interviews with potential users, fabricating fully functioning prototypes and testing them.

Students also have the opportunity to work closely with faculty in independent studies (under the code DES 600). These are arranged directly with faculty depending on the students interests.

Many departments on the University of Washington campus offer wonderful courses that MDes students can take as their electives. As a starting point, we encourage our students to look at electives in the following departments:

We are always happy to meet with students individually to help them find electives that are complementary to their current skills, their career trajectory and their interests.

In addition to fulfilling their coursework, students are required to complete a thesis project.


Detailed information can be found at the UW Graduate School →.

Admission to the Graduate School allows students to continue graduate study and research at the University of Washington only as long as they maintain satisfactory performance and progress toward completion of their graduate degree program. Memo 16: Unsatisfactory Performance and Progress →.

As a graduate student in the MDes program, you are required to have a laptop you can use in classes and for your studies.

You can find more information here → about financial aid if you need financial help with gathering the tools you will need for the program.