MFA in Design for Responsible Innovation

If you are ready to take your design experience and training to the next level and bring interdisciplinary skills into conversation with design research, our program is the place for you!


DRI at Illinois

The MFA in Design for Responsible Innovation focuses on interdisciplinary making for research and practice. We prepare students to contribute to the field of design by entering into practice, academia, or both. Students can explore responsible futures through research in traditional print media and emergent technologies including, but not limited to, data visualization, digital interaction, information design, systems thinking, and visual narrative. We prepare our graduates to make significant scholarly contributions and practical impacts through design research.

The MFA DRI consists of three years of coursework totaling 64 credit hours, culminating in a written thesis +  museum exhibition or a written thesis + two national peer-reviewed conference presentations plus a public on-campus lecture.

We Are Interdisciplinary

We provide unique opportunities to make a real-world difference by working with world-class University of Illinois design faculty whose research addresses Afro-futurism, equity-centered design, sustainability and sustainable materials, social innovation, multimodal interfaces for social computing, the fight against human trafficking, the design of virtual reality narratives, and the history and theory of immersive media. MFA DRI students participate in ongoing projects in Urbana-Champaign and around the world, and in addition they can:

  • Engage all the resources and opportunities of studying in a world-class Tier 1 Research University
  • Take courses at the new Siebel Center for Design, a multidisciplinary institute that harnesses the power of design thinking and design learning in teaching, research, and engagement across the university
  • Collaborate with PhD students in Informatics who specialize in design
  • Develop partnerships at the Research Park, a nationally recognized technology hub that cultivates start-ups and accelerates corporate innovation at companies such as Abbott LaboratoriesADMAmerenCapital One, and State Farm

Recent Books by Faculty

Current Project Highlights

Recent Visiting Design Critics

  • Sadie Red Wing (AY 2021)
  • Elizabeth Resnick (AY 2021)
  • Andrew Shea (AY 2020)
  • Tad Hirsch (AY 2020)
  • Fransceca Zampollo (AY 2020)
  • Terresa Moses (AY 2020)
  • Samantha Barrett (AY 2020)
  • Benjamin Bross (AY 2020)
  • Ricardo Triska (AY 2019)
  • Jiameng Wang (AY 2019)
  • Gerry Derksen (AY 2018)
  • Zhabiz Shafeiyoun (AY 2018)
  • Piotr Michura (AY 2017)

Faculty Research Interests

Eric Benson
Biological Systems Thinking, Sustainable Materials, Dystopian and Utopian Futures

Molly Catherine Briggs
The Built Environment,  Design History & Theory, Immersive Media, Landscape Representation,  Spatial Epistemologies, Visual Culture

Deana McDonagh
Empathic Design Research, Disability, Aging, User-Centered Design, Invention to Innovation, Gender

Lisa E. Mercer
Social Innovation, Social Impact, Responsible Design, Interaction Design

Stacey Robinson
Afro-Futurism, Black and Brown Utopias, Race, Graphic Novels, African Diasporas and Wakanda

Stan Ruecker
Academic Prototyping, Digital Humanities, Design Theory, Experience Design

Juan Salamanca
Social Computing, Interaction Design, Mediating Artifacts, Visual Analytics

Angelica Sibrian
People and Community-Centered Design, Social Impact

Nekita Thomas
Co-Design, Race, Urban, Social Justice

Core Courses

The MFA DRI Studio provides tools for working individually or collaboratively to establish a design research agenda informed by the DRI program’s mission. This course equips the student to situate their research in a rigorous theoretical framework and select viable methods for research and pedagogy.

The Design Research Methodology Seminar coordinates readings in design theory and the processes and principles of human-centered design with graduate students’ emerging thesis research interests. It addresses the role of design research methodology in establishing design practice and design pedagogy.

The Ethics of a Designer in a Global Economy (EDGE) Studio presents complex ethical problems in design practice. Individual sections address either social or environmental issues.

The Design Research Impact Seminar helps MFA students connect their research with pedagogy and professional development strategies to disseminate their research via publishing, conferences, community outreach, and other relevant venues.

You’ll also choose Studio Electives and Electives from the School of Art & Design, the College of Fine & Applied Arts, and diverse programs throughout the campus.

View Course Descriptions and Class Schedule on the Course Explorer.

Explore Possible Responsible Innovation Research Paths

We don’t offer simple answers about what is or is not “responsible.” Rather, we provide conceptual tools like the interactive model below to help students think critically about the intended (and unintended) consequences of designed innovations. This model allows users to devise coordinated research paths by choosing among contemporary issues, ethics stakes, research methodologies, and design modes and methods. It offers designers a systemic perspective on the often-overlooked implications of innovative offerings and serves as a scaffold for developing sustainable solutions to complex social and environmental problems.

Read more about the development of this tool.

This model is based on research conducted by DRI faculty members Juan SalamancaMolly Briggs, and Lisa Mercer.

Advice for Applicants

The application process includes a request for a personal statement. We suggest (but do not require) that you instead write a research proposal of preferably 3-5 pages that addresses the following criteria:

  • Propose a research topic that connects with one or more of our faculty’s research interests
  • Refer to specific theorists and comment on how the proposed project might build on their work
  • Demonstrate some familiarity with relevant research literature
  • Describe 2 or 3 research goals
  • Propose 3 or 4 research questions related to those goals
  • Mention 2 or 3 possible use cases and/or data-collection methods that could be used to provide evidence related to those questions
  • Comment on how the University of Illinois in particular might be a good location for this work

Not every statement can be this complete, but this is the general direction. It is normal for plans to change as the student goes through the program. The purpose of the research statement is to demonstrate your capacity for pursuing design research, not to declare a final plan.

Recent MFA Theses

  • Keenan Dailey, “Generalizable Afrofuturist Ontology”
  • Ana Rodas, “Emmanuel: God in Our Midst”
  • Rachel Melton, “From the Ground Up: Developing Creative Community through Rural Arts Engagement”
  • Miriam Salah, “The Design of Gastronomy: Beyond Art and Science”
  • Natalie Smith, “A Book Designer’s Intervention to Teaching Typographic Systems”
  • Carolina González Montemayor, “Dear Startup Brand: How Can Startup Brands Effectively Engage with Their Audience through Instagram?”
  • Eunmi Moon, “Role-Playing Living Lab Method: Increasing Maker Empathy through User-Generated Content for Role-Playing Activities”
  • Alex Dye, “Rethinking the Electronic Medical Record”
  • Qing He, “Mobile Gaming Application: Promoting Positive Attitude towards Body Image for Girls Age Five to Eight”
  • John Jennings, “Utilizing Graphic Design Theory to Enhance Graphic Storytelling in Sequential Art”
  • Taekyeom Lee, “Re-materialization of Type”
  • Huang Li, “Hybrid Sense: The Immense Possibilities of Interaction of Digital Information with Physical Environments”
  • Ruchita Arvind Mandhre, “Experiential Learning Spaces to Enhance Typographic Communication”
  • Maurice Meilleur, “Five Theses on the Future of Type”
  • Wenjun Wu, “Everyday Walking as Aesthetic Practice”

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