DesignPlus – A Learning Community

DesignPlus, one of MIT’s four learning communities open to first-year undergraduates, is a space for hands-on experimentation, exploration, acquiring technical skills, finding mentors and mutual support, and having fun.

By Adelaide Zollinger

Feb 15, 2023

Design has many names. Ask around; whether it's adjectives, nouns or verbs, the way people describe and think of design is infinite. Intentional / user-oriented / human-centered / iterative / fun / intimidating / elegant / creative / methodologies / making / processes / possibilities…

In "The Sciences of the Artificial," first published in 1969 by the MIT Press, Herbert A. Simon, winner of the Turing Award in Computer Science in 1975 and the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1978, writes: “Everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones.” And isn’t that what we all do, spontaneously, as we navigate life?

With the belief that all students–from any background, field of study, or with any technical abilities–have the potential to be makers and designers, MAD wants to engage undergraduates at MIT in design activities in their first year, before they select a major.

Students coming into MIT are certainly known for their creativity and their ability to problem-solve, experiment, and do hands-on work. As the canvas supporting their student lives, MIT has a responsibility to cultivate this openness to “try things out” and prototype. The MIT Morningside Academy for Design (MIT MAD), established in March 2022 with the support of the Morningside Foundation, aspires to federate design resources across MIT to transform learning, catalyze innovation, and empower society. 

DesignPlus–meaning "design + any field of work or study"–is a first-year learning community open to all MIT undergraduates. Through a weekly seminar, students can explore different facets of design, both in theory and practice. It also allows for informal connections with peers and faculty, and group discussions on general topics in student life–which can be a welcome break for busy student schedules.

In the DesignPlus community, students explore design disciplines across the full spectrum of MIT. As they build new skills and meet other design leaders, our students envision, prototype, and iterate their design ideas together. In DesignPlus, students hit the ground running in their first year at MIT!
John Ochsendorf, Founding Director of the MIT Morningside Academy for Design and DesignPlus advisor

DesignPlus students have eclectic interests: some might want to build a telescope over the weekend, while others design the mobile components on the doors of a solar car, or craft wooden panels overlayed with finely cut out metal sheets as a personal holiday project. They would strike the observer as a vibrant, empowered group, whose individuals explore materials, techniques and ideas freely.

All the advisors associated with DesignPlus are eager and willing to speak one-on-one, and they are all so knowledgeable that I always come away from conversations with them having learned something new, and feeling more confident about planning my future.
Wonu Abiodun, a DesignPlus student who plans to major in architecture

In addition to inspiring conversations with guests within or outside the MIT community, such as Bon Ku, Skylar Tibbits or Libby Hsu, DesignPlus gives access to concrete design tools and a dedicated makerspace.

“I had the opportunity to learn how to use a lot of shop tools–the metal laser cutter and chop saw among them–which allowed me to bring my imagination to reality. I will one hundred percent be using these skills in projects in future design studios,” adds Wonu.

One of the most impressive things about DesignPlus is the multiformity of projects the students take on. They could be as technical as modeling the variables and parameters of “obstructions” in water, sand, and gravity, using small tanks and manual cranks they 3D printed and laser cut. Or as playful as crafting a beaver assembling metal sheets cut out to perfection. As lovable as 3D printing and hand-painting a family of frogs next to their favorite origami waterlily. As exploratory as creating a neck piece to bake and transport bread around one’s neck. As magical as Chladni plates, a visualization of the effects of vibrations on mechanical surfaces, in the form of sand patterns created on metal sheets struck with a violin bow.

William (Bill) McKenna, a technical instructor who supports DesignPlus students by facilitating their projects and assisting them in operating technical equipment, likes to talk about “the aha moment,” when everything seems to suddenly fall into place, and “clicks” to culminate in a sense of joy and accomplishment. In his interactions with the students, he shares how they develop true kinship, mutual support, and overcome difficulties. Katrina, a 2023 DesignPlus student interested in the growth of negative space through erosion, first wanted to model an experiment for one of her design classes on life-size beaches. As she described encountering “a lot of roadblocks,” she turned things around by designing and crafting portable tanks equipped with manual cranks, creating an opportunity to better scale and replicate her work.

My background is more traditional medium: drawing, water coloring, and making cardboard 3D models for architecture. Coming to DesignPlus was really eye-opening because I got introduced to digital tools. Now, I use Rhino [a 3D modeling software] all the time. I learned how to 3D print and laser cut for my first projects, and now I use it to make my own stuff too, which is really fun!

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