BS in Design, Innovation, and Society (DIS)

DIS is a hands-on, creative design program that addresses real-world problems.  We offer one of the world's only design programs based in an STS department, providing deep insight into the human dimensions of design problems and solutions.  We specialize in designing for under-served communities, as well as in understanding social and environmental pitfalls to traditional, consumerist design practices.

The program revolves around a sequence of studio courses, where students work individually and in interdisciplinary teams to devise innovative design solutions.  The studio sequence is supplemented by a range of relevant social-science and humanities courses that explore the relationships among science, technology, and society.  The hallmark of DIS is integration:

  • Integrating STS with design
  • Integrating technical and social analysis with creative synthesis
  • Integrating students from engineering, management, and the creative arts in the same program

DIS students become creative problem solvers, synthetic thinkers, and practiced public speakers.  The program prepares students for careers in diverse firms that prioritize innovation as well as for graduate programs in design, social sciences, engineering, and management.

DIS students learn:

  • Creative, hands-on, real-world problem solving
  • Concept sketching, visualization techniques, and prototyping
  • Interdisciplinary teamwork
  • The history of product design, marketing, and innovation
  • About the positive and negative impacts of new technologies
  • How to assess the environmental impact of new products and technologies

DIS students design projects:

  • Minimizing construction waste by identifying points in the construction process where materials could be reduced, re-used, or recycled
  • Teaching math, music, and programming to grade-schoolers using digital technologies in creative and culturally relevant ways
  • Greening of major-league sports through re-design of equipment packaging and food-service delivery
  • Enabling mobility of the elderly by using advanced materials in a revolutionary walker design
  • Advancing cheese processing by rural Peruvian farmers using appropriate pasteurization technology
  • Reducing errors in voting and vote counting by employing highly usable and transparent information technologies

Students who get a B.S. degree in Design, Innovation, and Society have many future job prospects, including work in design firms, on product development teams, and in firms that do market and design research. Our students have won an increasing number of prizes for their work, and some have started their own companies. Some students also go on to graduate programs in industrial design, management, and other fields.


DIS Vision Statement

Two General Objectives:

A. To produce students who can synthesize engineering, social science, and design professions approaches in the creation of innovative solutions to design challenges of the twenty-first century. 

B. To develop a replicable program model of international renown that provides a highly technical education with a solid understanding of technology and design in societies and across the world.

Two Supporting Objectives:

A. Educate students to:

  1. Work in multidisciplinary teams and translate across different design cultures of engineering design, the design professions (such as industrial design), and social science/policy design research.
  2. Understand design as a multidisciplinary enterprise that includes problem analysis, problem solving, design research, articulating alternatives, exploring social problems that have significant technical content, and developing design solutions that take into account the values statement.

B. Place graduates in positions such that they

  1. Provide leadership in solving "complex" design problems.
  2. Interface with different design cultures.
  3. Spread the influence of our vision and perspective in industry,government, and academia.
  4. Start up new venues or work in firms engaged in design.


Our curriculum was first developed in 1999 with a grant from the National Science Foundation and is administered by an interdisciplinary committee led by the Department of Science and Technology Studies (STS) within the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences (HASS). The Department of Mechanical Engineering in the School of Engineering, the School of Management and Technology, and the Department of Communication and Media in HASS also contribute to the curriculum.

We operate under the assumption that students benefit from understanding different "cultures" of design and innovation:

  1. A technical option (4 courses) or dual major in a field that allows students to gain technical expertise, such as in engineering design, graphic design, software design, or the management of product innovation.
  2. Social science, historical, and policy perspectives on design and innovation, as represented by the STS curriculum.
  3. A design professions field as represented by some of the studio experiences, which also integrate the design professions perspective with that of engineering, management, and/or the social sciences.

A hallmark of the curriculum is that students learn to synthesize approaches from engineering, the social sciences, and the design professions. The B.S. degree in Design, Innovation, and Society involves a studio experience each semester, design-related courses in the humanities and social sciences offered by the Science and Technology Studies Department, and a four-course cluster of courses in a technical area, such as management, computer science, engineering, or graphic design. The studios create unique opportunities for students to work with faculty from diverse disciplines to understand multidisciplinary design, the product development process, industrial design and aesthetics, the nature of design in specific fields like engineering, user-centered design, the role of markets and customers, and the patent process. We also help students to understand how design and innovation can help address significant global problems, such as sustainability and poverty.

Students may opt to major in Design, Innovation, and Society and pursue one or more minors. They may also pursue a dual major in four years, so that they graduate with two majors listed on their diploma. The dual major options are referred to as the "Interdisciplinary Programs in Design and Innovation" (also known as "PDI").

The curriculum for the B.S. in Design, Innovation, and Society is flexible enough to allow students to tailor their program to their own interests.  In addition to the studio sequence and the social science and humanities courses oriented toward design, technology, innovation, and society, students also take a four-course "technical option." This is the equivalent of a minor in a field that allows students to develop an additional technical area of expertise. Often students use the technical option to gain a minor, and sometimes they opt to get two minors, such as a minor in management and a minor in computer science. 

Many students build out the technical option into a full-fledged dual major. This means that the diploma will read "B.S. in Design, Innovation, and Society and in Mechanical Engineering" or "B.S. in Design, Innovation, and Society and Management." The dual majors are highly valued on the job market, plus they have excellent skills if they wish to start their own companies. However, in pursuing a dual major students also surrender some flexibility. Currently, about 80 percent of the students in the Interdisciplinary Programs on Design and Innovation (PDI) are pursuing dual majors in DIS and Mechanical Engineering, which was the historic core of the program. However, each year we get more students who are pursuing new options.

The Rensselaer course catalog has curriculum templates for the B.S. in Design, Innovation, and Society; the dual major of DIS and Mechanical Engineering; and the dual major of DIS and Management. In addition, we have worked out templates for other dual majors, including DIS and Communication/Graphic Design and DIS and Computer Science. There are many possible options. Not all dual majors can be completed within four years unless the student has AP credit. This is particularly true of biomedical engineering and chemical engineering. Also, students cannot combine the BS in DIS with the Bachelor's of Architecture degree (due to state law, which only allows a BS to be combined with a BS degree).

The RPI catalog provides two sample curriculum templates, so you can get a sense of what the dual majors look like: 

Sample Design, Innovation, and Society/Mechanical Engineering Dual Major

Studio Sequence

Through the design studios taken every semester, students obtain a hands-on opportunity that brings together the major curricula. The design experiences range over a breadth of problems, from larger systemic problems to smaller focused problems, so that students have broad exposure to all the different applications of design practice. Some fall and spring semester studios are taught as a sequence to give students experience with the design process from beginning to implementation. The studios also develop students' skills in using computers and other advanced tools and techniques, as well as in drawing, visualizing, communicating, and working together. In short, the program's design aspects provide the elements necessary to put students' creativity to work as leaders of design and innovation, whether it is in a multinational business at the cutting edge of the global market or in a smaller business that creates an unusual solution to a local problem.

Interdisciplinary Programs

The Interdisciplinary Programs in Design and Innovation (PDI) allow students to combine the B.S. degree in Design, Innovation, and Society with other  minors or bachelor's degree curricula. We formerly called referred to these interdisciplinary programs as "product design and innovation," but our approach to design and innovation has become increasingly broad. As a result, we now refer to these interdisciplinary programs in design and innovation as PDI. Here are some common options that students pursue:

  1. B.S. in Design, Innovation, and Society with a minor in management, communication/graphic arts, communicatoin/web design, computer science, or arts. Some students also pursue two minors.
  2. B.S. in Design, Innovation, and Society with a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering.
  3. B.S. in Design, Innovation, and Society with a B.S. in Management.
  4. B.S. in Design, Innovation, and Society with a B.S. in Computer Science.
  5. B.S. in Design, Innovation, and Society with a B.S. in Communication with a focus on graphic design.

There are many other possible combinations that can be tailored to individual needs.

The core of PDI--what distinguishes our program as interdisciplinary design rather than just engineering design or industrial design--is our interdisciplinary studio sequence.  With a broader scope than typical industrial design or engineering programs, we seek to "bridge" these disciplines to create new products, services, and media in the context of social needs and environmental concerns. The interdisciplinary design studios provide a forum to integrate skills to solve long term and emerging problems of society. A typical studio project finds members of student teams researching different aspects of problem and then contributing their knowledge and creativity towards synthesizing a team solution. Studio projects address issues ranging from larger systemic problems to smaller focused problems, so that students have a broad exposure to the broad spectrum of design practice. The studios develop students' skills in using computers and digital modeling techniques, as well as in drawing, visualizing, communicating, and working together, in short all that is necessary to put their creativity to work as leaders of design and innovation, whether it be in a multinational corporation seeking ways of addressing diverse markets, or in a practice that creates innovative solutions to local community problems.


For additional information on our Interdisciplinary Programs in Design and Innovation, contact us:

DIS Job Placement

Students who pursue the major Design, Innovation, and Society find various job opportunities. Some work in design firms or in large firms that have teams devoted to interdisciplinary design, product development, or product research. Increasing numbers of students are starting their own businesses based in part on support that they have received from competitive grants and prizes.  A significant number of students each year also goes on to graduate school in fields such as management and industrial design.

Students may also pursue a dual major of Design, Innovation, and Society and a second field, such as Mechanical Engineering, Management, Communication/Graphic Design, and Computer Science. Those students are especially attractive in competitive job markets because they combine in-depth knowledge of technical skills with the creative and team-based approach to problem definition and solutions associated with the design studio sequence. The following firms have hired graduates or our program: Accenture, Becton Dickenson, Burton Snowboards, Citigroup, GE, Hasbro, John Deere, L'Oreal, NBCC, Rogers Corporation, and Rose Displays, and Shawmut Design and Construction. We have also placed students on co-op with Apple, Farm Design, Slingshot, Schick Wilkinson Sword, and GE in the past year. The best students often receive multiple offers and face the enviable dilemma of choosing among various opportunities.


Here are a few examples of what our alumni are doing:

Eban Bayer and Gavin McIntyre are developing an environmentally friendly insulation made from organic materials as the first product of their new firm Ecovative.

Meredith Brooks, a project engineer at Hasbro, works on toy design and development. 

Mark Cafaro and Benjamin Smith has established a new company, Weardian, which is developing a chemical-free artisanl gold mining device. The device will eliminate mercury exposure to gold miners and also reduce contamination of rivers.

Trent Gillaspie is a Business Technology Analyst at Deloitte, a consulting firm. 

Rachel Gitajn is a project designer at Burton Snowboards.

Neil Grabowsky and Adam Wishneusky have started Celery, a company that is making a device to send and receive email without a computer. 

Amanda Gyllstrom is an industrial designer at the Gem Group. 

Melissa Mega is in the agricultural engineering development program at John Deere. 

Susan Navojsky is a manufacturing associate in the Explorer Program at L'Oreal USA. 

Anne Nixon works as a project engineer at Product Ventures. 

Jessica Reichard is an engineer at UTC Fuel Cells. 

Mark Roberts established the design firm Conversant Creative.

Zach Romatoski is a consulting analyst at Accenture. 

Rebecca Stover is a user interface and product designer at Crossfire Consulting. 

Vincent Vainus is in the Technology Leadership Program at Citigroup. 


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