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Design central

The MIT Morningside Academy for Design will create a hub for design education, research, and entrepreneurship on campus. The interdisciplinary careers of its faculty directors, John Ochsendorf and Maria Yang ’91, offer a glimpse of the possibilities in store.

December 19, 2022
John Ochsendorf and Maria Yang ’91
Faculty members John Ochsendorf and Maria Yang ’91 bring unique perspectives on design to the leadership of the Morningside Academy.Tony Luong

During John Ochsendorf’s first year of college, in an introductory engineering class, his professor gave the students an unusual assignment. She told them to take two sheets of 8½-by-11-inch paper, cut them into pieces no bigger than four inches across, make a structure of their own design, and see how heavy a load it could support.

Even after some brainstorming, it may not seem obvious how two sheets of paper, combined into any shape, can support much weight at all. Ochsendorf thought about it for a while. Then he got scissors and some Elmer’s glue and created a set of small, precisely cut parallel tubes of paper nestled together. From one end, the result resembled a beehive. Fully assembled, it could support over 300 pounds. 

“I was like, ‘What? How is this possible?’” recounts Ochsendorf, now an MIT professor and the founding director of the newly established MIT Morningside Academy for Design.  

“It showed there are solutions out there waiting to be discovered,” he adds. “This for me was the great joy of encountering engineering, because in many of my [other] classes there was a problem, and there was one answer. But when you have an open-ended design exercise—like, support as much weight as you can with two sheets of paper—immediately the gears start to spin and you think: What am I going to do? How am I going to do it? Is this going to work?”

The assignment helped Ochsendorf quickly learn something vital about design: There is not one answer. Today, his paper beehive sits in his office at MIT, a reminder of that undergraduate class and its lessons. 

Now Ochsendorf is bringing that approach to the Morningside Academy—a campus hub launched in October 2022 thanks to a $100 million gift from the Morningside Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the T.H. Chan family. The academy will be a center of design education, research, thinking, and entrepreneurship, drawing projects and people from across MIT.

That will help bring ideas, research advances, and innovations from the lab and classroom into everyday life. Design is the process through which the possibilities of innovation are made tangible, from small-scale technologies to consumer products to large-scale civic initiatives. 

Design is already thriving at MIT. Product Engineering Processes, better known as 2.009—a class long taught by David Wallace, SM ’91, PhD ’95, with other faculty and a cadre of mentors from industry—has become a high-profile prototyping competition and a memorable experience for undergraduates. MIT’s award-winning D-Lab, led by MacArthur grant recipient Amy Smith ’84, Eng ’95, SM ’95, engages communities around the globe in participatory design of low-cost technologies to address poverty. And MIT has the nation’s oldest architecture program, which remains a leader in the field, as well as a thriving Department of Urban Studies and Planning. MIT scholars in engineering, computer science, the humanities, management, and the physical sciences study design and apply design principles to their work.

“We are not investing in something new as much as we are connecting our existing strengths, elevating them, and then trying to reflect it back out to the world,” says Ochsendorf, who is also the Class of 1942 Professor at MIT, a professor of architecture and of civil and environmental engineering, and a MacVicar Faculty Fellow.

The academy’s founding support includes funding for faculty chairs, fellowships for graduate students, research opportunities for undergraduate students, and entrepreneurship. The first 14 fellows, graduate students from across MIT, are active in the 2022-’23 academic year, working on their own projects.

“It’s in our DNA at MIT to cross boundaries in pursuit of interesting problems. That is also inherent in design, which does not stop in one discipline and pick up in another.”

John Ochsendorf

The academy, which will be housed in the Metropolitan Warehouse once renovations designed by internationally renowned architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro are complete, will also offer public events, including lectures and exhibitions. In October it held an initial symposium titled “The Power of Design.” 

“This is such a good moment for MIT and design,” says Maria Yang ’91, the associate director of the Morningside Academy, who is also an associate dean in MIT’s School of Engineering and the Gail E. Kendall (1978) Professor of Mechanical Engineering. (On top of that, she’s faculty director for academics in the D-Lab, founder and director of MIT’s Ideation Lab, and, like Ochsendorf, a MacVicar Faculty Fellow.)

“It’s been a long time coming, and it’s good to synthesize a lot of teaching and research interests across the Institute,” Yang adds. “Personally, I think creativity is a key element in all this. MIT people are creative, and such a core part of design is creative.”

As Ochsendorf notes, “It’s in our DNA at MIT to cross boundaries in pursuit of interesting problems. That is also inherent in design, which does not stop in one discipline and pick up in another. It’s a much more fluid mode of inquiry into the world.”

Developing the Morningside Academy does not simply involve bringing people together from around campus, although it includes that. A good design environment also helps individuals meld multiple disciplines in their own work. For insight into this dynamic, start with its faculty directors. 

“You can do both”

When John Ochsendorf built his paper beehive, it didn’t just earn him a good grade. It helped him stay in school. This was at Cornell University, where his innovative professor, Mary Sansalone, combined engineering principles with history, case studies, and design exercises. That approach appealed to Ochsendorf, who came from the small community of Elkins, West Virginia, and was perhaps less prepared in certain fields than some of his peers. 

“That was what kept me in college,” he says. “I mean, it was absolutely thrilling, and the fact that I could make things with my hands was an advantage, because I certainly was not ahead of the other kids in physics or calculus.”

Still, Ochsendorf’s student career remained unsettled. He loved studying ancient and indigenous structures and the cultures that created them. The next academic year, after weighing matters some more, he decided he was through with engineering. He went in to tell Sansalone about his change of heart. 

John Ochsendorf assembling a model
Professor John Ochsendorf, founding director of the MIT Morningside Academy for Design

“I walked into her office and told her, you know, ‘Thanks for your help, but I’ve decided I really don’t belong in engineering—I’m going to move to archaeology and anthropology,’” Ochsendorf recounts. Then he got a surprising response. 

“That’s a terrific idea,” she said. “But don’t leave engineering. You can do both.” 

And so, with Sansalone’s guidance, Ochsendorf majored in structural engineering, archaeology, and history. Before long, he was on a fellowship in Peru, where the builders of the Inca Empire had created strong rope bridges from native grasses; he threw himself into studying those structures. Then he earned a master’s degree at Princeton University, studying the history and design of suspension bridges as well as Japanese bridge design, and received his PhD in engineering mechanics at Cambridge University. He joined the MIT faculty in 2002.

Ultimately he emerged with a particular specialty: he applies modern engineering to the study of indigenous, ancient, and merely old structures to better understand how people in different times and places have developed sophisticated engineering techniques. 

“I’m trying to bring a new lens to design and construction, but doing so through a historical and technical lens that combines both,” says Ochsendorf, who has had students at MIT re-create rope bridges on campus. “I think it’s an important way of looking at the world.” 

Ochsendorf’s research has ranged widely. His 2010 book, Guastavino Vaulting: The Art of Structural Tile, explored how one family that immigrated to the US in the 19th century—the Guastavinos—applied centuries-old Spanish building techniques, featuring thin interlocking tiles and mortar, to build spectacular interior arches, domes, and staircases in monumental American buildings, including the arrival hall at Ellis Island, New York’s Grand Central Terminal, the first Penn Station, the Boston Public Library, and the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC.

When MIT built the Collier Memorial honoring MIT police officer Sean Collier, who was killed in the line of duty in 2013, Ochsendorf played a key role in its design and construction, analyzing to what extent the striking structure could support itself. He has been involved in campus life, serving as a head of house at the Warehouse, a graduate dorm on Albany Street, from 2010 to 2017, and from 2017 through 2020 he was director of the American Academy in Rome. (Classical building techniques are among his interests.) Amid his global travels, the gregarious Ochsendorf developed a passion for world soccer, and he will happily chat about his favorite team, Arsenal, in the hallways of MIT. 

“I couldn’t have predicted that this is the way my career would have developed,” he says. 

While Ochsendorf’s research may often focus on the past, his work—and that of his research group—has many future-­oriented applications. It identifies new ways that low-carbon materials can be used, and suggests that many techniques can still be developed to meet future construction challenges. Not bad for someone who got his start by pondering how two sheets of paper could bear a heavy load. 

Please, reinvent the wheel 

Prospective designers would do well to learn what John Ochsendorf absorbed in college: There is not one answer. But the practice of design is not totally free-form, either. That’s one reason the academy benefits from the outlook of its associate director, Maria Yang. 

Yang is an engineer who, like Ochsendorf, has a particular interest in design and a distinctive expertise within it: she has spent about three decades empirically studying how modern designers work. While Ochsendorf has roamed the globe studying designs in situ, Yang has, in her own way, covered as much ground while surveying rather different terrain. In experiments across many settings, Yang has extensively observed designers at work, relating her findings in dozens of published papers. She has often focused on early-stage design, to better understand how projects take shape. In a distinct but related vein of work, she has scrutinized how visual representations, from simple sketches to high-end CAD drawings, influence design outcomes. 

Among other things, Yang has found that the very existence of those visual representations matters greatly: designers who do even basic, preliminary sketching consistently generate more design ideas. As she and a coauthor wrote in a 2007 paper, there is “an important interplay between a designer’s ability to sketch and their ability to visualize in their heads or through prototypes.” She has even found that if designers aren’t highly skilled at drawing, that doesn’t affect the quality of their final design outcomes; it just matters that they draw at all. 

Yang’s work has also confirmed that iterative prototyping helps designers, as does user feedback. And all this research illuminates a core premise: If design is important, then it is important to design well. 

“I’m interested in how designers design things, because that will help you design things,” she says. But just as Ochsendorf knows that in design there is not one answer, Yang will tell you how many general approaches to design are used in contemporary life: four. 

“People say, ‘Oh, you don’t want to reinvent the wheel.’ But in fact, most design is redesign.”

Maria Yang ’91

She’s zeroed in on those four approaches through the high-level understanding of how designers work that she’s developed over time. One of them is to put the technology first; in this case, form distinctly follows function. A second method is what she calls “designing in a market-based way,” seeing what industry competitors do and producing something similar but better. 

Then there is the “designer-led approach,” a process more explicitly expressing the ideas and vision of one person or team; many architectural projects land in this category. Finally, designers can take a user-centered approach, collecting feedback on what users need and developing a design with those factors in mind. 

“Design is what lies between technology and what humans use,” Yang says. “Hopefully you do that in a beautiful, thoughtful way and people find it useful.” 

As she summarizes years of research about designers, Yang offers piece after piece of sometimes unconventional wisdom. 

“People say, ‘Oh, you don’t want to reinvent the wheel,’” she observes. “But in fact, most design is redesign. You take a design and then you modify it, but you make it a little better every time, and that’s how we make progress.”

Perhaps we cannot improve the basic shape of the wheel. But in the meantime, we have, in fact, reinvented the wheels used on automobiles, trains, airplanes, bicycles, and industrial machinery with new technologies, configurations, and production methods. That’s helped us move faster, farther, and more efficiently.  

Maria Yang
Professor Maria Yang ’91, associate director of the MIT Morningside Academy for Design, is also an associate dean in MIT’s School of Engineering.

Yang, too, might have spent her career reinventing the wheel. An MIT engineering undergraduate who grew up in West Lafayette, Indiana, she received an offer to work for Ford after graduation but turned it down. She still wanted to pursue her design interests in academia. 

Yang wound up in graduate school at Stanford University, where she earned her PhD in the mechanical engineering department’s Center for Design Research and produced a doctoral thesis about how designers search for information. After running a design group at a startup and then doing a postdoc at Caltech, she returned to MIT, where her career has flourished: besides her academic achievements, she has worked with Ferrari, IBM, and even NASA to help them with new ways to think about early-stage design. 

On the basis of accumulated evidence, Yang has kept returning to the value of user-based design, making her perspective different from that of many technologists, who may be reluctant to modify innovations for the sake of consumers. 

“One piece I’m very interested in is how you design backwards from the end user,” she says. “How you make products people are going to love. There’s this romantic notion that I’m going to invent this cool thing and I’ll make it and someone’s going to love it, and hope for the best. That’s a recipe for disaster. Sometimes it works, but the vast majority of the time it does not work.”

All of which presents further reason why a design academy benefits MIT. Design is not just a subject area but a skill. If many kinds of designs are possible, learning how to design—and how particular approaches are best applied—is especially valuable. 

Off the drawing board

Since the Morningside Academy for Design launched, Ochsendorf and Yang have been giving campus presentations about the academy, hiring staff, and getting the inaugural class of fellows settled in. But well before they took the helm, getting the academy off the drawing board was a group effort. 

Back in 2020, the two professors were given an assignment by Hashim Sarkis, dean of MIT’s School of Architecture and Planning (SA+P), and Anantha Chandrakasan, dean of the School of Engineering: to form an Institute-wide committee tasked with studying how to strengthen design on campus. By early 2021 that group, featuring many of MIT’s leading design experts, had produced a white paper on the subject, with a design center as a key idea. 

Almost everyone involved in the design center has a unique interdisciplinary background. Sarkis is a prominent scholar of architectural history and a practicing architect who, while getting his architecture PhD from Harvard in the 1990s, also studied political philosophy. Sarkis’s civic-minded designs—including a town hall he designed in Byblos, Lebanon, with a glass-encased first level to encourage political transparency—reflect this background.

And when he served as curator of the Venice Biennale’s 17th International Architecture Exhibition in 2021, he gained plaudits for the show’s wide-ranging engagement with civic challenges, including climate change, migration, and more. The New York Times called the exhibition “a case study for how to begin to tackle such questions” today. 

“Design is really about bringing the human dimension to bear on technology,” Sarkis says. He adds: “Why is there an increased interest in design today? It reflects our interest in innovation.” But rather than trying to engineer a single “solution” out of an innovation from the lab, Sarkis emphasizes, design leads to “resolutions,” plural, with many potential outcomes, calibrated to circumstances.

A student is crossing a cardboard brige on the campus lawn while other students watch.
Students test the load-bearing capability of a bridge they constructed out of moving materials for a design challenge in this year’s 2.009 (Product Engineering Processes) class. This year’s theme was MOVE!

Given this greater focus on design, Sarkis notes, “bringing those elements together situates the academy as a catalyst for the whole MIT design community.” Meanwhile, Chandrakasan, whose own research is on energy-efficient microchips, has explored a notably broad range of interests as dean, chairing or cochairing MIT projects on AI, AI hardware, biotechnology, and climate, while also serving on the board of The Engine, MIT’s startup venture fund. Having seen how often design overlaps with engineering, he has called the Morningside Academy “an incredible step forward in our vision to elevate and strengthen interdisciplinary education, research, and innovation in design.”

Of course, the academy would not exist without the Morningside Foundation’s gift. When the academy launched, Morningside Foundation trustee Gerald L. Chan said that design “is a disciplined way of practicing creativity,” while “design education is a complement to traditional STEM education.” For that reason, he added, “MIT is the perfect home for melding design education with STEM.”

At the academy’s October symposium, Chan gave a talk elaborating on this intellectual framework. Citing the scholar Herbert Simon’s thinking, Chan noted that the practice of making things, long anchored in engineering within academia, inherently includes design, and applies to schools of architecture, business, education, law, and medicine as well. For that matter, to act and bring about changes in society is to be a designer.  

“Everyone who devises courses of action to change a situation from one state to a more desirable one is engaged in design,” Chan said. In recent times, he added, design has become more “formalizable and teachable,” while retaining the idea that multiple responses to a challenge are possible. 

“Design education is intended to conduct the student from a bounded space into an unbounded space where he learns to explore and create,” Chan said. “It is a necessary preparation for the students to enter into the world, which is a very unbounded space.” Recall John Ochsendorf as a first-year student, taking scissors to paper. There is not one answer. 

Rebuilding the building

The founding of the Morningside Academy for Design has converged with another of Sarkis’s major MIT efforts, the relocation of SA+P to the renovated Metropolitan Warehouse when it reopens in 2025. Located in the center of campus on the corner of Mass. Ave. and Vassar Street, the formidable brick structure—which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and predates MIT’s 1916 move to Cambridge—will have offices, design studios, classrooms, makerspaces, and exhibition areas. The Morningside Foundation’s gift allocates funding to renovate part of the “Met,” as it’s known in MIT design circles, specifically for the Morningside Academy. 

The building will also feature a distinctively MIT design element to encourage collaboration: its own ground-floor version of the Infinite Corridor. This calls to mind Maria Yang’s observation that a lot of good design is redesign. MIT is not reinventing the wheel in the Met Warehouse, but it is reinventing the Infinite Corridor. And most student-based spaces, Sarkis notes, will be on the ground floor as well.

Meanwhile, students are moving toward design. The Department of Architecture started a fast-growing design minor in 2016 and a design major in 2017. The Institute also launched a Design Plus program, a first-year learning environment for 30 students with access to design tools and lab time.

“There’s a real hunger and interest for access to design tools and design thinking on the part of MIT’s undergraduates,” says Nicholas de Monchaux, head of architecture at MIT.  

De Monchaux has his own interdisciplinary outlook, as a practicing architect whose published books range from a history of the Apollo program’s spacesuits to an exploration of how data can help urban revitalization. 

“We provide one important perspective on design, but so do others at MIT,” he says of the Department of Architecture. “To use what we have to reinvent who we are—that is design in its quintessence, and that is also something to which all of MIT can and should contribute, so the academy gives us a framework to do that.”

When it comes to education, he adds, “teaching design is really inviting students to look at a complex problem without a single optimized solution in a range of very, very different ways, in collaboration with the communities and people facing the problem.” There is not one answer. 

Times have changed since Ochsendorf and Yang were finding their way toward studying and practicing design. Today’s MIT students can take interdisciplinary design courses, find opportunities to work on design projects, and witness design merging productively with other fields of study. Many of them come to college already thinking about design. 

“We have more students submitting design portfolios and maker portfolios as they apply to MIT,” Ochsendorf says. “It’s a wonderful time for us to attract students who say, ‘Here’s an engine I made.’” 

The Morningside Academy will expand MIT’s existing design curricula once new faculty are hired. And itis already supporting the innovative research of its first 14 fellows. Ganit Goldstein, a master’s student in the Architecture Studies in Computation program, for example, is using her fellowship to examine how computational design workflow can generate customized garments sustainably. Justin Brazier, pursing a master of architecture degree, is studying the development of the Green Innovation Corridor that will run through Boston’s Mattapan and Dorchester neighborhoods, looking at the impact of design on cultural identity, agriculture, environmental education, and economic sovereignty. And Morningside Fellow AJ Perez ’13, MEng ’14, is using recycled consumer plastics to 3D-print low-cost, environmentally friendly home foundations to help address homelessness. Other fellows are working on deployable desalination and water treatment systems, prosthetic technologies, and more.

“We hope we’ll attract the best and the brightest students who are good at theory and at practice, and at making,” Ochsendorf says. “Many of our students are designers because they’re interested in solving problems, and design is how you deploy technology in the world and connect it to people. I think it’s part of our very special culture, which celebrates pursuing problems wherever they lead. It’s such a joy to be in such an interesting place.” 

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