The next generation of design

Sam Fox School to launch new Master of Design for Human-Computer Interaction and Emerging Technology

Associate Professor Jonathan Hanahan (center) with students in the Sensory and Ambient Interfaces Lab. Hanahan will serve as chair of WashU’s new Master of Design for Human-Computer Interaction and Emerging Technology. (Photo: Audrey Westcott/Sam Fox School)

Technology moves faster than ever. But designers, engineers and entrepreneurs can no longer ignore what gets broken along the way.

“‘Move fast and break things’ was the mantra of the last technological revolution,” said Jonathan Hanahan, an associate professor in the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts at Washington University in St. Louis. “As we enter the next phase of digital transformation, powered by artificial intelligence, where a product can instantly reach billions of people, we must prioritize impact along with innovation. We can’t risk putting broken products into the world.”

In fall 2025, the Sam Fox School, in collaboration with WashU’s McKelvey School of Engineering and Arts & Sciences, will launch a new Master of Design for Human-Computer Interaction and Emerging Technology (MDes). Led by Hanahan, the program aims to forge a curricular and research model in which designers, engineers, humanists and scientists work together on the next generation of socially innovative digital products.

“When we think about social impact, we’re thinking about real people,” said Penina Acayo Laker, an associate professor of design and founder of the Sam Fox School’s minor in creative practice for social change. “It’s not just a matter of quick products or deliverables. We want to help students develop amazing, innovative products, but we also want them to step back and consider broader implications.

“What does it mean to build trust?” Laker continued. “What does it mean to repair trust? What can we learn from what technology has been like in the past? When we work across disciplines, there is such strength and innovation that can emerge.”

Added Hanahan: “We need to equip the next generation of design leaders not only with the technical skills to design dynamic and delightful tools and products, but with the critical, historical, ethical and moral skills to ensure more productive, holistic and equitable futures.”

Associate Professor Penina Acayo Laker, who founded the Sam Fox School’s minor in creative practice for social change, will serve as a core faculty member for the new MDes program. (Photo: Joe Angeles/Washington University)

Academic landscape

In both his research and creative practice, Hanahan investigates new approaches to data integration and feedback as well as the role of technology in shaping everyday life. For example, the Sensory and Ambient Interfaces Lab (SAIL), which he founded in 2022, explores how haptic tools like pulses and vibrations might relay information when a screen would be distracting or dangerous.

“Artists and designers are really good at interrogating the products we make and the world in which we embed them,” Hanahan said. “How will they be experienced? Why and where are they beneficial? When might they be harmful? As we investigate complex problems and emerging technologies, these questions grow increasingly important.”

In addition to Hanahan and Laker, core MDes faculty will include:

  • Ian Bogost, the Barbara and David Thomas Distinguished Professor in Arts & Sciences; director of film and media studies in Arts & Sciences; and professor of computer science and engineering, McKelvey School of Engineering
  • Caitlin Kelleher, an associate professor of computer science and engineering, McKelvey Engineering
  • Alvitta Ottley, an associate professor of computer science and engineering, McKelvey Engineering.

Core faculty also will include the inaugural holder of the Sam Fox School’s new Kavita and Krishna Bharat Professorship. That position, which also includes a secondary appointment in McKelvey Engineering, will help students to explore the role of technology, and especially artificial intelligence (AI), in the evolution of design. An appointment will be announced later this summer.

“The worlds of design, engineering, technology and social justice are colliding,” said Will Bates, a Sam Fox School alumnus (BFA ’09) and senior staff user experience manager for YouTube, who has been consulting with the group on curriculum development. “By leveraging multiple schools across campus, graduates of the MDes program will gain a depth and breadth of experiences in tactics, strategy and societal context.

“That combination is unrivaled in the current academic landscape.”

Robust curriculum

The first science, technology, engineering and math (STEM)-designated graduate program situated within the Sam Fox School’s College of Art, the new MDes joins four STEM-designated programs in the College of Architecture. It also joins the popular minor in human-computer interaction, which the Sam Fox School and McKelvey Engineering launched in 2018.

The MDes will be a two-year 60-credit terminal professional graduate degree. While the design discipline has no professional licensure, the MDes aligns with other terminal design degrees and will qualify graduates to pursue senior-level industry positions as well as academic careers.

The curriculum will emphasize robust product design and development skills in parallel with critical thinking, speculation, entrepreneurship and collaboration. Core studio courses will include “Design With AI” and “Design Leadership,” among others. The program also aims to develop industry partnerships, including with St. Louis’ growing startup culture. Mirroring industry timelines, studios — such as the new Interaction, Innovation and Impact Lab — will prioritize interdisciplinary research and design processes that extend across multiple semesters.

“This continuous element is very different from most design programs that chunk curriculum into a series of semester-based projects,” Hanahan said. “Industry has taught us you cannot develop a tested and refined solution in the span of a single semester. Teams need time to ask deep questions and thoroughly test outcomes and impacts.”

The new MDes program will be housed in the Sam Fox School’s planned Design Futures Hub, which will be constructed within Anabeth and John Weil Hall. (Photo: Joshua White/

Design Futures Hub

Ultimately, the MDes program will be housed in the Sam Fox School’s planned Design Futures Hub, a 9,200-square-foot facility that will be constructed within Anabeth and John Weil Hall. A program study is underway, but is expected to encompass spaces to explore artificial intelligence, virtual reality, robotics and time-based media, as well as equipment for product design and prototyping.

In addition to MDes, the hub is the planned home for the Digital Intelligence & Innovation (DI2) Accelerator, a pillar of WashU’s 10-year “Here & Next” strategic plan, and the accelerator’s Digital Solutions Studio, an in-house software development agency that serves as a nucleus for data engineering and AI resources. Such proximities are intended to anchor the hub as a strategic resource and collaborative space for the campus community and beyond.

“This is a design-forward approach, but with strong connections to engineering, entrepreneurship and the sciences,” Hanahan said. “I think our ideal candidate is someone passionate about solving systemic societal issues who wants to design products that have meaningful impact and innovation.”

The Sam Fox School will begin accepting applications for the MDes program this fall. Classes will begin with the 2025-26 academic year. Hanahan expects the inaugural cohort to comprise about a dozen students and to grow over time.

“This program isn’t for those who want to fit a mold,” Bates concluded. “It’s for those looking to forge their own paths to redefine what design can do for the world.”

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