Designed for Life: Design School vs. HBS

I thought I would write about my observations and experience as a cross-reg student from the Graduate School of Design (GSD). On my walks over the river to Shangri-La, I would reflect on differences in teaching style, people, campus environment, and perceptions of time. Allow me to share.

For those who don’t know, the GSD is located on the “other side,” across the Harvard Yard just beyond Memorial Hall. You can’t miss our building; it’s a ziggurat of concrete. Your lobbies and hallways are filled with purchased art. Our art is typically of our own creation, or is a wonderful temporary exhibit whose complexity belies the often overnight construction. Our cafeteria is a nice bistro; yours is a bistro on steroids. Everything is big at HBS, it seems. I still can’t get over the doorpulls on Spangler and Kresge. I always feel like a Lilliputian – the 14 foot doors! Twenty foot ceilings! The deep leather lounge chairs! Wood paneled computer carrels! Italian marble floors! The facilities at Spangler and other buildings all seem a little north of opulent. This is grad school, right? Our building is more homey and utilitarian; it suits our pursuits. The concrete may be solid and somewhat bland, but the open, well-lit trays of studio desks under the giant glass ceiling are inspiring. Your basement has a post office, a veritable print shop, and a “grille”, but ours has a great wood shop, a photo studio, a laser cutter (great for making my one-of-a-kind name card – is there business potential there?), and other prototype rooms where students like me ruin perfectly good building material. Your library has skylights reaching to heaven, ours has automatic shades that descend as the glare of the setting sun beams in.

The teaching style at the GSD is somewhat more laissez-faire. Things rarely start on time. People at the GSD tend to be polychronic; timeliness is a state of mind. Contrast that with HBS where you can pretty much set your watch by the flood in and out of Aldrich. The classrooms are varied here at the GSD. They are much smaller classes, typically, and more intimate. There are a few lectures type classes, but attendance is so voluntary, it seems, I’m never quite sure if the class is truly big or small. Architecture students get weekly one-on-one reviews with their studio professors, who come around to their studio desk to critique and review a student’s progress. That personal touch is a hallmark of studio training at the GSD. HBS has the “class participation” thing, which I think is good – people are expected to prepare the material for the class. You have the great course platform machine. But it’s so boring! Our classes have a confusing, but graphically rich and technically
innovative, hodgepodge of course websites.

Each school has its own vocabulary, neither of which I understand very well, but I’m learning. Typical HBS speak: “This new market entrant with VC backing and high visibility has potential for great upside liquidity when they begin to monetize eyeballs” – Translation: The owners will sell out if and when they get web visitors. Typical GSD speak: “On assessing this process artifact, I find the meaning is latent in the argument, but not clarified in the rebuttal.” – Translation: I have no idea what was meant by this. Other juicy words you use: IPOable. Dot.bomb. Incentivize. Bootstrap. Other 25 cent words we use: Tectonic. Didatic. Specificity. Problematic. Edge condition. Visualize.

The average student at GSD is somewhat younger than at HBS, probably 25 versus 28. The national color here is black; yours is blue, or at least, some color. Black suits architects, I think; it is a serious color for a discipline that sometimes seems to take itself too seriously. It also hides the eraser rubbings and shop dirt, especially around studio reviews, where all hell breaks loose and students stay awake for days at a time to finish projects. That highlights a chief difference in the work style: It seems like GSD work really never ends – you just run out of time. At HBS, projects and papers and exams all seem much more finite. They start, they have a middle, and they end. And then you go to bed. Design is endless, and thus, you rarely sleep.

The students at both places seems equally intense in their pursuits. Whereas HBS students appear to be focused on process and people (and dollars, of course), GSD students focus on physical or digital product. The result of a semester’s work is going to be a building or an environment – a thing, a place, an model. Res ipsa loquitur – the thing speaks for itself. At HBS, there is a lot of talk, but often not something concrete you can put your finger on. (That clearly doesn’t apply when students go off with their business plans and start companies that produce things – there’s just a little more lag time to the tangible.) As for non-academic pursuits, we both have our share. Crazy parties are promoted on both sides of the river. Volunteer organizations do great works. And of course, sports. A funny flyer at the GSD in the fall read: “Soccer game against HBS this weekend. Stop smoking now.” That ability to change on a dime is great trait of GSD students – if the design’s no good, start over! If we need to win the match, change habits! If we need to scrap 15 hours of computer rendering, so be it! We will forge ahead, do what it takes, and produce great things.

And I am sure you will, too. Good luck, I’ve enjoyed meeting everybody at HBS. I had a rewarding learning experience courtesy of my classmates and professors.

PS When you have the means and the desire to build, hire an architect, and let them go to town. Don’t box them into the standard cookie-cutter motifs. There is so much more excitement out there. Challenge them.

Scott Lutz, a product designer, is doing a one-year Masters in Design Studies at the GSD. He hails from New Haven, CT, where he worked at Black & Decker. He is currently enrolled in “Starting Technology Ventures” with Prof. Alan MacCormack.

April 23, 2001
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